Lee Hayhurst meets the team behind a pioneering UK web developer
Technology firms may have no restrictions in terms of where they are located but they still seek to reap the advantages of grouping together.
So in the US you have the original silicon valley in California, in the UK the M4 silicon corridor and now London’s tech city, the hub previously known as silicon roundabout.
In truth there are pockets of technology centres located across the UK often associated with nearby universities where the best employees of the future are trained and educated.
This was one of the key reasons why CWTdigital, one of the UK’s pioneers of dynamic packaging technology, opted to move to Brighton last year as it marked its 10th birthday.
Until then it had for a number of years successfully traded from its base in nearby Burgess Hill, producing some of the first bookable and then dynamic packaging websites for UK travel firms.
Maybe more than any other location in Brighton, New England House, the firm’s new home, epitomises the creative, innovative and collaborative nature of the modern technology sector.
New England House was the UK’s first purpose-built ‘vertical factory’ and retains much of its original industrial aesthetics, including lifts designed to accommodate forklift trucks.
CWTdigital resides in a unit on the eighth floor; around it are other like-minded digital firms as well as Wired Sussex, a community organisation of freelance developers, techies and other companies.
It seeks to support the region’s “digital cluster” and this month organised the Brighton Digital Festival, in which CWTdigital played an active part hosting a travel event in its offices.
The south coast seaside resort is also home to the twice-yearly free BrightonSEO conference, a hugely successful event that has grown rapidly and attracts thousands of delegates.
Maybe not coincidentally, this event is run by another of our Travel Technology 101 Who’s Who entrants, Sitevisibilitywhich is based in the famous Lanes area in Brighton.
Nearby Sussex University is also an important resource for local tech firms and CWTdigital has carried out usability studies in its labs, observing customers as they navigate clients’ sites.
Dan Caplin, managing director of CWTdigital, said there were many reasons why the move to Brighton was paying off: “One of the benefits of working in Brighton is there is a real hub of resource. There are plenty of designers and developers and we can really grow quickly if we need to.”
Creative director Adam Cleverley is one of CWTdigital’s original employees and has seen the company develop from its time in its Crawley birthplace.
“Brighton is a creative place. There’s lots going on. If you are in among it, it’s a much better environment in which to develop,” he said.
“Plus, most of us live in Brighton, so it’s nice to be able to walk to work.” In contrast, the firm’s head of technology, James Lever, is one of the most recent arrivals at CWTdigital, having joined five months ago.
From a techie point of view, he said the firm’s focus on open-source technology means there is plenty of developer resource he can call on locally. Any project will have a number of tasks assigned to it and these will be done either in-house or outsourced to freelance developers, but Lever is not a fan of looking too far afield.
“You can find those resources online but I quite like meeting people. I personally like to get people in a room to make sure they fully understand.
“There tends to be more developers who use open source because there is no licence fee required and a lot of universities are keen to promote open-source technology as well.”
Adam Cleverley: Creative Director
Making websites that work in terms of driving business has evolved to become a team effort, with designers, techies and marketers all involved with clients from the outset.
Cleverley said this has been one of the main changes in his work during his time at CWTdigital and is reflected in the way the firm has organised itself internally and the expertise it has developed.
The open-plan office is divided into areas for developers, designers and, physically divided by a central wall but still very much part of the team, the digital marketing department.
Cleverley said: “We all get involved at a very early stage in the design process, certainly if it’s a bespoke project, and help the customer define what they are after. They will usually come to us with a brief and have some ideas. Some will have done more than others. Some will have pinched ideas from all over the place and put together a Frankenstein document of wireframes. Others will have put together a selection of sites they want to be influenced by. We are here to guide and offer our expertise in all areas.
“Every project is different, but we will always kick off a project by discussing the clients’ business before they put pen to paper. We want to understand their objectives, what they need to achieve. We also look at what the user expects from a website or piece of technology we are going to build for them and how we target the users, and that all gets put back into the design process.
“Right from the outset marketing is key. There is no point in building something for the sake of building it: it has to work, it has to be successful. We constantly review performance by user-testing sites and getting feedback from the clients as to how their sites are performing.
“My belief has always been about simplicity. Make it as intuitive as possible. It’s always about content – it needs to be easily accessible and engaging, allowing the user to flow through the site without thinking about it.”
Cleverley said the most exciting part of his job is bouncing ideas around the office about how websites can be improved.
“Everyone has a huge ‘shelf’ of these ideas; many of them will be quite small. So it’s about finding the right time and the right partner to develop them with.
“My role here has been quite diverse and I have been able to develop myself and guide the creative direction, driving the innovation and pushing ideas. It’s evolved naturally and grown organically and adjusted to how the market adjusts.
“Sometimes I would like to see things evolve a little quicker in travel. Generally, compared to other markets, travel is often quite slow. There are a number of factors: you have the likes of viewdata and many people are still using Internet Explorer 6.
“From a design perspective it’s a lot more work to support a browser that’s 10 years old.”
James Lever: Head of Technology
Despite the obvious delight he takes in applying technology to the business problems travel firms encounter, Lever expects there will always be a role for human travel agents.
As CWTdigital’s recently appointed head of technology he spends much of his time working out how sites can take diverse, sometimes inconsistent, data and present it in a usable way to the customer.
Although CWTdigital has over the years, through its work with travel, created standardised platforms, different clients’ have different requirements, requiring their own solutions.
Bespoke plans, or schemas, have also been developed with each supplier so that parallel searches can take place for more than one product at the same time – vital in the fast-moving world of packaging on the fly.
Lever said this sequential search – for example, of multiple bed banks aligned with multiple suppliers of air fares – has been proved to improve the speed at which sites deliver results by as much as 200%.
However, despite this increasingly clever technology, he believes the expertise of the travel agent, support by the right technology, will continue to have a place.
“There will always be a case for the travel agent to exist, even if it’s just to give a better level of service,” he said.
“We all maybe think we are able to make the best decisions but we do not necessarily have the knowledge the travel agent and the specialist have. Although as a business you can offer that information and let your staff go online and make recommendations, the travel agent knows the detail having booked this product for years and years.”
Although CWTdigital’s clients are set up to take bookings online, many want their websites to drive calls too as upselling opportunities, especially in cruise and luxury, are significant.
And Lever sees opportunities for travel sites to be a source of inspiration for customers, selling them something they did not come looking for, rather than just presenting prices for something they did.
“I like this challenge,” he added. “The different ways you can present the product to the consumer is interesting.
“Price comparison sites show how you present information gives people a really good way to choose a holiday.
“But there is lots of scope to help people find new destinations and explore places. And the way you build a website and present that information can really affect the users’ online exploring.
“Choosing a holiday is a really big decision and a lot of people tend to go back to the same places because they are safe, because they know it.
“For agents, it’s inspiration – that’s their business. At the end of the day it’s giving the customer a really good experience.
“You do not have to be the cheapest necessarily, although it helps. It’s the John Lewis philosophy: they are not the cheapest, but people go back to them because the experience is good.”