Sm@rt Agent winner June 2007 – Ideal Cruising

An innovative web tool called Audrey has won Ideal Cruising our latest Sm@rt Agent award. Ed Robertson talks to managing director Tony Youster.

The drive to move product and distribution online continues to grow and is one of the defining elements of the travel trade’s current situation.

Operators and agents are gaining not only from the increased sales and information avenues that are attainable through the web, but also from a cut in costs that such a move allows.

However, with the trade moving online en masse, the advantage now lies with innovators who are already looking at differentiating their offering.

Web-based cruise agent Ideal Cruising managing director Tony Youster is doing just this by targeting visually impaired web surfers, having in April introduced an innovative feature allowing users to access a recording, nicknamed Audrey, that can read out loud any page the site visitor wants.

He says: “We’re always looking at improving our site and we were looking to increase the number of site users as well as the usability of the site. We thought helping the two million people who suffer from sight problems while using the web was a good idea.

“Cruise is fundamentally a product still aimed at the older clientele, many of whom have worsening sight. If we were a ski specialist, we probably wouldn’t have looked at it as it wouldn’t work as well.

“We are catering for the minority with this innovation but they are still important and it’s innovations such as this that get people talking about your site.”

However, Youster admits when Ideal Cruising first decided to target partially sighted clients, it simply looked to see if the site could be adapted for users who already had their own screen reading software. Once tests began, the company immediately encountered two problems. Firstly, with the number of images and tables featured on the site, the screen readers quickly became confused, reading out text in the wrong order.

Secondly, screen readers were confused by the fluidity of the pages, which are created according to the clients’ needs and the information available.

Youster adds: “Screen readers really only proved effective with basic, text-heavy pages, which aren’t the kind we are offering. Besides, they can be expensive pieces of kit that not everyone can afford.”

At the end of January the company decided to develop its own feature that could allow users to hear the information on any page at the click of a button and which, over a period of two months’ development and a cost of £7,000, would ultimately become Audrey.

But first, for Audrey to exist, the right voice had to be found. Youster adds: “We were looking for something not too robotic- sounding but that would captivate our audience and sell the information.”

Even when the right voice was thought to be found, there were still problems.

Youster says: “The itineraries proved to be quite problematic because of all the place names involved. We found a few voices that had normal human-sounding diction but as soon as we heard them mentioning place names they sounded wrong. It took us a couple of weeks before we found Audrey.”

The programme was initially introduced to the basic web pages that it could read accordingly, and it now learns a new itinerary every time it is added to the site.

Already the programme has learnt “thousands” of potential pages although Youster admits one of the problems is keeping up with all the new information being introduced to the site.

Site visitors can access Audrey through a basic text button placed in a hot spot at the top of the page, although plans are afoot to change the button into a Java script function, creating a larger, more visually interesting button.

To market the new function, press releases were sent out to charities dealing with the blind and partially sighted.

Even without the commercial desire to target a market that Youster believes will become increasingly important in the future, he says there were other reasons that persuaded him now was the time to introduce Audrey. He adds: “There are a lot of partially sighted people in the UK and we’re offering them a specialist service. In doing so we’re building up consumer loyalty amid a potentially very profitable part of the market.

“However, it makes sense in the long run and we also want to make the site as compliant as possible before the legislation created by the Web Site Accessibility and the Disability Discrimination Act 2004 comes into force.”

Youster says Audrey is just the one of the ways which has marketed itself since its inception in March 2004. He adds: “Our marketing strategy is really focused on the search engines and ensuring we are as prominent as possible in them.”

Over the years he has sponsored “thousands” of pay-per-click terms and while he admits the price has risen, he said they currently remain financially viable.

A section allowing customers to post their own reviews, testimonials and pictures is also driving the search engine optimisation.

Such is the success, it has seen the site climb the Google rankings to such an extent that when cruise travel is now typed into Google UK, Ideal Cruising is now in the top three listings as opposed to the 100th in November last year.

Significantly, only around 10% of all bookings are made though the site as opposed to Ideal Cruising’s call centre, although Youster says this is largely because of the 29 cruiselines featured on the site, only four are web-bookable.

However, such is the current success of his strategy, the agency has this month moved to larger offices in Camberley to make space for another 20 members of staff to join the 30-strong team.

While Youster adds there are plans to further develop the site, so expanding the business, in the meantime he is happy to let Audrey do the talking.

From the Sm@rt Agent sponsor:

When Yellow Pages launched some years ago it used a very convincing byline – ‘Let your fingers do the talking’. Ideal Cruising has now adapted this to its innovative development to assist those with failing sight by adding a button.

As I approach middle age myself, I appreciate that to read properly and quickly I need a good light to help me. It’s a fact that as we get older we all need at least three times the amount of light to read by than when we were in our 20s!

So, even better if there is help at hand to have the text read to you, especially by someone with a persuasive voice.

This innovation is more important than it seems at first; combining the attributes of inclusiveness, diversification, product enhancement and creativity in one of the most competitive yet profitable market sectors, positions Ideal Cruising perfectly as a company that really cares for its customers.

I imagine it was quite a challenge to bring all the various aspects of this development together, yet the most important aspect of this was the choice of the voice itself. It only goes to show that customers will respond very positively to an option that makes the booking process easier and more informative.

There is nothing more likely to diminish the authority of a voice if the pronunciation of proper nouns or place names is quirky, so full marks to Tony and his team for going the extra mile to make sure that it sounded right in every aspect of the delivery.

Links from relevant charities will continue to deliver additional business leads for a long time to come as the concept is appreciated as an added value and provides that all-important third-party endorsement to the site.

The success in achieving such a high listing on Google is nothing short of amazing and the investment in creating the facility fades into insignificance against the cost per click that such a result would incur.

All in all, it only goes to show that where it is possible to enhance the online process with a voice at the end of the line (however it is structured) there is a greater appreciation of the end product and the propensity to buy.

John Harding is sales and marketing director at

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