How to grow an online travel agent business

Here, we speak to online travel agency guru Jon Moulding about competing with larger operators, moving away from marketing on Teletext and succeeding in a niche market.

The online travel agent space can be disrupted with the right ideas and expertise

The online travel agent space can be disrupted with the right ideas and expertise

Jon Moulding is co-founder and director of Bury-based online travel agent Florida4Less. Here, we talks about competing with larger operators, moving away from marketing on Teletext and succeeding in a niche market.

1. When did you start the business and why?

We started our business in April 2006. Previously, the three directors worked for a flight-only specialist. After ten years, it was bought out by a bigger company and there were many changes to a previously enjoyable place to work. The three of us saw the writing on the wall early on and decided that it was time to try it on our own.

2. Talk about the early days of the business.

We initially decided to sell European Mediterranean holidays along with flight-only deals. This decision came with various new pitfalls in regards to new complaints that we’d never had to deal with before, as well as all the new insurance we had to get in place, learning how to market all these different destinations, and creating a website that showed availability for these holidays. When we made the decision to start our own business we initially sat down and devised a business plan, but looking back we definitely underestimated everything it would entail.

Our biggest success was moving from a call centre/telephone agent that advertised heavily on Teletext to becoming an online agency in a niche market.

The online arena was completely new to us, but despite this we managed to create a fully bookable website. Together with our partners, we were able to achieve a number one position for organic search on Google. We beat many household names, such as Virgin Holidays and Thomas Cook, to rank first for our biggest keyword ‘Florida Holidays’.

Our biggest failure was our first website resulted in a lot of problems for us. We didn’t manage to create the site exactly how we wanted it, so there were lots of amendments to be made, with each one coming with an additional incurred cost. These complications ended up affecting our SEO work and therefore our marketing, which made the business suffer as a result.

3. What was the single ‘turning point’ moment for the business and its revenues?

In the first few years we mainly marketed on Teletext, but you could see that this was slowly coming to an end and internet marketing was the way to go. The single turning point was when we understood that targeting so many search terms for European destinations was going to be too much for a small company like ours. At the time we were investigating having a new website built. There was no way that we could compete financially with all the big tour operators and even the smaller more established Med specialists marketing every destination in Europe, and after talking it through we knew that going forward we had to be more niche to stand out.

We looked at different options for the new website and decided that Florida would be a good fit for us. Although initially we sold flight-only at our old company, over time we did start to sell Florida fly-drives and villa packages. This was a product that we all enjoyed selling and we felt it would give us a greater opportunity to compete with the bigger agents moving forward. This was definitely the turning point.

4. From that point, how did your business scale? Any other key moments that contributed to success?

In making the decision to operate in a niche market we were able to capitalise on the increased margins available through ancillary sales. A typical party booking a holiday to Florida will not only book the core elements of flight and accommodation, but many will also book car hire, attraction tickets and airport parking. These extras enabled us to increase our margin per booking in a natural way, without pushing products to our customers that were not relevant.

5. How can similar companies in hospitality learn from your success?

We pride ourselves on our customer service, not just when a booking is being made, but throughout the customer’s interaction with us. We are open seven days a week and all calls are answered live within seconds. We feel that customers should be able to speak to someone and we are very conscious that we never become a ‘faceless’ company, which is something that differentiates us from our competitors. With all of the digital technology available in the world today, added value and service means everything in our industry.

Further reading on success in business

Nominations are now open for the British Small Business Awards 2017, the leading event celebrating the brightest stars in the SME sector. Click here to enter, and make sure you get involved today using the hashtag #BSBAwards. Good luck!

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