Published: Thursday, 07 August 2014 14:11
Forged in the crucible of the cut-throat travel market
The travel business has changed dramatically over the years, with the few remaining major tour operators buying up independents, hoovering up market share in a race to reap economies of scale and bolster shrinking margins. In the skies, low cost airlines have replaced charter flights and the last minute travel bargains have largely gone. The internet has made everyone a travel agent, a profession that is looking increasingly precarious.
It used to be so different. After an early career in photography and then at various west end ad agencies learning the craft of advertising production. Eventually moving to the family marketing agency I was at last able to use my creative talents, liaising between clients and working up ideas with the art directors. But the cherry was the freedom to write my own copy; my favourite client was a revolutionary young Greek Island specialist called SunMed Holidays. This was before the EC Package Travel Directive took all the fun out of describing hotels; when we said an apartment block was dreadful with frogs living in the shower, people loved the honesty and booked, and when we were so horrified by the behaviour of a frankly mad hotel manager we named his property 'Fawlty Towers'; it sold out.
On the back of this innovative marketing approach SunMed blossomed, eventually becoming Redwing and then Inspirations. By 1997 the Inspirations group controlled 100 travel agencies, two major tour operators, Inspirations & Style, an aviation brokerage and had bought Caledonian Airways from British Airways. Now in the early 90's, what had started as a tiny operation behind a shop front the Fulham Road was carrying 2.7M passengers a year and employed 3,000 staff.
The agency had grown to cope with the workload and with it our reputation. United Airlines and TWA joined our roster along with a host of smaller tour operators keen to enjoy our proven skills and efficient production. Inspirations was eventually acquired by an American conglomerate and the industry wide consolidation that by then was in full swing, resulted in Inspirations being merged with Thomas Cook; our agency was seen as too small a player to service what was now a multi billion pound business and we parted company.
But whilst it lasted, what a ride it was! SunMed really was a phenomenon of its age, but it demonstrated a great marketing truth. If you can find a niche, a hook if you will, something that sets you apart from the crowd, the market will come knocking at your door.
But that was far from the end. In subsequent years I've worked for a diverse range of travel companies, from those specialising in the supply of tour operating software, to hugely successful online operators and even with some friends setting up and selling an online travel insurance company.
Recognising the web as a game changer from early on, we setup a web division within the Agency that was to end up being over half the business. We built a hugely complex and secure recruitment website for the NHS, a B2B music catalogue system for Universal Music Publishing as well as designing and building websites for the Walt Disney Travel Company in the UK. The experience gained from working with some of the best travel management and web teams in the country was illuminating.
Latterly I went back to my SunMed roots, working with a great team under inspirational owner and MD Vedat Demren, to develop the Turkey specialist, Holidays 4U. With the main product aimed at budget conscious travellers and a unique flight-only product called Aegean, the key was low cost brochures coupled with clever websites; breaking the mould we simplified the process of searching and booking for a holiday, growing H4U into the UK's largest specialist to Turkey. Sadly Vedat passed away, and without his leadership the company failed to weather a perfect storm of the recession and increased bonding requirements from the CAA.
When I planned this page it was to emphasise how much knowledge and experience Electric Farm has to offer, but I now find myself having to apologise for a self-indulgent stroll down memory lane.
Great fun though.