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By Arturo Pallardó

“Customers’ technology expectations are going to get higher and higher every year”

Published March 27, 2018

About Oliver’s Travels: Oliver’s Travels is an award-winning company boasting a portfolio of more than 2,000 characterful, quirky holiday homes around the world for families and groups of friends, from villas to castles, stately homes, beach huts and cottages. They pride themselves on handpicking only the finest properties and locations – hence their motto, ‘Why do ordinary?’ – and on their customer service.

About Oliver Bell and Ravi Sabharwal: The co-founders and owners of Oliver’s Travels, Oliver and Ravi have known each other since secondary school. After graduating from university, Oliver travelled the world, while Ravi spent a year working for Quintessentially, a luxury concierge company. They subsequently pooled their travel knowledge and passion to launch Simply Chateau, which soon established itself in the affordable luxury rentals market. Having initially focused on the niche of French castles and manor houses, they later added further destinations and brands, before bringing them all together under the Oliver’s Travels umbrella.

Arturo: How did you get into the travel industry and how did you wind up founding Oliver’s Travels?

Oliver: Ravi and I are old school friends, having met when we were 13. After university, we wanted to start a business together and, while we were working out what to do, we went to a French château in the Dordogne for a reunion of all our university friends, some 30 of us – a sort of last hurrah before embarking on our careers.

We had no idea what we were actually going to be turning up to because it was 2003; at that point websites, and especially travel websites, had very few pictures. We’d all paid about £50 per person for the week and the first group who arrived actually turned right around and drove back down to the village and said, ‘So, where is this place?’ because they couldn’t believe how amazing it was for the money we’d spent. It was a bit of a crumbling château, but it was just incredible. It had medieval walls surrounding it, an amazing pool and acres of ground.

Ravi: We couldn’t believe that we’d had no idea what we’d booked and how cheap it was, so then we looked into the idea of trying to buy a wreck and do it up. However, we were both 23 at the time, so who would’ve been willing to give us the money to go and do that? But we had a phone and a laptop, so we thought the next best thing would be to set up an agency. That’s what we did: in 2004, we launched our first company, Simply Chateau, which was a provider of French châteaux, and then we took that as far as we could get it.

In 2013, we realized that we dominated the French châteaux market, but that’s a very small niche, and we wanted to move into and compete in the luxury villa market. So, we rebranded and launched Oliver’s Travels in January 2014. We then took on lots of new destinations and it’s been really fast growth since; it felt risky at the time but that was the best decision we’ve ever made…

How would you define Oliver’s Travels’ business model and how do you differentiate yourselves from other players?

Oliver: Our tagline is ‘Why do ordinary?’ and I think that says it all about how we position ourselves. We operate in the luxury villa space, but everything that we take on is characterful, quirky and unique. That’s what we’re looking for.

There are a lot of our competitors that might take on a new-build white box in a 50-villa housing development somewhere. But we take on very much stand-alone, characterful properties that have to meet lots of criteria: we have a checklist of ten essentials that every property must have.

That’s the main thing. It’s the real focus on character and unique properties.

As you mentioned, you started off in France and then expanded into different destinations. What are the key destinations for the business and are there any new ones on the horizon?

Oliver: Our biggest territory is still France. It accounts for 50% of the business and that comes from our heritage of renting these châteaux and manoirs in France, the momentum from which has continued. But we’ve since launched in other territories such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Croatia and the UK, which are all very important for us.

Ravi: This year, we’re going to be launching in Turkey, Bali, Thailand and possibly Oman. Those are the four on our hitlist. We chose Oman because it’s a sunshine destination that has a lot more history than, say, Dubai, while the flight time and cost are similar. It fits more with our demographic and our characterful product.

What are the main challenges that you face when going into these new jurisdictions?

Oliver: I think the main thing for villas is finding contractors. Even though it’s part of the travel industry and the expansion of Airbnb is putting it more on the map, the villa space is still a niche and is much smaller than hotels. Our contractors all have 20+ years of experience in their destinations and know what they’re doing, and they’re quite a rare breed, so hunting them down is always quite tricky.

Most of our contractors work from the office in London and are constantly doing trips out. However, we have a few on the ground, especially in our bigger destinations. For example, we have a contractor for the Balearics who lives in Majorca and always has her ear to the ground, sourcing new stuff there. The Dordogne is a massive region for us and we have someone sourcing new places there and the same goes for Tuscany and Puglia. We are trying to find more on-the-ground people who work on a freelance basis as it’s been been really helpful in driving growth.

Local knowledge is key, isn’t it?

Ravi: Yes, but all the people that work in the office have previously lived in the destinations they look after for years. They all know them inside out and have their black books of all the people in the regions and areas, so they’re pretty expert.

That was a big change we made a couple of years ago: we started only taking on really experienced contractors rather than trying to train people up from scratch, because it’s a job that requires a lot of years under your belt.

Is your client base mainly in the UK and are you thinking about expanding that?

Oliver: It’s 65% in the UK and 15% in the States. The American market is especially keen on the French châteaux and the English stately homes that we look after. The rest is Western Europe and Scandinavia; we’re particularly strong in the latter, because they’re all good English speakers. We don’t have the site in multiple languages currently, so it relies on people who are prepared to book on an English-speaking site.

You mentioned Airbnb. What impact has their rise in recent years had on your business?

Oliver: So far, Airbnb hasn’t encroached too much on us specifically or probably the villa industry as a whole, because they basically started with apartments, people’s city places – whether a room in your house or an apartment you have to let out. That’s their bread and butter.

They are trying to get more into professionally run villa rentals because you’ve obviously got so many more weeks to sell. If you take someone who has a spare bedroom for two weekends of the year, there’s very limited profit Airbnb can make from that inventory. For professionally run holiday lets, you’ve got the whole year to aim at.

At present, we’re still growing. This year, we’ve been growing at 70%, which is as fast as we’ve ever grown, so we’re not suffering from them at the moment. We might even be benefitting from the fact that Airbnb are making the world more aware of holiday rentals as opposed to hotels, so the whole market is growing.

Airbnb has brought a unique business model and technology to the industry. How do you see technology transforming your segment in particular and are there things that you’re doing right now to implement this?

Oliver: With regard to general tech changes, I think that customers’ expectations will get higher and higher every year, because every company tries to make advances and then suddenly, you can’t afford not to have live availability or high-res imagery, or even things like drone footage. So, that’s just going to be an ongoing process.

One specific thing that we’re doing is rolling out tablets in all of our properties instead of welcome books. It no longer makes sense to have something that you print off: it just gets thrown away or pages get lost. So, we’ve put a tablet in all of our exclusive villas and as soon as a guest checks in, they can see video explanations of how to turn the heating on and stuff like that. It’s a much better way of passing on that information and it can all be updated remotely, so as soon as something changes – for example, if the owner puts in a new boiler – the instructions can be updated without having to go into the house. That’s been quite an exciting change.

Ravi: Another thing that we’re doing is developing a concierge app. We’ve got an in-house concierge and right now, people will typically email a few weeks in advance to organise some catering, for instance. The idea is to have an Oliver’s Travels concierge app that means that we’re available on-demand the whole time while you’re on your holiday. We just need the frictionless tech bits to make that work.

If people have to find a phone number and call up, or search for the email address, they don’t end up doing it, but if they know they have a really slick, easy-to-use app with a good UX, then I think we’ll get a lot more people requesting our concierge services. This will mean they’ll have a better time and we’ll get more repeat customers.

The tech that we’re thinking about all the time is focused on the UX for the customer.

How do you drive customers to your website? How important is social media for that?

Oliver: Where social media is concerned, Facebook is the big one for us. For our demographic, they’re all using it and it’s a very cheap acquisition source for us. We’ve been on PPC for many years and the cost is going up all the time, but our Facebook acquisition costs are really inexpensive at the moment. They will keep going up as more people use it, but it’s a really growing segment for us. Even as recently as two years ago, it probably would have represented less than 1% of our customer acquisition and now it’s more like 15%. It’s been really cost-effective.

We are sponsored by Kantox, so we always ask a question regarding one of the major challenges for travel companies: currency management. Is that something that plays into your business?

Oliver: It’s something we very much look at actively. Brexit gave us a kick up the backside in that sense because we took a real hit. We take little risk anyway because we collect in the currency that we’re paying the owner in. However, there’s a lag between us collecting our balances and paying the owners, and we were holding as much money as we ever held over the Brexit referendum, so when we paid it out afterwards, our sterling wasn’t getting half as far as it was before. That was very unexpected and pretty painful. The other thing is that it made all our holidays more expensive, so we started losing sales. That’s why the management of the currency risk has become one of our priorities.

In general (and this is a question we’re asking all of our interviewees), what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the travel industry today?

Oliver: Well, a fairly boring answer that you’ll probably get from every travel person [connected with the UK or EU] is Brexit and the uncertainty over that.

Second on the list is terrorism. We mentioned that we’re launching in Turkey and it happens to be a good time to be contracting there because the tourism industry there has been so decimated [by terrorism and political events]. There are lots of villas there that are sitting empty and just need bookings, so we’ve brought on a new Turkey contractor and will be launching there next season. So terrorism is always a threat.

Ravi: After the attacks in Nice and Paris, you could immediately see the impact on bookings and it was pretty stark, even though we tend not to sell in cities. Fifteen percent of our bookers come from the United States, for example, and they’ll get nervous about coming through these big ports, so terrorism is a major issue.

Oliver: Then there are things like volcanoes and ash clouds, like recently in Bali. There’s always something: every year or two, there’s some crisis that completely wipes out a couple of businesses in travel. The fact that we keep launching new destinations means we can rest easier that we won’t be one of them!

Another challenge that some of our interviewees have cited is the consolidation that’s taking place in the travel industry. Big ‘monsters’ are being created that mix business models and are hybrids between B2B and B2C. What’s your view on these sorts of competitors and do you think there’s still room for smaller players?

Oliver: It’s true that this is happening, but we’re not concerned. Because we deal with large groups, it’s very hard for a tech platform like Airbnb to come in and be able to offer the service that we do. Large villas and châteaux, by their very nature, come with six, seven, eight, nine or ten bedrooms, so it’s very difficult for a big player that doesn’t do all the hand-holding and other bits that we do, and also doesn’t know the products inside out.

Indeed, we’ve tried using Airbnb as a distribution channel and it does very little for us, despite them being huge. It does OK for our small cottages, but for the majority of our stuff, which is sleeping 10-16 people, it just doesn’t book, because customers need to be able to communicate with our Sales team and understand the property. They will be working out things like: ‘Granny’s going to sleep over here. She needs a ground-floor bed and bath. Then we’ve got two newborns in the group: where are they going to go? Is there a travel cot?’ There are so many bits and pieces that go along with it – it’s not just a one-way booking journey.

Ravi: And the free concierge service for all of our bookers, which can take care of transfers, catering, car hire and all the funky things that people like to do on holiday, is something that a big platform will never be able to offer.

Moreover, another element is that about 10% of our business is events, weddings and corporate events, and again, they’re not really bookable on a big online platform. These things differentiate us from the likes of Airbnb.

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