The best bit of Oliver Brendan's travel management degree was his one-year placement in Florida. But not just because of the sunshine. Brendan also made extra money selling theme park tickets to new arrivals. That sideline would later inspire a business.
When he finished his degree in 1997, he worked for a ticket agency before landing a job with the Florida Tourist Board, promoting Florida in the UK. But "it was very bureaucratic and I found it frustrating to work there". In 2002, Brendan left to revisit an idea he had first had while on placement. "I knew there was a lot of demand from British people for tickets to attractions in Florida so I decided to start selling to them here in the UK." His plan was to sell directly to customers on the internet.
There was just one problem it was a terrible time to start the business. The dotcom bubble had just burst and the 9/11 terrorist attacks were putting people off travel. Worse, at the time the dollar was really strong, spelling more bad news for the Florida tourist business. Nonetheless, Brendan persuaded his father to lend him £10,000 to kick-start the new business, Attraction Tickets Direct.
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The money paid for a snazzy website that soon climbed up the search engine results. Meanwhile, Brendan's contacts in Florida helped him secure cut-price tickets from the theme parks. Being website-only helped him undercut his rivals and sales began to grow. Bit by bit, more attractions offered him good deals on tickets over the next few years he added Las Vegas and New York to the site.
Then in 2005 Brendan made a big mistake. He opened a branch in Canada, a large source of visitors to Florida. But Canadians were far less willing to buy tickets online many travelled to America by car and picked their attraction tickets up when they got there. Brendan quickly closed the office.
However, elsewhere, the firm's sales kept rising, and by 2006 the company was selling $24m-worth of theme park tickets. The exchange rate also started to help him out, with a strengthening pound encouraging more Brits to visit America. It also pushed up Attraction's margins as the firm was buying products in dollars and selling in pounds. "Unlike our rivals we didn't hedge our currency exposure. That meant that when the dollar fell we benefited more than everyone else." As an added bonus, "more and more people started booking their holidays and tickets online and we were well placed because we were one of the first sites."
Brendan decided to branch out again to sell "excursions and experiences". So he created a new website Dosomethingdifferent.com. This time he sold direct to travel agents. His success with theme park tickets persuaded travel agents to start offering their customers the option of buying an excursion from Brendan's website. Having opened an Irish shop and expanded into Germany, Brendan is now planning to open in Brazil. Rumours of a slowdown in Latin America's largest economy don't bother him. "If you read the headlines you would never do anything. Sometimes you just have to make success happen."
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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