Chris Brown realised the importance of holiday reviews while working at online travel agency Lastminute.com. The agency "always had people trying to cancel holidays because of what they had read online". The "most frustrating thing" was that "I could never find these reviews because their sites were badly built". Brown decided to set up his own review website, Hotelwatchdog.com. "I didn't start it to make money but to prove a point to all of the bad review sites that were out there."
Unsure of how to build a website, he had to "start from scratch", teaching himself how to code from a £17 book. He spent the winter of 2002 at this and by January 2003 it was ready. He filled the site with his own reviews of "anywhere he had ever been". He also appealed for visitors to contribute. The site was "pottering along", picking up a few hundred visitors every month when Brown met his future business partner, Chris Clarkson. The pair met in a chatroom for website enthusiasts "it was a bit like an internet love story". Not only could Clarkson make the site more sophisticated but he could make more money through 'affiliated marketing'. "It basically meant passing visitors on to holiday firms and taking a cut of the profit if they booked a holiday."
They spent the rest of 2003 rebuilding the website, adding reviews and striking deals with travel agencies. "We focused on making the site simple to use and easy to find on search engines." That took time both would return from their "day jobs and sit at a computer into the early hours". The revamped site went online at the start of 2004. They were "delighted" with sales of £1,400 in the first month. But when February came in at £3,000, "we realised we were on to something big". By August they were making £19,000 a month. They decided it was "time to quit the day jobs".
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Annual sales eventually "topped the one million mark", but it remained a "bedroom operation". And despite the success, they were becoming frustrated with the holiday companies they worked with. "We were sending lots of customers to them, but their badly built sites were not taking advantage." Clarkson and Brown even told them how to revamp their sites, but "no one listened". So in mid-2007 they decided to set up their own online travel agency Sunshine.co.uk. The new project "quickly became more interesting than the old one".
When Holidaywatchdog.com received a multi-million-pound offer from Trip Advisor in 2008, they decided to sell up.
Next, they concentrated on making sure that Sunshine.co.uk came up on as many search results as possible. "It's a bit like fishing in the sea. The bigger your net, the more fish you catch." And although they finally moved to a "proper office", they also kept costs down by not using a call centre. In the first year they sold £6.5m worth of holidays. The recession helped. "We are a low-cost operator selling package holidays, so we do well when people cut costs." This year they expect to turn over £30m.
The pair are not out of ideas yet. Their latest plan is for country-specific sites such as Spain.co.uk. "It's an obvious way to capture those people who are already thinking of going to a particular country."
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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