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Click Travel profile: Interview with Simon McLean

September 16, 2012

(Published in TTG 23.05.12)

 From student days side project to major corporate travel player – and TTG Travel Award winner – Click Travel’s co-founder and managing director Simon McLean explains how technology gives it the edge over rivals

University student writes software for a website for fellow students, from his dormitory room. Said website spreads fast, and goes on to become a multi-million pound business.

Sound familiar? While Simon McLean may not have been a Harvard sophomore like Mark Zuckerberg (he studied engineering at Cambridge), Click Travel shares a similar story to Facebook.

In 1997, then-engineering student Simon McLean built a website to help students book hotels. Not really enjoying his degree, McLean saw it as a bit of fun, as a side project, using an iMac.

“There were quite a few bookings coming through, then my mother, who worked in a hotel, mentioned the magic word ‘commission’,” McLean recalls. “Hotels sent us cheques. It was great – beer money!”

In 1999, McLean incorporated the company, choosing the name Miss Marple “because it helped people find hotels, like a detective”. “It wasn’t meant as a cashcow, I was just enjoying it,” he says.

But after McLean worked out how search engines worked, in the pre-Google era, his website started to gain traction with the public, and eventually a small company took notice.

“They said: ‘Can you book for our staff?’” and it was at that point that I realised it was easier to get volume through companies.

McLean’s brother James then joined, from an aerospace company, and shortly after Miss Marple was approached by Carphone Warehouse.

Simon Mclean, Click Travel

Simon Mclean, Click Travel

Accidental TMC

“They loved us,” McLean says. “They had a TMC, but they liked the fact we booked small independent hotels, even country pubs. They liked the fact we could book anywhere.”

Carphone Warehouse went on to provide almost all of the company’s business, and in 2003 transferred all of its travel booking over to the TMC.

“We accidentally became a TMC. And at that time, a lot of the big TMCs weren’t doing low-cost travel, but we would book anything,” says McLean.

Later, in 2005, McLean remembers, “the penny dropped” again. He realised he should seek to replicate what he was doing for Carphone Warehouse, and so built a booking engine from scratch, and oversaw all software development – a role he currently maintains. “It became all about content aggregation, and we decided to let the customers do the booking.”

Online bookings soared to 98% of total sales within a year, and with this new technology focus, the company changed its name to Click Travel in 2007.

Removing costs

The “book anything” ethos has since remained core (it even works with hotels that do not pay commission), and McLean wonders why other TMCs charge excessive rates.
“We are staggered by some of the corporate fees charged by TMCs. “We just don’t get it.”

This continually spurs Click Travel on to develop new, and often free, products, to “focus on driving costs out of a business”.

As an example, he questions why rivals charge for calendar integration, when it should be free.

Rail is another bugbear, with most TMCs charging travellers for “ticket on departure”. He says his non-travel background helps him to look at things from a different perspective – and the company’s own cloud-based rail booking engine OpenRail, which turns one year old this month, came about from this outsider perspective.

For OpenRail, Click Travel abolished these TOD charges for its clients. He explains: “The power of hotels is aggregation; our job is to find the hot deals. Air still needs aggregation, and as part of Advantage Focus we get content that way.

“But rail is different to other travel types as it’s highly regulated. Nobody can change the fees, you can’t mark fares up. Aggregation doesn’t add value, so what’s next? You take out costs.”

Competing aggressively against other rail platforms such as Evolvi and has paid off, McLean claims, as his company is winning customers off the back of OpenRail.

In fact, 2012 has so far been a record year for the private company. For March 2011 to March 2012, turnover was £30 million, but this year it is set to smash this, with trading to date already at £45 million.

So is OpenRail available for other agents to use? “Technically we can support other agencies, so it could be white-labelled,” McLean replies. “Would we venture into offering support for other agencies? Never say never is what I say.”

However, he admits he has sometimes been slow off the mark compared with rivals. For example, with ancillaries, and in particular taxis. Click Travel has only just added cabs, because “we felt there wasn’t a system good enough”. McLean recently discovered “We saw it, and loved it, and now use its XML.”

Branching out

Following the launch of OpenRail, trains, air and hotel now contribute a third each to the business – but McLean has further ambitions. On June 12, it will launch a cloud-based expense management, in a bid to “close the entire loop”, turning Click Travel into an “all-in-one tool”.

It followed Click Travel’s research among SMEs, which revealed just 5% used electronic expense management, with most using Excel. “We’re looking to dominate the SME market with this,” McLean proclaims. “It will be as big as travel is to us, and open up a new market.”

In light of a certain social network that last week undertook a public listing in the US, which valued it at £64 billion, McLean is probably hoping for a lot of “Likes” from the industry for this latest tool.

Technology & the competitive edge
Cloud technology: McLean recommends using cloud-based technology for its reliability. “We have our server in the cloud, and use Amazon. It’s a reliable system. You’ve got to be stable.”
Usability: He also cites the Windows vs Apple argument. Apple’s success has been due to its investment in being user-friendly. “We own all our software, and employ six engineers and two user interface people.”
Be quick: “Last month easyJet added seat reservations. We rolled it out to our clients two weeks later,” McLean says.
Keep it simple: “Lots of TMCs are offering clients a ‘single sign on’ to multiple platforms, but we think it’s best to offer everything in one place. We believe in the ‘single solution’,” McLean says.
Don’t page scrape: “We don’t page scrape [extract data from other sites]. It’s a bad user experience.”
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