It’s 20 years since Cheapflights went live. Lee Hayhurst talks to its new managing director, Andrew Shelton, about breathing new life into the brand
As the first managing director of one of the UK travel sector’s pioneering dot-coms, Andrew Shelton is confident he can lead the brand into a brave new world.
A former BA marketing manager, Shelton left Virgin Holidays last year to join Cheapflights, initially as global marketing director before being appointed as the flight-comparison site’s first MD.His brief? To attract 500 million users a year globally by 2017.
With so many years of marketing at leading travel companies under his belt, Shelton knows a thing or two about how a brand can create a persona that stands out. Now he is out to “make 2016 all about the UK” for Cheapflights.
“In travel marketing there is an easy default – call it ‘holiday porn’ – all those beautiful beachscapes,” he says. “The challenge is to differentiate yourself. Everyone has those images, so using them just becomes wallpaperish.
“We need to be brave in travel as consumers place such high value on booking a holiday and getting it right, so we already have the consumers’ attention. It’s pushing at an open door.”
Cheapflights will launch its first prime-time TV campaign during the upcoming turn-of-year peak booking period.
The star of the ad, a death-defying movie stuntman and body double for actor Tom Hardy, reflects the bravery Shelton demands from travel marketing.
It is hoped he will appeal to two key consumer segments: 35 to 55-year-old ‘spontaneous explorers’ and younger ‘ultimate lifestyle’ millennials.
Shelton concedes the Cheapflights brand had become “tired” and hopes its switch this year to metasearch, or price comparison, will spark its revival among consumers and the trade.
“We had been on the wrong side of cheap for too long,” he says.
“Our brand metric scores were not great, user engagement scores were in decline and we needed to press the reset button.
“It was not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but we have moved on in terms of look and feel and tone of voice.”
Shelton accepts that other brands “do inspiration better”, and that price search is a utility – but points out so is insurance comparison, which has spawned some memorable ad campaigns.
Cheapflights hopes its new TV campaign, with its cinema-quality production values, will “create some talkability” about the brand.
Shelton expects the TV advertising to build scale quickly. He concedes the medium is expensive, but says measuring return on investment will prove it to be cost-effective.
He adds that while Cheapflights now generates 75% of its income outside of the UK, its home market remains vitally important. “We have equity in the brand here,” he says. “The brand name is genius. Who doesn’t want a cheap flight?”
Meta for the better
Launched 20 years ago by founder John Hatt in his attic, Cheapflights considers itself to be a genuine “internet survivor”.
In its original incarnation, traditional print media was its main competition as it led the vanguard in digitising the travel deals advertising sector.
However, its move to metasearch, four years after buying Copenhagen-based, price-comparison site Momondo, has seen it enter a new chapter in a growing sector of the online travel industry.
In the UK, Skyscanner has led the way, establishing itself among the global giants and now valued at $1 billion, while TravelSupermarket has evolved into a leading price‑comparison site.
The other big global player, Kayak, has had limited success penetrating the UK, while DirectFlights and Dealchecker remain relatively small.
Cheapflights believes it can become one of a big three. With a new strapline – ‘Smart Search. Made Simple’ – unveiled, Shelton sums up Cheapflights’ strategy in three words: innovation, integration and investment.
“It’s single-minded,” he says about being innovative. “It’s doing exactly what it says on the tin; we have to be true to that.”
When Shelton talks about being “on the right side of cheap”, he means not the sort of ‘cheap’ you’d associate with ‘cheerful’.
He sees Cheapflights as providing genuine value to customers. “What we do is find the best flights for people. We need to deliver against our core proposition but let’s be clear this is not about just being the cheapest.
“Only 15% of users who exit our site click on the cheapest price. People are looking for good value for money. We can add value by delivering a smarter, better, cleverer, flight-search experience than our competitors.”
For the trade, the ‘integration’ part of Shelton’s strategy is the most relevant. The metasearch model drives supplier-direct sales, but Shelton says it will also allow Cheapflights to augment its traditional deals publishing arm.
This is where the trade partners that supply those deals come in, as insights derived from metasearch traffic enables deals to be targeted to customers that have shown intent to buy.
Cheapflights already works with 150 providers of flight packages and sees no reason why there should be a limit on that. It now has 10 million email subscribers to its newsletters globally.
Shelton expects metasearch to enable Cheapflights to drive the sort of traffic volumes to its partners that will persuade them to give the site exclusive deals.
He points out that since the UK site’s switch to metasearch, loyalty has grown – 40% of users have visited the site before and this is expected to rise to the 50% it sees in overseas meta markets.
Cheapflights’ aim of doubling global users to 500 million by 2017 will take considerable investment but the potential rewards are considerable. In October last year, the firm secured $130 million in funding, valuing it at $210 million following interest from potential buyers said to include Expedia and Sabre.
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