Welcome to the show notes of the Boostly Podcast. This is a recap of my interview Steve Kopandy, where we talked about book direct actually means.
I reached out to Steve of the Book Direct Symposium. He has been involved in the tours and the activities world for nearly ten years from Australia. He’s a singer and songwriter. He travels all over the world. What he’s been doing for the past six years is running symposiums, which is meetups for all the tour operators in the cycling world and they do it in different cities each year. This is the first year they want to say get hospitality involved.
About Steve Kopandy of Book Direct Symposium
Steve is an Australian and was brought up in Newcastle, Australia. He always loved music and loves to travel as well. He did his first overseas trip when he was 19. He was doing music for a while and the band he was in got signed to a label in the UK. So he moved the band over to the UK and that was his first taste of London. He’s not in that band anymore. He still does music, but stayed in London.
He used to do little weekend trips to Europe all the time because as an Australian, you feel like everywhere was so far away, but then go to Europe and then within the space of two hours you’re in a different country was such an exciting thing for young Australians. He spent so much time travelling around Europe and got a taste for European tourism. Eventually, he got a job as a tour guide in London for the London bicycle tour company. He started to get involved in the business side of that and he was the second in charge pretty quickly. He dealt with them in terms of strategy, marketing, operations, everything else working with the owner of the company; then he decided to start a network of bike tour operators. They grew it to 40 cities around Europe, North America, South America, their bike tour operators now have an annual meeting, a symposium and they started that in 2015.
This year is their sixth annual symposium. They go to a different European city every year. In 2020, they’re going to Athens and now they’re running this book direct symposium, which is a separate event, however, main focus topic that came up time and time again at the symposium was marketing, and how to respond to the rise of the OTAs and their ever-increasing influence on our sector. They talked about it so much, and then they created a whole separate day to focus on this issue.
This issue is not specific to cycling tourism so they invited hospitality owners who have got the same issues. They know that the hospitality industry has been dealing with this issue a lot longer than tours and activities.
He was involved in a lot of different aspects and the operations and all different functions of the business. In those early days, the OTAs were making a big impact on London bicycle. I think that the bigger companies in the cities, they felt it first back then.
All about Book Direct
Book direct is all about the ownership of a certain activity or two. It might be the ownership of a small hotel, it might be the ownership of whoever owns an establishment, it might be the ownership of a pizza restaurant down the street, as opposed to somebody who was reselling their products like delivery might be reselling pizzas to you, you know you’re paying them but there’s an actual company that is making those pizzas. In a hotel, booking.com don’t own any hotels. These hotels have owners. So the book direct message is really about making a connection with the owner, the actual provider of the operation so that they’re not having to pay commissions to other sites. You would call them middlemen who are coming in to to take a cut just by making that introduction.
The travel industry is not new to this concept. Travel agents have always existed and they connect travellers with establishments and things to do. That’s totally fine. That’s quite valid. But really, with the internet, the internet has brought a lot of small companies out of obscurity and made them visible to a large audience. Steve said that to continue down this line of letting an agent do the work for them is not sustainable for a business because you now have the opportunity to make these direct connections with your customers and to avoid paying these commissions and it’s something that every owner wants to do and needs to focus on doing as a strategy which is running, concurrently with your agency strategy.
Nevertheless, it needs to be a strategy. It would be finding the owner who actually owns what you’re trying to buy, as opposed to are you buying off of a brand or even just a tech company, based on themselves as a travel company?
What Steve did to increase direct bookings
They didn’t ditch the OTAs completely. They decided for a two-pronged approach where they would use the OTAs for what they were worth. They would make sure that they had access to the large audiences that they command, but at the same time, which was a much slower and more arduous process, they would change their internal processes to build up a better direct approach and appeal. So the main thing is that the customer acquisition costs mean initially that they were spending less on marketing because their marketing budget was really their commission budget.
The sales channel is something which is intrinsic to your organization. If you outsource a function of your organization to an external entity, then you’re giving them so much control. Steve always uses the OTAs to the extent that they needed to keep bums on seats. They built their own direct strategy and it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of effort, but it has its rewards over time, the rewards come back. It’s incredibly important.
There are loads of things you can do and loads of things that you can impact
The action that Steve did to increase direct bookings
Branding is massive, your brand is your land. If you don’t own anything, you have to build something. And that’s what a brand is. If you build a unique, strong brand that people can see what your identity is, see what you’re all about, see what your passion is, see what you’ve got to offer. If you can build that then people are going to be loyal to that. Building a really strong brand, a really strong image. Their tour guides out there on the roads, connecting with people and taking photographs with people and they’re really making these deep connections. For them to have their brand really strong in that customer experience meant that their loyalty was so much better to achieve that they would achieve in this loyalty that they couldn’t achieve before because we just attached our brand to the experience so strongly.
Steve feels that any company which is aiming to increase direct bookings but doesn’t have a strong brand, branding and ownership are really really tied in. Your brand is your land. The number one tip is to have really strong brand and a really strong identity attached to it.
How Steve built his network with other tour companies
2015 was Steve’s first event but the network started in 2011. He was looking at what was happening in the industry as he discussed strategies for growing the business and looking at out how situations are competitive threats. They were a pretty small business relative to the big forces of nature happening in the tourism activity section. You’ve got your OTAs.
It was built around this premise that if they become a part of the network together and when people want to take another bike tour, Steve sends them to the partners, and it was received really well. During the first year, they had about 25 tour operators on board. Everyone really liked the idea of cross-promotion and partnership, but he soon realized that it was never the plan to turn it into a live conference, event or symposium.
He did it 2013 or 2014. He travelled around Europe and he visited most of the partners for face to face meetings and they suggested to get together and have an event where they can network. So they did our first event in 2015. What really got out of that was that when you’re in a small business when you’re trying to build something, but you’re really really small, it can get so lonely, you can feel so isolated, you’ve got problems coming at you from all different angles, you’ve got to be a marketing guy, you’ve got to be an operations guy, you’ve got to be an IT guy, you’ve got to be a bicycle guy. People were feeling lonely and they couldn’t juggle all this and that. No one was helping and there was no real support network. So putting these events on was the birth of a family and people come back year after year after year and it’s like a big reunion for all of them because they all support each other. They all help each other on this mission. They have bicycle fleets experts, marketing experts, people come along and they add to the knowledge base of what they have within the network.
All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a small business anymore. All of a sudden, it feels like you’re part of something massive. Steve take that into the marketing realm. And they start to create posts that they ask every partner to share. And then they get momentum. They help beat Facebook algorithms without having to pay for boosting because they got momentum and groundswell. The real thing that Steve learned through in growing this is that you’re creating a family, a network of people who are supporting each other and finding real solid shooting. They’re all trying to just be good at what they offer. They just want to give people great experiences. They’re in the business of experiences and making people happy. And if they’re not happy ourselves, they can’t do that. So having these networks has helped them really become a lot happier.
How Steve made connections with Boostly
The first week after Steve decided to put on the book direct symposium and to integrate with the hospitality communities, he started by just adding Instagram people who were following the book direct hashtag. He found companies that on the hospitality side that were involved in. He set up a call with a company and then this company mentioned Mark Simpson. Steve thought that this is the kind of partnership they want because he found somebody who was doing what he had been doing in his sector. He wanted to connect to Mark Simpson and share resources with because that’s really the original plan.
Additional info about Book Direct Symposium
Steve thinks it’s been really difficult to establish reputation and to get the word out there. But this is just what hospitality owners go through. This is what Small tour companies go through, they start and it takes time just to build your reputation. But eventually, the longer you do it, the easier it gets. So you have to play the long game.
Kevin encourages anyone who’s struggling to just keep at it, because eventually you will win.
Favourite business book
Favourite purchase under 100 pounds
Six Ryanair flights
Favourite YouTube channel
Biggest pain point in the business right now
Being digital and being attached to the needs to be so present in social media and emails
Big tip to increase direct bookings
Partnerships and communities. Don’t do it alone. Join a community, join a group, ask a question, answer a question, meet someone, go to an event, build these communities and partnerships.
He can hold a crowd.