Travel Weekly owner and training provider founder share hopes for future after takeover
Online Travel Training grew rapidly up to 2020 to provide training not just to thousands of UK travel agents but hundreds of thousands of agents around the world. But the pandemic hit the sector and its leading training company hard.
Feuell explains: “The government was supportive with various loans which kept us going. But as a technology platform we were attached to the travel industry and the poor travel industry was the last sector to come out of the pandemic.
“We had so much disruption to the budgets of tourist boards. People had left jobs and weren’t replaced, or a new person joining didn’t know OTT so we were taken out of budgets. Representation companies we work with lost accounts. People had budget problems so couldn’t pay us. Purchase orders couldn’t be written. And we’re a small business – there are just 14 of us.”
She says: “It’s a difficult thing to say, but when you run out of cash you have to raise a white flag and say ‘We’re struggling’.”
Jacobs notes: “The government made loans available during the pandemic, but those loans were to help companies over a six-month period. For the travel industry, the pandemic lasted two years in effect. We all took on enormous amounts of debt. Those of us able to, funded our businesses at personal risk. Across the industry, we’re still repaying enormous debt and some businesses have simply run out of road.
Training is ‘key’
“That is what ultimately led me to rescue this great business. When a Travel Weekly breaking news story came through that OTT was in trouble, my immediate reaction was to say, ‘Let’s rescue this business’. A missing piece of our business ‘puzzle’ has been training. I’m passionate about the travel industry, and travel agents in particular, and training is fundamental to the success of our industry and to the continuity and relevance of travel agents.
“Agents perform a critical role, but they need to be trained. I felt it was essential for us to have training in the business. I admired OTT from afar but felt there was no point competing with a strong business. I saw OTT as strong in its field technologically and in the depth of its engagement.”
Jacobs says: “Within hours, we were mobilising to save the business. If a business goes into administration, it is damaged, and I didn’t want the business damaged. I wanted the business to be intact for its employees and for the confidence of the industry.”
Feuell reports there were expressions of interest in OTT from 17 parties but says: “Jacobs Media Group was far and away the most complementary business for OTT because we could just fit in snugly with the B2B marketing we both do and the sort of audience we have. I felt we would be turbocharged and be able finally to really grow, to be able to do what is needed globally as well as in the UK and not be bootstrapped for cash.”
She insists: “It was an exciting proposition Clive put forward, not just to continue the business but to make it stronger than ever.”
Details of the deal remain confidential, but Jacobs acknowledges it involves taking on some debt. However, he says: “That is something we’re totally comfortable with. We will absorb the debt. The business will be a subsidiary of JMG, keeping its brand name, keeping all the staff.”
Jacobs argues: “Everyone collected debts during the pandemic. Some of the debts in the industry are astronomical. The cruise lines took on billions and billions in debt. For OTT, it was all on Julia’s shoulders, and interest rates have gone up so the cost of servicing debt has gone up. It becomes overwhelming.
“One of the reasons we’ve come out of the pandemic strongly at JMG is that we kept the business going. We lost money and there was a personal cost to that, but the business was ready to hit the ground running because it never stopped operating. In 2024, our business will be double the size it was in 2019, not including OTT, and that is down to being brave in that period.”
OTT is ‘good fit’
He adds: “Of course, OTT creates so many opportunities. From a UK perspective there is so much more we can do with it as part of our stable of brands. OTT links with all our products – Travel Weekly, Aspire, Atas [the Association of Touring & Adventure Suppliers] and The Caterer. UK travel agents might not even realise we own The Caterer, which is the oldest business-to-business publication in the world and covers hotels and restaurants. The training platform will work across all these.
“Then if you look at the global reach of JMG, it will sit across our Connecting Travel business, our Connections luxury businesses, our Global Travel Marketplace business – across our whole portfolio. For the first time, we have something that will work vertically and horizontally across everything in our business, so I’m excited.”
Feuell stresses: “It’s business as usual for OTT. I want to thank our clients, many of whom messaged me, wanting everything to turn out well, which it really has. We’ve emerged far stronger. We’ll continue to create skills-training courses, which we’ll be launching very soon because 62 million people left the industry globally, so being able to train and keep the industry professional as new people join and others come back is important. And we have great sponsors who have agreed to help with those skills courses.”
Jacobs agrees: “The opportunities are extensive. I’m excited because I’m passionate about training. The sustainability of the travel agent community is down to training and to engagement. It is so important agents are not just order-takers. We have to ensure agents can add value.”
AI ‘can be asset not threat’
Generative AI should prove an asset to travel agents and not a threat, according to Clive Jacobs, who notes: “People are becoming obsessed with AI and the threat of AI. There is a bandwagon, but I see AI as advantageous to us as a business. It’s not a threat to us or to the industry so long as we embrace what it can do for us. You can’t replace well-trained people.”
OTT founder Julie Feuell agrees, saying: “We can use AI to enable a lot more content. We’re already using it and producing video-based learning where it reads information and creates film against it to create a video‑learning opportunity.”
But she warns: “Everything needs to be checked. You need somebody to say ‘That is correct’ or ‘Let’s change it’. I see AI as a sous chef and we’re the chef. Any kind of training or knowledge content has to be reliable.”
Online Travel Training
OTT was set up in 2008, growing out of founder Julia Feuell’s recruitment company New Frontiers as a platform to provide product training to the travel industry.
Feuell explains: “It grew where people had not created product training and needed help. We created a platform where you could easily upload and put information together. Then people started asking for it in different languages.
“We had investment and created a global platform which launched in 2018, so 2019 was the first year we sold Online Travel Training globally. Now we have more than 200 courses in 22 languages. We educate the trade on the products and services of suppliers – airlines and cruise companies, destination products, hotels and resorts.
“We have 260,000 agents signed up globally and active on OTT and half a million have registered. It grew very quickly.”