The Interview: How ‘geeky’ know-how helped Holiday Extras chief executive rise to the top

Matthew Pack’s mantra is ‘no fun, no point’. Ben Ireland reports

The architect of Holiday Extras’ agent booking platform has a mantra that runs through the business: “No fun, no point.”

Matthew Pack lives by this message, emblazoned on his office wall, and hopes it fosters an enjoyable workplace for staff at the company that has “always been part of my life”.

Holiday Extras was founded by his father, Gerry Pack, in 1983 when, while working for Saga, he felt it was difficult for leisure travellers to book airport hotels. It was originally named Apple Booking Company.

In 1989, the business signed a deal with Chauntry reservation systems – a company it acquired in 2017 – and in 1994, appointed future managing director Steve Lawrence as marketing director.

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By 2000, when Holiday Extras launched its first website, it already had a focus on data and analysis.

“It’s all archived,” says Pack. “Every booking going back 20 years.”

Pack traces back his interest in computers and data to when he was eight and his family bought an Apple Macintosh. He went on to study information systems technology at Cambridge Business School.

“I used to be geeky,” he jokes. “I’ve always been into computers. I still write [programming language] SQL. I’m still very interested in the architecture.”

Early drive

It was this enthusiasm that helped him when he joined the company in 2005 with no job title. One of his tasks was to lead a team to build an agent booking portal.

“I had nothing on my business card,” he recalls, along with a fear that he’d be judged as being employed because his father was the boss.

But he says this drive to prove his appointment was not nepotism meant “I had to show I was there on merit. I can assure you that wasn’t easy.”

His enthusiasm for technology remains now that he is in the top job and is clear as he explains how HEHA, the recently rolled-out app and ‘holiday assistant’, works.

“The idea is to make [bookings] very simple,” he says. “That saves travel agents a large amount of time.” But it’s not just about speed. “We are trying to train the travel agent into becoming a super-user,” he adds, explaining this is by using data.

“Seven out of 10 people book the wrong thing, in our view, when they are left to their own devices,” he adds. For example: “A customer who lives in Kent may have booked a car park at Gatwick for an 8am flight. We can show them it’s better to book a hotel and parking. Using HEHA, travel agents can become super-users and get the best products for their customers. By making it easier we believe more agents will book extras.”

HEHA works for direct customers too. Data shows 25% of users book more than one product, compared with 6% via traditional channels. Pack hopes all 14 Holiday Extras products will be live on HEHA next year. It currently offers eight.

Given that Lawrence, a mentor to Pack who was group CEO when he joined, “left me to get on with the digital side of the business”, it gave Pack time to throw himself into macro technology projects. Success there led to a director role.

There were four MDs, overseeing short breaks, airports, and distribution in German and UK markets. As he moved from UK boss to group CEO in 2015, Pack saw an opportunity to bring those businesses closer together and says they’ve been “much stronger as a unit” since.

German and UK markets are very different, he says, but both put a large emphasis on the trade. “In Germany it’s 98% trade,” he says. “Most UK business is through our agent portal and APIs. It’s about 50%.”

Ultimately, he says, “it’s all about serving the customer” via whichever channel they prefer. “It was easier when we were a wholesaler. It was only after that we learnt how to sell.”

Trade bookings are more quantifiable, he suggests. “When you take the bookings yourself, you have to factor in [costs like] TV ads, so you don’t know how much you are making on each booking. With the trade, it’s a much simpler calculation. But we still beat the drum and say travel agents are under-selling extras.

“Making it easy for agents to sell” those extras, whether airport hotels, parking, lounges, car hire, theatre breaks, excursions or insurance, is the key value-add, Pack adds.

‘Amazon of add-ons’

Airport parking is Holiday Extras’ biggest product but Pack says hotels with parking are growing and lounges are “very popular at the moment”.

But the company’s fastest-growing area is its recently relaunched insurance product, underwritten by Travel Insurance Facilities, which is “going gangbusters”. Pack appreciates insurance is a tough sell for agents and hopes Holiday Extras’ FCA-accredited training scheme can help them gain confidence selling it. “The whole thing is much easier since we invested in our system,” he says.

With more technology staff than sales staff, Pack says the company wants to be a sort of ‘Amazon of holiday extras’ by standardising processes and driving up efficiencies. “Every product we sell is sold in a uniform way,” he says, while noting “we still have a little way to go”.

He encourages a techy environment at work, no more so than at its main office The Wave, in Newingreen, Kent, where more than 100 employees can write software.

‘Designers’ who work on improving the systems hot desk and can work from beanbags, but are also trained to jump on the phones to support contact centre staff if needed.

To further encourage buy-in from staff is a literal buy-in. Pack says 9% of the business is owned by employees in a Save As You Earn scheme and that 12.7% of a sale price would go to staff if its 70 shareholders decided to sell the business, which as a group is on course to turn over £500 million this year.

“We make sure we look after the team,” he says adding that the working environment he has created has led to a “low churn rate” of staff as well as a booking up to every six seconds.

Both his parents are still advisors, and the senior leadership team is known as a circle not a board. And 36 years after his father started the business, Pack admits the founder “sees things coming that I can’t” and is “the most pragmatic guy I know”.

Yet Pack is his own man, and runs the business in a way that he believes is enjoyable for everyone. Otherwise, what would be the point?

Quick fire

Where is home?
Canterbury, Kent.

The last book you read?
I’m reading Blood River by Tim Butcher, in which he goes down the Congo.

Favourite destination?

What do you enjoy doing while on holiday?
Seeing, doing, experiencing.

Skiing, windsurfing, yoga.

What has been your best experience working in travel?
Working for in the early days – it didn’t seem like it at the time but it shaped my approach to life and how to get things done.

Which one thing about the industry would you change?
The complexities. I hate all the rules and red tape. It’s not in the best interest of the customer or the business.

What inspired you to work in travel?
I love travelling. I spent a year and a half travelling the world. It’s one of the best things you can do with your time and money. I’d rather spend money on a flight than a new watch.

Which three people in travel would you invite to dinner?
Phileas Fogg, Michael Palin and Amelia Earhart.

And which three not in travel?
Boris Johnson, Bill Gates and Joanna Lumley.

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