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Special Report: Icelolly won’t rest till it has got the competition licked

As Icelolly.com prepares to celebrate its 10th birthday, Lucy Huxley hears about the holiday comparison website’s plans for expansion

A10th birthday is not quite a ‘coming of age’, but it’s definitely a significant milestone for Icelolly.com, which is keen to show how much it has “grown up” in recent years.

The changes started with the £17 million management buyout in 2013, which enabled Icelolly to move to new offices in Leeds and to target further growth.

The buyout was led by then chief executive Dave Clayton and backed by Palatine Private Equity, but Clayton left soon afterwards in May 2014, and was replaced on an interim basis by Andrew Latham.

Latham, whose background is in the hotels and hospitality sector, is now the full-time chief executive, and seems to be loving the permanent role.

He has spearheaded a strategy to redefine the Icelolly brand and move it forward – and has some ambitious targets.

“We want to be the UK’s leading holiday comparison website,” said Latham. “We want to be the best.” He accepts that the market leader is TravelSupermarket.com, but is confident Icelolly can compete.

“People come to our site for price,” said Latham. “It’s clearly a huge driver, but we also want to give people a range of product, so that they ‘think holiday, think Icelolly’.”

He said Icelolly’s new strategy featured four pillars.

“The first is that we want to be inspiring. We want to offer a personalised edited service, encouraging people to do things differently,” he said.

“The second is that we will always retain our independence. We want to be known as the unbiased comparison site. Ours is not the Teletext model, with one provider.

“The third pillar is to keep our playfulness – but more Morecambe and Wise, than alternative comedy.

“And finally, we want to always offer great quality.”

Outlining some key performance indicators for the business, Latham said: “We have 20 to 25 million visitors, with 50% completing a detailed search. We generate circa one million calls per annum. We have remarkably high customer satisfaction on those numbers. Our Net Promoter Score is 45 to 58, which is pretty good when you set it against brands such as Microsoft (48), Apple (49), Amazon (62), Tesco (8) and Waitrose (42).

Trade partners

Icelolly works with 25 trade partners on the site and has introduced much stricter criteria for providers, plus a code of conduct to which they must adhere.

“In terms of suppliers on the site, we now look at what we’ve got, and we look at new suppliers and ask what they can bring to the party.

“We text everyone who phones us on their mobile and ask them to score our service from one to five. If it falls below a certain score, then we have a code of conduct that kicks in.”

Commercial and product director Neil Hardy added: “All our suppliers have to adhere to it [the code of conduct] and if they give a bad service to our customers, there are consequences. Three strikes and you’re off.

“We removed a number of key brands. I think five big ones have gone. They have to prove they’ve made adequate changes to get back on.”

Hardy said that as well as calls from Icelolly, partners get real metrics to help them sell more.

“Each week we send our trade partners our search data, and that includes our failed search report where they can see what people were looking for and couldn’t find because we didn’t have stock,” he added. “Our premium partners would look at that and upload the in-demand stock we have missing within about two hours.

“We’re very responsive and partners don’t just pay for the calls, they get different inventory out of the back of their tenancy,” he said.

“We have 1.2 million customers in our database and 300,000 following us on social media, but it’s a broad church in terms of who is coming to our site. There’s a female bias: 58% versus 42% men. [In terms of socio-economic class] A/Bs represent 24.9%, C1s make up 32.2%, C2s equal 20.5% and the remaining 22.4% are D/Es.

“That’s the split in terms of visits, but the transactors tend to be the C1s, C2s and D/Es.”

Latham said there was a dominance around the northern airports and that, historically, Icelolly attracted clients from the industrial cities and blue-collar workers.

“We will look to areas with high populations for future growth – somewhere like Glasgow rather than the southeast, for example,” he added.

Mass-market approach

Icelolly has enjoyed notable success in terms of sponsorships and partnerships that raise brand awareness. It works with household names such as Ann Summers, Matalan, Ideal World, M&Co and the Metro newspapers.

It also sponsors Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, securing three mentions of Icelolly per show.

“This mass-market advertising works pretty well for us, so you’ll see more of that going forward,” said Latham. “Things such as sponsoring Celebrity Mum and Dad of the Year – this year, Gary Barlow was crowned. He was actively promoting his new show Calendar Girls at the time, so he actually got presented with his award 12 times. We got great mileage out of that.”

But Icelolly still has its challenges, one of which is to make it clear that it is a comparison site, not an online travel agent.

It has just produced a new TV ad, featuring Cyril the Squirrel, with the new strapline: ‘Compare, call, save.’

“So far we’ve uploaded it only on to YouTube. But it’s had 350,000 views already, so we’re now working out where to put it on regional and possibly even national TV,” said Latham.

Icelolly is also working to engage audiences through more modern channels, and recently held a Blog on the Beach event. The social media masterclass for about 35 travel bloggers featured workshops on the use of GoPro cameras, working with the travel industry and optimising your blog.

“It created such traction it began trending on Twitter,” said Latham.

“Pay per click is incredibly expensive and to get the return is hard, so we’re trying to build other channels to support it.”

Icelolly also expects consumer behaviour to change, and believes a lot more searches will move from desktop to mobile and tablet.

Hardy said: “We’re preparing for that, and we’re also looking at how to increase our clicks.

“Currently, partners want them to call as they can then upsell. But we believe we can increase their click-throughs as incremental business.”

Growth plans

Latham hopes to see significant growth in the business from next year. “Over the past couple of years, we have become more corporate, for all the right reasons,” he said.“The past two years have been the consolidation phase, but we have growth plans for 2016-17.”

Ultimately, Icelolly believes its business model is a “triumvirate” between itself, its partners, which give it stock, and its customers.

“Customers want to see a range and depth of product and a range and depth of price, and they want us to do it in a quality, but light‑hearted, way.

“For God’s sake, we’re not selling funerals. These are holidays – arguably the best purchase people make each year.”

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