In 2003, David Loy launched Groople.com to cater for the growing group travel market. The company has grown from a one-man operation into a well recognised brand with 65 employees, with over 60,000 hotel partnerships and a growth rate of 3600% year-over-year. David tells BTN about the evolution of group travel online, the challenges he has faced, his expectations for the company moving forwards.
BTN: You have 20 years experience in travel distribution. What drew you into the travel industry?
DL: I caught the bug while I was working in the resort towns of Colorado. I became immersed in it. It was something I was interested in and something that I was good at.
BTN: What was your original vision when you launched Groople in 2003?
DL: We recognised that there wasn’t a facility available on the net that would help ease the complicated nature of group bookings. It was also something that we were trying to do that would help fill up the hotel rooms that were distressed after 9/11. Business travel had dropped dramatically and leisure travel had taken a hit, but group travel was on the increase.
So my vision was to create an online group marketplace that would allow people who were unfamiliar with the complexities of booking group travel to go online and have the tools available for the planning process and to make the booking.
We still have not realised that vision in full today. One of the things that you realise in technology is that it takes a long time to build- the back end is very complex but the front end has to be very easy to use - eventually we will get there.
BTN: Did you anticipate the complexities and obstacles that technology would create before you decided to launch Groople?
DL: The limitations of existing technologies, and the complexity of building group travel online was the very reason that Groople was launched. Solving the problems associated with group travel coordination and fulfillment is the true basis for Groople’s opportunity. So yes, we knew that the road ahead would be difficult, but not insurmountable, given the right talent and resources.
BTN: Why wasn’t the gap in the market addressed sooner?
DL: Group travel isn’t the largest part of the travel market so naturally entrepreneurs who were launching Travelocity and Expedia and trip.com went after that market that was most lucrative and easiest to deliver to the consumer.
BTN: Who are your main competitors now and what is Groople’s main differentiating factor?
DL: Grouptravelplanet.com, Hotelplanner.com and Meetingcentral.com. There are other companies that we have on our radar that we are watching carefully but they are more B2B.
Our main differentiating factor is that we offer customers a choice of over 60,000 hotels worldwide. We also offer a personalised service with online group planners who will package the holiday together and negotiate on the customer’s behalf.
BTN: Do you plan to expand into the corporate travel market?
DL: Our focus is on the leisure market. We do cater for small meetings but we are not going to expand into the conferences and convention marketplace - that is already handled very well.
As a partner of Travelocity, which is wholly owned by Sabre, we are keen to the needs that they have for the travel agents and we do have a product that can be used for travel agents.
We have been approached by some hotels who are interested in the technology for a private label solution for their private websites. This is one B2B opportunitis which we are exploring.
BTN: One of the key themes that emerged from the recent PhoCusWright European Executive Conference was the importance of localising content and acknowledging different cultures. Do you plan to expand your language offering on Groople.com?
DL: At present we are only distribute group travel to consumers in the US. The benefit to European interest is that we sell European destinations/ products. We do, however, plan to localise the site probably next year for the UK, France and Germany.
BTN: Can you comment on how the group travel market has evolved in the US?
DL: The biggest trend we have witnessed over the last few years is towards more destination events. Across the industry, weddings, reunions and sporting events are much more destination orientated than they ever used to be. Family reunions used to take place in the local neighbourhood park - now a lot more groups are going on cruises or to resort areas and holding their event in those destinations.
BTN: Which types of holidays are the most popular for group travel?
It’s really cyclical: Destination weddings are happening in the middle of winter in warm resort areas. Sporting events are planned in late spring that happen all summer long and then stop altogether. Our soccer events occur more in the fall than in spring. Family reunions peak in July. Our top destinations in the US are Las Vegas and Orlando. In Europe it’s London and Paris.
BTN: How much emphasis does Groople place on competitive pricing?
DL: We are now starting to get into merchandising of our product. Our emphasis in the early stages of the product was focused on building the relationships with hotel brands and chains. It has taken a while to get to the point where we had access to great rates and real time inventory. We do the packages manually in our call centre but we don’t have the technology available today to allow holiday packages for groups.
BTN: What are your goals for the next 12 months?
DL: To offer users the facilities and a menu to build an entire event, including photography and catering, and package that together with the travel options.
BTN: Are you looking to build partnerships outside of the travel industry (eg. photographic services, catering) so as to be able to offer customers the full group booking experience?
DL: Groople was designed from the very beginning to be a group travel marketplace. While we have concentrated on the booking infrastructure in our early stages of development, we are now starting to look at additional tools that will assist group coordinators throughout the entire planning process. We intend to start offering these new tools in early 2006.
BTN: Whilst you are not planning to offer localised content in Europe (UK and Paris) until next year, do you plan to expand your partnerships with your suppliers into Asia, or the Middle East - or any other regions - in the near future?
DL: We are continuously adding new supplier partners around the world…and have been looking at Asia with great interest. We should have agreements ready to announce in the coming months, but nothing that we can release today.