As a fast-growing tech-focused company, I’d expected Holiday Extras’ offices to be modern, but disembarking my train in the sleepy, pretty village of Westenhanger in Kent on a sunny Friday morning, I wasn’t prepared for the Silicon Valley-esque powerhouse lying just up the road.
Excuse the cliche, but the 36-year-old company’s headquarters really do reflect the person at the helm. Matthew Pack is inquisitive, open, enthusiastic and innovative – with a soft spot for technology. What I assume will be a formal chat with a boss who oversees 800 staff across the UK and Germany turns into a three-hour coffee, interview and personal tour.
One of my pre-prepared questions for Pack is whether he is a hands-on chief executive, but my query is answered as we meander from his office in the new “Reef” building past break-out pods, a small stage and even a recording studio, before heading into a larger, buzzing building housing the majority of the contact centre staff and ending with a drive down the road to the short breaks division. It’s clear the staff we meet don’t mind the interruption, happy to chat with the big boss about what they’re working on – if he doesn’t already know.
“I work with the guys on the ground that are building the software, answering the phone,” Pack explains as we walk.
Back in his office, I feel a bit like I’m in a holiday village. Beyond the glass walls the sun is beating down on a group playing paddle tennis, while others sit on the Wi-Fi enabled terraces, and there are even two surfboards fixed to Pack’s ceiling.
None of it’s for show, I soon learn, hearing how Pack has been known to drop everything and head to the nearby beach to windsurf – and he encourages his staff to take the same approach to their work-life balance.
This focus on staff wellbeing is not new for the company, launched by Pack’s father Gerry who, after leaving Saga Holidays with the idea for Holiday Extras, set out by tasking a team with “answering the phone for 50p a go” in the early 1980s.
“My father has a huge amount of time and gratitude for [Saga’s founders] the De Haan family, especially Sidney, for the way he was looked after there. He learnt how to treat people.”
Many Holiday Extras staff have been with the business for more than a decade, with two of the directors having worked their way up from initial roles in the contact centre, including group product director Anna Divers, who Gerry hired from Little Chef, where she was working as a waitress.
Pack himself officially joined Holiday Extras in 2002 as marketing director. After a placement at British Airways, he made up his mind to stay in travel during a round-the-world trip with his now-wife, Amanda. He returned to his “first proper job” at Lastminute.com – a role he was offered by Holiday Extras board member David Kelly – before moving over to the family business.
Pack has always had a keen interest in technology, and believes a heavy investment in it has been a catalyst for Holiday Extras’ impressive growth.
“My father and Anthony [Williams, a former director] were investing in technology from the early days. We’ve always been ahead of the game.
“We’re not trying to build for everyone, we’re trying to build for the latest [device or browser] version. That comes down to data speed, APIs. We care about pages loading in 20 milliseconds, not two seconds. I still love that stuff – it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning: people building new things or innovating the way Holiday Extras could be working in the future.”
The business is expected to report a turnover of £500 million for the last financial year, with further growth on the horizon.
“We’ve been doubling the size of the business every five years and parts of the group have been doubling every three,” Pack shares.
And he is open with his staff about the health of the company, with a SAYE (tax and employee share) scheme in place so they can buy into the business and an EBT (employee benefit trust).
As part of a management buyout last year, it was promised that if the business is sold “one day”, 12.7% of it will go back to the staff.
“We’re not a plc, so we can share all the information with [staff] about what happened last week,” says Pack. “Most people out there will know how many bookings we did yesterday.”
So what can travel agents expect in terms of Holiday Extras’ product offering? Transfers and car hire are both fairly new propositions and both will be “relaunched shortly”, with the user journey improved for both agents and consumers. Pack adds that while Holiday Extras has tried car hire in the past, he believes this time it’s here to stay.
“We’re very happy with the start... we try to make the whole booking process as simple as possible. We have a good number of partners who will sell the whole range now.”
Elsewhere, the company plans to double its insurance business in the next five years, while lounges are very popular and growing and there is “oodles” of growth to come in parking and hotels. I ask whether there are any new products up Pack’s sleeve, perhaps ones that haven’t been thought of before.
“We’re always looking,” he answers. “There are definitely things in the background we’re working on. We’ve spent a good amount of money – and two years – getting the system to a place where it can accept lots of products quite easily.”
He adds after a pause: “Our mission at the moment is to offer the partner, the travel agent and the customer one search for everything.
“I’ve been working on that for about five years and it’s probably coming into effect to a good percentage this year – and next year in a big way.
“Hopefully all our partners – direct, intermediary and retail – should have that capability by 2020.”
Conscious that, like travel agents, brands such as Holiday Extras have to contend with the direct- sell drive of some hotels and airports, I ask Pack what the future looks like.
“No one’s got a monopoly in that market yet, it’s still nicely fragmented – especially hotels,” he tells me, before adding: “The travel agent is not going away. More than 4,000 different Abta numbers have made a booking with us in the last year.
“We don’t wish we got all our bookings [direct]. We like to have a good spread.”
And will an increase in consumer awareness around sustainability affect the business’s areas of focus?
“Some 2% of our customers are parking with electric cars now and we’re getting more into offering them a way of charging it up while they’re away,” Pack reveals.
“We also believe 5-10% of cars on the road will be autonomous [driverless] by 2030. We’re making a serious plan for that. They’ve got to go somewhere, but do they need to park?” he questions.
As proof of the company’s focus on exploring this, Holiday Extras now has an autonomous electric vehicle and mobility team.
And what of Pack himself?
He insists the company is not looking for another sale, adding the second MBO renewed enthusiasm and the plan for the next five years.
“We’ve got a really good five-year plan to grow the size of the business and we may need some help acquiring other businesses along the way,” Pack reveals, although he won’t give details of any possible impending mergers or acquisitions.
“I’ll have to keep that under my hat,” he teases.
As part of last year’s MBO, Gerry and Carol Pack stepped down as non-executive directors, although both still offer advice and guidance.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Pack adds. “I have a young family and live nearby. I’m here as long as I can carry on adding value and making a difference.”
“No fun, no point”; “be one team”.
Cambridge Business College and Bournemouth University, achieving a diploma in business and a BSc in information systems management.
Adrenaline sports including snowboarding, skiing and windsurfing “whenever I get the chance”.
India, with his latest two family trips to the country organised by Trailfinders.