Somebody said to me the other day: we’re the oldest start-up in town. I’d say we’re certainly one with the strongest investment – which is a nice feeling,” grins the new UK managing director of Wendy Wu Tours.
“Wendy Wu [founder and chairman] herself has always had a desire to build, build, build… we definitely have the ability to offer digital innovations in the touring space.”
With a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for talking tech, it’s easy to see why Mark Bloxham has been brought onboard to steer the Asia specialist through its online overhaul, keeping it moving towards becoming more of an e-commerce-focused business.
The first steps of this new push manifested in the operator’s unveiling of its first bookable trade website in June, enabling agents to select and book tours in minutes.
When I meet Bloxham in late September it’s apparent that despite joining Wendy Wu under a month ago – with a CV boasting more than 17 years in online marketing and experience spearheading digital transformations at both James Villa Holidays and Teletext Holidays – he is clearly eager to apply his skills to the touring world.
Currently hosting 80% of Wendy Wu’s Classic group tour itineraries, Bloxham hopes the new trade booking platform will soon hold the full collection: “We’ll be at the 100% mark before January… we should be,” he predicts.
“Every challenge brings up another one... We’ve got to get to the point where we have that nirvana of both freedom and flexibility.”
“Some [agent partners] have adopted it very quickly,” says Bloxham. We’re getting there, and the message is getting out. From now into January we’ll make sure we’re offering more training and making changes to the site to ensure it runs easier.”
Bloxham explains the operator is also keen to include agents in the site’s future development and will use a host of UK-wide roadshows starting this week to collect feedback and implement changes.
He also plans to form an agent “user group” to discuss and test the tool. “The trade is massively important to us [accounting for 45% of the operator’s sales] and our passion and respect for agents is absolutely genuine. We want to work on the agent portal a lot more.”
Now, plans for the website will include ironing out any difficulties so that booking a multi-faceted touring holiday becomes increasingly easier, with an option to upgrade to business-class flights introduced online earlier this month.
“Anyone who has built a website knows that as soon as you have any little problem people won’t book through it, and touring – with stopovers, extra nights, extra days all part of it – is a horrific mash-up to try and put together online,” Bloxham admits.
“So there are two things [I want to focus on]: developing product that fits comfortably online, while in the background working on the technology that enables us to make complicated things available.
“We’re fully bookable now… and now that we’ve knocked [flight upgrades] off the tech development list, you can book a business upgrade and a tour.
“Next we ask how we can book stopovers… I guess every challenge brings up another one. We know the list of things we’ve got to get over and we’ve got to get to the point where we have that nirvana of both freedom and flexibility.”
Bloxham believes Wendy Wu offering clients and agents more choice and making the booking process simpler will result in the type of product it offers and potentially its clientele changing too.
“My nervousness about touring was always this ageing population reputation, and although that’s changing, a 28-day classic China tour is not for a busy, working [time-poor] 22-year-old,” he explains.
“We will sell the new range through the website and the trade – I don’t want to enforce exclusivity on any products as we work incredibly well with agents”
“No longer do people want to walk up to something, take a photo and walk away – they want to get right in the middle of it… There’s part of that that works in this development of product.”
This has resulted, Bloxham teases, in Wendy Wu creating a soon-to-launch touring range featuring shorter, “more accessibly timed and priced” itineraries ready for online purchase.
He explains: “[If we] price these more accessibly than a long all-inclusive tour, that could attract first-timers and potentially a different demographic or people who aren’t sure about touring.”
While a main part of Bloxham’s remit is digitally focused, he insists Wendy Wu will maintain its agent-friendly roots.
“We will sell the new range through the website and the trade – I don’t want to enforce exclusivity on any products as we work incredibly well with agents,” he adds. He is also insistent that all agents are welcome to work with the operator, regardless of how tech savvy they are.
Bloxham continues: “We might go through some sticky stuff… say we reduce the amount of brochure copies we send out, but we’ll never be in a position not to support everybody, because that really would be shooting ourselves in the foot.” Although he later adds: “We’re still heavily focused on brochures and they are very much part of the experience.”
Listening to Bloxham outline his digital vision, it’s hard not to be reminded of the passion of the woman who brought him into the fold – Wendy Wu.
“You talk to Wendy for 10 minutes and you feel her excitement and drive… it’s so infectious,” laughs Bloxham. “She’s always there when the big, and even small, decisions are being made. People are open to [the digital strategy] and Wendy is prepared to take a leap into something she might not always understand – she gets it.”
Bloxham adds that having the backing of Wu and group chief executive Joe Karbo has created “an incredibly collaborative” environment at the operator’s UK base near London Bridge and has seen Bloxham position his office desk amid his new team, a tactic often adopted by the bosses of fledgling start-ups.
With his feet now firmly under the table, Bloxham is focused on building the operator’s in-house digital team to further develop its website and booking platforms, welcoming digital product manager Emily Baptiste just days after arriving himself.
“We’ve got some real talent and it’s growing,” he grins excitedly.
So with his burgeoning tech team, DIY ethos and senior support – just where does Bloxham see the UK business getting to?
“As a tour operator, if you can become synonymous with a region of the world and then become a first-click [top ranking] site, that’s the dream,” he smiles.