Have kids, will travel

Wendy Shand

Writing a book helped a holiday lettings company triple sign-ups.

Tots To Travel was already a successful company before its owners Wendy and Rob Shand joined Digital Lighthouse – but when they took the advice of Digital Lighthouse’s chairman Jonathan Jay and wrote a book to promote the company, its growth dramatically accelerated.

The multi-award winning company has been helping parents find child-friendly holidays – including cottage holidays, half-term holidays, babyfriendly holidays and single-parent holidays – in the UK, Spain, Italy, Portugal and France for the past four years.

Since 2006, Wendy Shand and her team have won five awards including: the celebrated Customer Kind Award for Excellent Customer Service 2010; Practical Parenting Business Parent of the Year Award 2009; BT Essence of the Entrepreneur Award; the Mother@Work Mumpreneur Award; and was Highly Commended in the Remote Worker Awards 2009 and shortlisted for the Everywoman Award.

‘Our business was already doing really well with a growth rate of 80 per cent per annum, but we had ambitious plans for it and we needed some fairly out-of-the-box approaches to scale it up – Digital Lighthouse has given us the techniques and confidence to achieve our global aspirations,’ says Shand.

‘It wasn’t until we had a session with Jonathan that we realised how pivotal writing a book was to the peak positioning of the business.’

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Writing a book is the best way to establish credibility in your chosen market. As a marketing strategy, offering prospective clients a free, or low-priced, book brings you an on-going flow of clients who are deliberately and purposefully seeking you. ‘He gave us the strategy and demystified it. He made it seem possible and achievable. And, indeed, I realised how easy it would be to do, with a little bit of application really.

‘I realised there was no time to waste. I could have fiddled around doing some of the other marketing stuff, but the biggest element of it was to actually write the book.’

Within a month, Shand had written a book Empty Weeks? How to get More Bookings & Make Money From Your Holiday Home.

Demand for the book has been high – in just one 24-hour period, for example, Shand mailed more than 200 copies of it. ‘That has directly transferred into more than 30 house owner enquiries that we are now processing,’ she says, explaining that each property must meet the company’s strict ‘family friendly’ safety requirements.

‘We’ve put 18 new house owners onto the website within the last three months. This is three times more than normal. That represents £1,000 per property per year, and since house owners tend to stay on the books for at least 10 years, that’s £10,000 for each property. And we’ve achieved that within a short period of time. The book has definitely increased the number of house owners on our list.

‘A book is a huge positioning tool; it’s a credibility tool that sets you up as the only expert in your field. And there’s a big PR element to it too. For example, the Daily Telegraph committed a freelance journalist to write an article about me, about the book, and about the holiday lettings market.’

She’s no stranger to publicity – since starting her company, she has been profiled in broadsheet newspapers, glossy magazines, business books, on radio and on television – most recently the BBC’s Money Programme: Mum’s the Business. She’s become a highly respected holiday lettings expert, a commentator on family travel, is seen as a role model and mentor for women in business and is a regular speaker and judge on business awards panels.

Shand set up her company after her son nearly drowned in an unfenced swimming pool at a French holiday property, and she realised there was an urgent need to provide families with small children and babies with safe, genuinely family friendly holidays.

Turning selling into buying

She and her husband joined Digital Lighthouse’s Business Development Programme, which helped her to refine the company’s sales techniques. ‘Fiona Challis [Digital Lighthouse’s sales expert] showed us a way of turning selling into buying, whereby you really listen to what your customers tell you and then you respond. I think in the past we’ve probably done too much talking and not enough listening.

‘Fiona has really walked us through the process of building relationships with prospects and understanding their needs before coming up with solutions. She did it in such a way that it was easy to understand, easy to apply within my business and easy to teach to my team.’

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Shand has a team of more than 20 marketing agents who source family-friendly holiday properties for the company. ‘I think what my marketing agents were doing in the past was going out, speaking to house owners and saying, “This is what we do. Do you like it?” If the answer was “No”, they’d move on to the next person. They hadn’t been taking time to listen and understand the needs or pains of the clients. They had just been trying to sell first time.

‘When Jonathan said that was the equivalent of proposing marriage on a first date, I realised that people needed to build up a relationship with us, they needed to learn to like us and trust us before they would buy from us or do business with us. That wouldn’t necessarily happen in week one.’

As a result, Shand has rewritten the entire training programme for the company’s marketing agents. ‘It now reflects the strategies that we have learned about selling and the art of selling. That’s really important; that is a huge step forward. My team and I now have an enormous sense of confidence on that front.

‘Also, as a result of some of the techniques that I’ve learned, I have been able to develop an online training scheme for my team. One of the challenges that we have is that our team members are all remote workers. They come here for two days to train, and then disappear off to France or Italy or wherever they are based. It is really important that we are able to continue to train them in a way that is easy and manageable. And so, using some of the Digital Lighthouse strategies, I have been able to put in place an online training scheme that is systemised and automated. I didn’t have the know-how before.

Using all these strategies will help the company to achieve its short-term target – of doubling turnover in the next 12 months to £1 million and of expanding into more markets. I have this huge sense of confidence that I’ve got the support in place to take some brave steps… steps I would have perceived to have been quite risky in the past.’