How far one travel intermediary has got by not relying on Google

Investing in Google AdWords may be the route to rapid early growth for many travel start-ups, but this was not the case for Holiday Pirates.

In fact, today the company, which launched in 2012 as a travel blog publishing value for money deals, only pays for 7% of its traffic, with all this spend being directed to social media.

David Armstrong, CEO of the social media driven metasearch for travel deals, says:

“So far, we haven’t spent a single pound or euro in Google.”

What Holiday Pirates quickly discovered, says Armstrong, is that the word could be spread far more effectively in social channels. To date, its paid-for efforts have been focused mainly on Facebook, and to a lesser extent Instagram and WhatsApp (which now has one million subscribers) though these and other social channels are growing fast.

He was speaking at EyeforTravel’s Digital Strategies for Travel Summit in Amsterdam last week.

The rest of its traffic arrives organically from either Google or social media, with around 30% recurring through the app or as a result of CRM initiatives following an email or WhatsApp campaign.

By focusing heavily on social media, Holiday Pirates has been able to build a strong brand.

“Most of our organic traffic is from people who have typed in our brand name – either the URL or into Google. We do have some SEO traffic going to our landing pages, but 70% of organic traffic is on the brand name,” he says.

This goes to show, he adds, “that you can build a brand on social media, which also helps in search engines”.

Sustainable growth

Today Holiday Pirates employs more than 200 hundred people in 10 countries, and delivers its service in seven languages. At the same time, the website receives around 30 million monthly visits, the app has been downloaded 9 million times, and it has racked up more than eight million Facebook fans.

Growing traffic in social channels is one thing, but Holiday Pirates is also seeing growth in transactions too. Armstrong says:

“The nice thing is that total transaction volume is growing faster than traffic. So we continue to have high conversions year on year.”

In 2016, for example, the company processed transactions to the tune of €258 million. Another plus is that between January and November 2017, 70% of traffic came from repeat visitors.

Initially the business model was affiliate based but once traffic grew, they started building direct partnerships with brands that include the likes of Secret Escapes, Travelbird and Thomas Cook.

Trust and transparency

So, has it been a slow and arduous process to drive traffic and a build a strong customer base?

Armstrong says no.

“It hasn’t been slow at all. It is just about understanding social media, the mechanics and the psychology behind it.”

According to Armstrong, to get to this point has required dedication and passion but, he argues, if you find a great deal and post it on social media, it will go viral, and people will like it and share it.

One of the advantages of social media, he says, is that it’s totally transparent; you get instant feedback, even if that is criticism, and this can help to build sustainable relationships.

Holiday Pirates would, as an example, “never dare to publish something that isn’t a very good deal, for risk of being torn apart on social media”.

Instead, it claims that the secret to success is to source deals that deliver true value for money, and are entirely independent of any commercial relationships.

“It’s easy to spend money in Google. You just have to top up an account and press a button – but that is not sustainable.”

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Pamela Whitby

About the Writer :: Pamela Whitby

Pamela Whitby is an independent writer, editor and research-led content producer. In the travel space, she writes for and edits, and is a freelance contributor to tnooz. Other areas of expertise include African business, healthcare, IT and renewable energy. She has written for the BBC, Daily Telegraph, the Observer, Economist Intelligence Unit, Investor's Chronicle and News Desk Media and has consulted various organisations on content strategy. She lives in London but has a foot in Africa, where she retains strong connections both personally and professionally.



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  1. Up-SEO

    For a startup, it’s fine to get traffic initially from google ads, Facebook ads, other ads, etc. But all this a payment!

    The difference between PPC and SEO is: when you stop paying you stop receiving visitors!

    So, I think the best way is to invest in SEO, to get organic visitors!

  2. Ginger Sullo

    This is all fine and well with the impressive uptake Holiday Pirates has received, and likely the owner won’t publish for public view, though far more interesting, is a deep dive on the specifics or what the composition comprises (e.g. psychographic profile, “repeat” customer profile, avg. deal cost/per country, etc.) etc. because on the surface, these broad numbers aren’t telling enough…they seem generic on one hand, and very impressive to intriguing without the pulse of the Google effect.

  3. Jan

    funny that he says spending money on Google is not sustainable, while his entire business model – supposedly – is based on deals. Can it get any more short-term and non-sustainable than deal hunting? This is why Groupon & Co. are dead and the same will apply to their business model. Problem being that the principal long-term interest of advertiser and publisher are diamterically opposed in this business model. I guess this why they started to slightly deviate from being a deal only website and have integrated plain OTA booking engines for all types of travel on their website. As a hotelier, do not fool yourself – there is no way around google whatsoever.

  4. Aldo Polledro

    Well, If you browse their websites, it fires you Remarketing Tags of Google, Criteo, Facebook and many others..

  5. Giulio Stella

    That’s interesting. However social media for most business isn’t enough. Google provides a huge amount of traffic and doesn’t matter if u are the coolest brand in the world, you should definitely try to compete with search


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