Sykes Cottages set up its website offering holiday cottages in 1997. It spent £1000 on it initially, and a further £1000 investment in the second year.
Now it believes up to 70 per cent of all its business comes from customers who have visited the website at some stage during the selection and booking of their holiday cottage.
The company has also cut costs by sending out fewer brochures, as potential customers visit the site first.
The site has opened up new markets too. In 1999, five per cent of all new business came from overseas, a previously insignificant market for Sykes Cottages.
Owner Clive Sykes says: "We saw it as an opportunity to do something which our competitors weren't doing. We didn't invest a lot of money at the start. We wanted to keep control over the content and wrote all of that ourselves. We also wanted to keep the site uncluttered and easy to use."
The company does not intend to introduce online bookings in the short term, as it believes it can maintain the personal touch that gives it its competitive edge if the booking process is not entirely automated. Its success has led it to be nominated for an ISI/Interforum award for ecommerce.
A friend of a friend with a new web development business got Sykes Cottages started with its initial site, but the company soon realised it wanted to offer more through its site. At that stage five to 10 per cent of its business came through the web.
"They were basically static pages and it was quite a big job to update everything. What we very quickly realised was that as soon as you publish a website it is out of date. It's like promotional material; we publish in our brochure once a year and it's really frustrating because the day it arrives it's out of date because we have taken on two new cottages," says Sykes."We realised that all our internal systems were on databases and we use a piece of software called Filemaker, which had web publishing capabilities and we wanted to push forward in that direction. We decided we wanted to take control of the web development ourselves, and it was at that stage that we thought it would be great for us to be able to host our databases because then we would be able to update things ourselves very easily."
Sykes describes the process of setting up the web publishing facilities as "a nightmare".
"We tried contacting various people and there were lots of silly quotes about how much it would cost to do those things and it was impossible for us, so we got the help of Business Link," he says.
The new site went live early last summer. Now all the cottage details are on the same database, which is copied on to a database hosted by London-based FMG. "They offered a specialist Filemaker hosting service and they were happy to help with technical issues and made it easy for us with simple software called Fetch to update photographs and things," says Sykes. Since the new site went live, Sykes has seen an increase in bookings of 35 per cent.
It pays to advertise
Sykes promotes its website heavily within its printed brochure and gives the URL prominence in its print advertisements. "If someone sees our website advertised in the newspaper on a Sunday afternoon they don't have to phone up for the brochure and wait two days for it to arrive and the moment has gone," says Sykes.
The extra interest generated by the site has led to four more staff being taken on to assist the original three. The company has also had to work out how to deal with a high number of emails.
"What we need to be able to do is pick up the emails four or five times a day and deal with them quickly and efficiently to reflect well on our business - but we can't share a mailbox across a network. It is like a call centre in a way. A little thing like that can take months to sort out but someone has written some software to sort that out now. Until you start generating all these emails you don't know what your problems are going to be," says Sykes.
The company puts a high priority on efficient email communications. Its conversion rate of email enquiries to sales has been 25.6 per cent this year, compared with a conversion rate of 12 per cent for enquiries generated by its adverts in The Sunday Times.
Steady as she goes
Sykes envisages a time in the future when 80 to 90 per cent of the company's business will be conducted either through web or email at some point. He is planning to build cautiously on the site.
"There are a lot of things we are planning to change on our website at the moment. What we are trying to do now is look at the big picture three or four years down the line. What we don't want to do is make a few quick fixes on our website. We are looking at all our internal systems and databases, and trying to spring clean them and get them working in a way that we could host all of those ultimately on the internet.
"That will enable us to have all the info seamless, so when we take a new cottage on we can change it in the database and that changes it on our server, rather than having one that's being hosted and one on our internal systems."
Sykes is looking at providing availability information, but says careful planning is essential. "Quite a few companies are putting up availability but it doesn't always work in your favour - how would you react if you went onto our website looked at a new cottage we had just taken on looked at the availability for the year and it was completely empty? You would probably wonder what was wrong with it."
Sykes foresees complications too with online bookings. He believes customers might try to pay for a cottage that is not available or pay the wrong amount. "It is something we may look at in the future," he says.
For Sykes, this e-investment has clearly paid big dividends.
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