The CEO of Click Travel talks about doing business in the ‘sweet spot’ between technology and customer service
Jill Palmer describes her route to the top at Click Travel as “idiosyncratic and very non-linear”. Indeed, she is not from a travel background, has worked in both the public and private sectors, and was the first non-family member to join the TMC’s board.
After senior roles at Mercedes-Benz, several non-executive directorships and a stint in consultancy, Palmer “got bored and decided I wanted to run something”. Click Travel seemed like an unlikely opening at the time.
“It was local but I had no expectation of it being a job I wanted,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d work for a company that small – it was only 40 employees then.
“But I met with Simon [McLean, one of the TMC’s two founding brothers] and I remember walking out, calling my husband and saying ‘I have to have this job’. I was blown away. The company was doubling turnover every year and the role brought together a lot of my skills.”
Suddenly enveloped by unknown acronyms, new terminology and GDS green screens, it was a steep learning curve but Palmer started to make her multifarious experience count.
“The legacy systems and the way people phoned up to do bookings struck me as quite an outdated way of doing business,” she says.
Eight years later, the company’s annual turnover has grown from £30million to £280million and Click now has 240 staff. Nearly a quarter of its business comes from the public sector; 64% of all travel is domestic, the majority of which is rail and hotel; 97% of bookings are made online; and the client retention rate is 98%.
“Developing our own rail platform was key. It’s meant we’ve been in control of our destiny and can do those transactions at very low cost”
“We’re a real rail and hotel-first organisation. We’re not heavily dependent on flights unlike other TMCs,” says Palmer. “Developing our own rail platform was key. It’s meant we’ve been in control of our destiny and can do those transactions at very low cost.”
Palmer calls Click a “technology business” but is at pains to convey the quality of its staff and the link between employee engagement and good customer service. “We exist in the sweet spot between tech and customer service,” she says.
“Technology is the future of travel but to dismiss our customer service is wrong. We manage high-touch organisations as well as customers who never want to talk to us – and everything in between. We’ve never failed to implement a customer.”
Its core business is clients spending up to £12million on business travel annually and it has been “exceptionally good” at winning accounts of £1m-£3m.
“If there’s an account of that size with a lot of rail and hotel in it then I would expect to win it,” says Palmer. “What’s great about the TMC market right now is that they’re all buying each other!”
She continues: “You have the specialists working in particular areas or large players like Amex GBT, but in the middle, when you don’t own your own tech, there’s a lot of squeezing and competition right now. Not everyone’s having the easiest time so it’s naturally leading to consolidation.”
The TMC’s rise to prominence has not been without its setbacks, above all when Simon McLean sadly passed away in July 2018 at the age of 41. “The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to face in my professional career without a shadow of a doubt was coming in that day and telling the team that he had passed away. It was a terrible time,” says Palmer.
“I still think of him everyday. He was an absolute one-off and an incredibly influential person in the industry. He is still very much talked about and loved in this business.”
The TMC had secured its first external investment, from Business Growth Fund, just two weeks previously. “They were obviously shocked but were extremely supportive.”
Palmer describes BGF as patient investors. “It’s not like a private equity investor where you have to double in size in three years and then sell,” she says.
“They took a minority stake because we want to stay in control and dictate the pace and the route that we take in the future. We’re not heading for an exit.”
For now, the TMC is concentrating on increasing its efficiency – “we can still reduce our cost per booking” – and incorporating more artificial intelligence in its systems.
“We are obsessed with the user experience and we want to deliver a seamless process. Recognising the user and making recommendations based on that is something we’re focussing very hard on,” Palmer states.
“The next obvious step beyond that is going global. That is something we will look to do in some way in the future.”
She concludes: “At some point BGF will want to leave the business but the options then are wide open to either take another investor or float the business, both of which are entirely possible from where we are at the moment.”
Tell us a little about Click Travel’s history…
Click was started by brothers James and Simon McLean as a hotel bookings project. One of its early clients was Carphone Warehouse, who asked Click to do their rail and air bookings as well, and that’s how we developed our own technology. At one point Carphone Warehouse accounted for 90% of Click’s total bookings – and then they took it overseas. Can you imagine losing 90% of your revenue? Absolutely terrifying! But James and Simon took it on the chin, made sacrifices and kept the business running. A key aspect of Click’s success has always been developing our own technology and putting that out to customers.
Has Brexit affected the business?
I haven’t seen our customers slowing down their business travel. We do an awful lot of UK rail and hotels so maybe we’re less vulnerable than some other TMCs. I’m delighted to be a TMC that is focused on rail and hotels more than air, especially given the sustainability questions right now.”
How do you like to spend your free time?
I’m a big cricket fan. Often in the summer I can be found at Edgbaston cricket ground watching a match – it’s my happy place! I was 50 last year and I had my birthday party at a box there during the Ashes series. Incredible!
- In February 2021, Jill Palmer left Click Travel to “pursue the next chapter of her career” and to temporarily join the vaccination volunteer workforce.