The Friday Interview: Stewart Stephens, Gulliver Ireland


24 Oct 2003

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Gulliver is one of the longest established names in the Irish internet industry. Initially jointly created by Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Fáilte as an online tourist reservations and information system, Gulliver was acquired by Fexco, the Kerry-based financial services group, in 1997 after the two tourist boards put it up for sale.

At that time, Gulliver was essentially an internal reservations system used by tourist offices north and south to book accommodation for visitors. Under Fexco’s ownership its scope has expanded. In addition to being a key resource for tourism offices it is the information system that sits behind some 20 travel sites including the Irish Times site and the Tourist Board’s Ireland.travel.com. It is also the engine behind Gulliver Ireland’s own consumer portal, Goireland.com, which this year will receive about four million unique visits and was recently nominated for three Golden Spider Awards, the so-called Oscars of the Irish internet industry.

Such is Gulliver’s success that imitators are popping up all over the place, says Stewart Stephens, managing director of Gulliver Ireland. “When it started, Gulliver was unique in terms of destination systems but it has been copied a lot over the years and there are initiatives going on in different countries. Wales have just developed a Gulliver clone, Scotland are working on one, so too are England. Holland has one, as do the Canadians. It’s becoming standard practice but there’s nowhere in the world that would have the same level of penetration as we do; we have about 9,000 properties which can be booked online in real time.”

Part of the uniqueness of Gulliver Ireland is its quasi-public service remit. Tourism Ireland (as it is now) and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board still own 26pc of the business and as part of the acquisition deal, Fexco agreed not to discriminate against any property owner from the point of view of either location or size. “Mrs Jones in the Black Valley can been booked online. Even if she doesn’t have a computer we’ll maintain her availability over the phone. If she gets a booking online, we simply send her a letter specifying the dates of the booking,” says Stephens.

While the service is not free – Mrs Jones and thousands of accommodation owners like her pay €65 plus Vat per year plus a 10pc levy on each booking – the fact that it is available at all is what makes Gulliver stands apart from rival booking services, in Stephens’ view. “We act in the best interests of the industry,” he explains. “There would be no commercial booking entity that would bother with B&Bs. They would cherry-pick the hotels in the major centres because they know they can sell those and the more business they give to an individual property, the more availability they can get.”

In the early days, internet businesses were often run by a couple of people out of someone’s garage or loft but Gulliver certainly resembles the more traditional bricks and mortar operation. Based in Fexco’s headquarters in Killorglin, Co Kerry, Gulliver has 50 staff of its own and piggybacks on corporate resources, primarily the in-house IT division, Fexco Communications, when it needs to.

Rather like Amazon.com, Gulliver is a low-value, high-throughput internet business. Its success depends on little packets of revenue constantly trickling through. It is also cash positive, still a rare enough feature of internet businesses. Stephens attributes this to the application of sound business principles. “Mistakes were made by people who thought the web was a new business. It’s not; it’s just a new business process,” he says.

As a business whose primary selling tools are the internet and the telephone, Gulliver Ireland’s Kerry location should not matter, but it does, according to Stephens, who says the company is being penalised for its rural location through having to pay higher telecoms costs. “I wouldn’t see the high cost of broadband as an inhibitor for tourism or SMEs but where it really kicks is for people such as ourselves who are trying to run bandwidth-hungry applications from Killorglin. There’s a serious disadvantage for us. For example, we would host our bandwidth-hungry stuff, such as the images on Goireland.com, on servers in Dublin because it costs too much to send them over lines to Kerry.” While the telecoms situation is just about bearable now, Stephens worries that without affordable broadband in Ireland, his business will not be able to operate efficiently if internet traffic continues to grow in line with expectations.

Looking to the future, Stephens expects no major deflection from the course Gulliver has taken to date. The biggest plus for the business, he stresses, is the market it operates in.

Today, less than 3pc of global travel is booked online. That percentage is expected to grow to 25pc by the year 2010. “Travel has been one of the success stories on the web. And travel companies are moving to the web very quickly. For instance, our internet bookings this year will be up 70pc on last year and last year our bookings were up 100pc on the year before. The whole industry lends itself to online distribution and we’re surfing that wave. We’re in the right place at the right time.”

By Brian Skelly