True Stories: Stein Travel soars in Blue Skies

23 Feb 2004

Stein Travel has recently acquired a high media profile thanks to its imaginative television and poster adverts. You could be forgiven for thinking it is a new entrant to the Irish travel market, but in fact it has been around for quite some time. Over the past two years or so the company has reinvented itself and it is currently the fourth largest tour operator in the country and the largest independently owned.

“Michael Stein Travel was established in 1984 and Michael Stein, who is now chairman, is still involved in the day-to-day business,” says Bryanna O’Higgins (pictured), CEO of Stein Travel. “The company started life as a travel agent selling package holidays. However, during the late Eighties we started dabbling in the tour operating business. We really pioneered the Malaga route and the Costa del Sol in the early Nineties and we were the first to operate all year round charters to Malaga.”

During the Nineties the company grew and added new destinations including Majorca and, in response to the demand from Irish property owners, Alicante. In 2001, the company management decided to take a long hard look at the business and to restructure it. The company’s three different brands — Michael Stein Travel, Flyaway Tours and Corona Holidays — were replaced with the unified Stein Travel brand.

The company also closed its corporate, long-haul and retail businesses, focusing exclusively on tour operating and selling only its own holidays. At the same time it was decided to streamline channels, focusing on web sales, travel agents and call centres. The company no longer operates a shop front service, although visitors to the Camden Street offices in Dublin can make use of internet-connected PCs to book holidays.

The cold hard look at the business revealed, however, that the current reservations system was restricting further growth. “Don’t misunderstand, it’s a good tour operator product,” says O’Higgins. “However, it was developed in the Eighties when the web was never even considered. We are independently owned and have lots of ideas we want to implement quickly, but we found we were very restricted.”

The existing system looks as if it is based on DOS but in fact is based on Viewdata and is restrictive in the way it allows human operators to access information. For instance, once an operator had moved on to a new screen, there was no way of going back to the previous screen to correct a mistake, so he or she had to restart the process.

Stein Travel, therefore, began casting about for a new system and quickly reduced the shortlist to four suppliers: two in Germany, one in the US/Israel and one in the UK. The UK bidder, Blue Skies, was ultimately successful.

O’Higgins was attracted to Blue Skies by a number of factors. “For a start, it came from a large tour operator background. Some of the people there had been in the industry and they had an understanding of the concept, the requirements and the demands of the business and the functionality one needs. Also it was a short flight away and there was no language barrier.” Another factor in Blue Skies’ favour was the fact that its iTours system was based on Oracle, making it easy to modify or add functionality at a later date.

The main advantage of the new iTours system over the previous one is scalability. “We will be able to have as many people booking online, via the call centre or through travel agents countrywide as we wish at any one time,” O’Higgins explains. “On a busy sale day we are not going to be restricted by maximum numbers. As it stands we don’t have issues with lots of people wanting to book at once but we would be nervous.” She points to a large sale day in mid-January when the company took 12,000 bookings in a single day. The existing system was able to handle the load, but to do so all other functions, such as reports, had to be turned off.

The new system will also allow the creation of ‘White Label’ sites, which are provided by Stein to travel agents that can then add their own branding. Such sites are being trialled at the moment, but due to the limitations of the existing system only four travel agents can take part. iTours will remove this limitation.

The system will also be considerably more user-friendly and will use a standard browser interface allowing staff to move backwards and forward from one screen to another. However, consumers and travel agents using the web to access the system will see no difference.

Blue Skies has begun delivering the system and Stein Travel will run it parallel with the existing system until November, at which point the changeover will be complete. “We will be using iTours for bookings in July when we publish our winter 2004 and summer 2005 catalogues,” says O’Higgins. “We will changeover totally on 1 November because that is the end of the financial year for the travel industry and because November and December are quiet months. I expect that by removing the restrictions of the old system we will be able to double our business over three years moving us into the No. 2 spot nationally.”

By David Stewart