Simon Powell, CEO of Inspiretec Group, was in conversation with Paul Richer as part of TTI's Parlez with Paul series of senior travel executive interviews. Here is what he had to say.
Those that logged in to the TTI Simon Powell webinar were treated to a whistle stop tour through Simon’s glittering entrepreneurial career in travel technology. He moved quickly from building a fledgling company Comtec, where he tasted early success to rapid expansion, new company acquisitions and the running of a multi-million-pound profitable enterprise. More latterly he has been known for business investment, nurturing startups and timely exits.
He is a fantastic trend spotter, identifying gaps in the travel technology market long before others do and setting out to satisfy these needs by either developing systems in-house or acquiring companies and products to form part of the company portfolio. Which ever way you look at it, Simon’s story is one of bold moves and great corporate successes.
Simon started his travel technology career by learning the ropes at Holiday Express, a string of travel agents run by his father. After completing a business degree and CIMA, Simon was very well equipped to venture out alone. He was interested from the outset by data. In the early years, for travel automation, the main problem was blending offline and online availability. Travel agents were still tied into offering holidays from static brochures, and these were their primary tool coupled with the Viewdata systems that showed just key tour operators and mainly Thomson Holidays (as it was called then). There was very little in the way of choice, flexibility, no ability to compare online prices or show tour operator’s late deals.
So, in one of Simon’s 1st bold moves he set out to develop a system that would offer the Travel Agent more booking choices. This early system was called EasySell and formed the back bone of what was to become Comtec, which was formed in 1997 with Simon Powell at the helm.
Comtec products were all about data and ease of access to availability. The product moved agents from dumb terminals to PC’s, allowing agents’ greater flexibility and booking choices. They could toggle back to stored pages of holidays and allowed price comparisons with two or three holidays simultaneously - this was seen as a revolution at the time!
EasyCom another Comtec product, aggregated tour operators’ data from many different sources and transferred it back in a loop to the travel agents to give them more products and late deals to offer to customers.
Both the EasySell and EasyCom products were successful and had a raft of UK major UK travel agents subscribing to them such as Lunn Poly and Thomas Cook, with many other multiples and miniples plugged into the service. It also attracted interest from Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox of lastminute.com. and other OTA startups in their quest for producing online availability.
In addition to these products Simon realised a Travel Agency Management system would complement his offer to the agencies and a new relationship emerged between Comtec and C CAT for the TravelCat travel agency management system. Comtec was cash rich and able to buy the asset of the software from C CAT. Simon then moved as many staff that would travel down to South Wales and embedded these products in to Comtec’s product portfolio.
TravelCat was a heavy-duty system that was able to run Thomas Cook’s 400 seat call centres and also those of another 28 multiples. It worked by utilising the new BT leased lines. As TravelCat was already focused on call centres Simon saw could it could also be integrated into the branch network and launched it to 720 branches live including; - First Choice retail, Co-op plus many other multiples and miniples.
Comtec had at this point between 70 to 80% of UK travel agencies running off the TravelCat systems. It was highly successful and was eventually only decommissioned 4 years ago.
Simon’s next acquisition was TravelLink a Tour Operators system originally written in Visual Basic developed by David Jones. TravelLink was attractive to Comtec as it could provide dynamic packaging (DP) rather than just fixed price holidays for agents to sell.
TravelLink was turning over £600k when Comtec bought it for £1.5m and when Simon sold Comtec in 2008 TravelLink was responsible for £7m turnover of the business. It was a fantastic acquisition funded entirely by internal funds and company reserves.
The addition of this reservation platform was excellent for Comtec as major companies such as TUI now used the system for 21 of its specialist business brands including Hayes & Jarvis and Sovereign.
In short it was a very successful acquisition that brought great people into the company. Many are still with Simon today as are some of the clients: - dnata, Travelbag and CAMC. The platform was constantly being enhanced, funded by a mixture of Comtec and client investment of between 3-4 million pounds a year to make sure the product was always fresh.
With all Comtec’s acquisitions and inward investment and almost complete domination of the Travel Agency CRM market, Comtec became an attractive proposition to GDS’s and in particular Amadeus.
A lengthy courtship followed between Comtec and Amadeus, with Amadeus eventually buying a 25% stake in the company. However, this didn’t significantly increase their penetration into the UK market and the company subsequently sold the 25% stake back to Comtec.
However, this transaction closed a very successful chapter for Comtec, the company had had a great run from 1997 to 2008, had very healthy products, enjoyed a great turnover and was a very attractive company to buy. In 2008 Simon and board members decided it was time to sell the company and sold it through a private equity process in 2008.
This left Simon in the enviable position to re-invest some of this money in to emerging technologies and in 2010 he bought six tech startup companies and one recruitment company. He was able to turn the recruitment business around to make it profitable before selling it to a private equity company in San Francisco. He also turned around the other companies and resold them apart from EYSYS.
After the intense phase of working with a diverse portfolio of startups Simon felt he was ready to return to his travel roots and set about forming Inspiretec.
The company was formed in 2016 and is headed up by largely the old Comtec group of Directors and is headquartered in Cardiff.
Simon explained from a financial point of view merging the 4 key businesses he held together was a very good move and made economic sense.
The four businesses rolled into Inspiretec are: -
Sequence – a web and apps agency – headed up by Richard Baker.
Incentric a Canadian company – part of ITravel 2000
EYSYS – A company that develops all the clever stuff around machine learning and customer centric technology and CRM
Comtec – bought back from private equity
Simon explained that he was lucky enough to be able to buy Comtec back from where it was languishing in private equity, it was £5m in debt, not trading well and haemorrhaging clients. It was a big move at that time – but it was a good decision. Inspiretec then had to set about stabilising the business.
The stabilisation was so successful that by 2022 there was a great resurgence for Inspiretec in the market and it was able to add 9 new companies onto the platform (normally 4 or 5 a year would be exceptional).
Inspiretec is just one company now with a diverse product mix all working from the same tech platform. This represents a massive shift in how the company is configured internally from the 1990’s and 2000’s, as being on the same tech platform maximises communication and staff efficiencies.
For the next chapter, high on Simon’s agenda is his quest to improve the flow of data in the travel industry. That is, improving the communication across data platforms of, for instance, flight changes from the consolidator to the tour operator to the agent to client and back again through a loop.
Inspiretec’s Connect product has started to address this issue. How do we make the exchange of data from one reservation system to an agency management system better? Simon believes speeding up and improving data links will eliminate many costs and help improve overall efficiency.
Also, Inpiretec is concentrating on creating solutions for frictionless travel. This project, the upgrading of all the Comtec coding to improve functionality, and working on the ‘Agent’ product to produce a more streamlined front-end interface for client interaction will keep Inspiretec and Simon busy for some years!
Simon is not ready to put his feet up just yet as he has a constant zest to improve all the facets of the lines of business that fall under the Inspiretec umbrella. He feels that he is just at the start of what he needs to achieve around the client and CRM and there are many years of development here alone.
Written by Janet Butler 16 March 2023 Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org - 07957634911