Teeing off to success: Ross Marshall

Ross Marshall, co-founder of fast-growing travel company YourGolfTravel.com, reveals to GrowthBusiness in a Q&A how he turned a sporting passion into a £35 million business.

Ross Marshall, co-founder of fast-growing travel company YourGolfTravel.com, reveals to GrowthBusiness in a Q&A how he turned a sporting passion into a £35 million business.

Ross Marshall, co-founder of fast-growing travel company YourGolfTravel.com, reveals to GrowthBusiness in a Q&A how he turned a sporting passion into a £35 million business.

What inspired you to set up the business?

Andrew Harding [co-founder] and I studied at Durham University together. While we were there, we ran an internet betting information site where we used statistics to tip horses and sports bets.

Andrew also worked for a golf holiday company at the time, and both him and I were passionate golfers. After university, while I got a job in the financial sector (ING Barings), we actually both really wanted to have a go at running our own businesses.

More and more people are playing golf. It’s now Europe’s largest sport. It’s a sport that you can play from eight to 80. It’s a sector that both of us had quite a lot of knowledge in and contacts. We took the conscious decision that looking at the sector, there weren’t very many internet proficient companies. We saw an opportunity and we started trading in mid-2005.

How did you fund the business?

The company was funded by the limited savings that Andrew and I had. We borrowed quite a lot of money on credit cards, which were 0 per cent interest free at the time.

We were able to flip the debt from one card to the next before we paid it back, which sounds rather speculative but it was certainly a lot cheaper than borrowing money from the bank – that is if they would have lent us any money, which of course they wouldn’t have done.

Where did you operate?

Initially, we were based out of Raynes Park in southwest London and then in 2006 we moved into Smithfield market.

What packages do you offer?

We offer a very broad selection from three-star breaks to £15,000 to £20,000 trips. We cover 22 countries. Last year, we sold a golf holiday to 22 countries. They range from B&B packages and hotels to corporate hospitality packages at some of the most exclusive resorts and tournaments around the world.

When it came to getting travel operators on board, was it easy?

Not at all – initially, it was almost impossible. We started off just focusing on the UK market. We wrote to 300-plus golf hotels and resorts and we got four responses initially. We emailed, we called, we faxed – we went through a fairly relentless process. Most people were uninspired purely on the basis that a lot of companies contact them all the time.

We thought the best thing to do was to start marketing ourselves and try to sell them some physical business. There were a number of hotels where we were contracted, where we would end up on the phone to the sales manager saying, ‘we’ve got a group of 12 that want to come and play your golf course’ and try and negotiate a rate over the phone.

Once you start sending people money and paying them that inspires them to do more business with you.

It was very frustrating but we had some good contacts in terms of people who wanted to go on trips. We started trying to push them. As our reputation increased across the sector, we were able to contract more resorts. I think we contract 1,500 worldwide now.

Turnover in 2011 will be about £35 million. Your Golf Travel has about 90 employees. We do have some technical developers that are based out of Oxford but the head office is in Farringdon.

What’s next for the company?

I’m confident we will continue to grow on the basis that we’ve grown very significantly during the downturn. The last few years, as everyone is aware, have been austere times. Even if we weren’t to do anything else, I think the company will grow.

Also, prices have been coming down the last four years and inflation is going up. I expect our turnover to increase on the basis that once there is more demand sector prices can be raised again.

Our technological platform and the way we communicate with customers is becoming more sophisticated. We are capturing more data about our consumers, and sending them information that’s actually relevant to them.

In terms of the amount of customers we’ve now collated, we’ve got a very high recurring booking rate – of the people that booked in 2009, 51 per cent booked again in 2010. Customer service is obviously a massive focus for us: we make sure that people have great experiences.

We’ve also launched some sister companies. One is called SpaBreaks.com and the other is RacingBreaks.com. They’re focusing on similar sectors in terms of leisure, lifestyle, and travel. We’ve been building on those brands separately. but we cross marketing them.

Also, as the business has got bigger, we’ve been able to afford to hire better people, which has made a lot of difference. Not that the early employees were poor, but getting people with more experience and getting a more proficient infrastructure in place has been very important to the company’s development.

Todd Cardy

Todd Cardy

Todd was Editor of GrowthBusiness.co.uk between 2010 and 2011 as well as being responsible for publishing our digital and printed magazines focusing on private equity and venture capital. Connect with...

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