Holiday Extras driving business forward with its cloud philosophy


Holiday Extras is a company that was made for the Internet. It’s a company that offers all the add-ons that are essential for a holiday: facilities like the adjacent car park, insurance, hotel near airport and car hire. It operates by finding unwanted capacity and offering it to customers – the type of business that the web has been perfect for.

But this view would be mistaken. In fact, the company was formed in 1983 when the web wasn’t even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye and was heavily based on phone. It started when entrepreneur Gerry Pask spotted that there was an opportunity for re-selling unused space at business hotels car parks for holiday makers and the business has boomed from there – turning over £200m last financial year.

Of course, the company has changed since those days and has moved from doing 100 percent of its business by phone to a situation where phone bookings account for 5 percent of business, with the remainder coming via the web – and the company didn’t even have a website until 2000.

That’s an enormous change to the business about chief marketing technology officer Nilan Peiris, businesses need to embrace that sort of technological change in order to maximise revenue. Even his job title demonstrates that Holiday Extras has a slightly different approach to technology. “That’s the evolving role of the CTO,” says Peiris, “we don’t treat technology as a cost centre, it makes a contribution to the business. We understand how technology can make a difference to our customers.

And it was this desire to drive change through technology that led the company to adopt cloud in a major way. Crucially, the company realised that moving to cloud was a business decision, not a technological one and that it wasn’t just about keeping costs down. Peiris says that having a small board helped move the process on but the important point was that all parts of the business were of the same mind.

Moving to cloud wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly – the company had invested heavily in a new well-connected data centre – “we were responsible for moving broadband connection to our part of Kent,” he says, only half-jokingly

Peiris says the company recognises that customer data is a primary asset – something that most companies say – but Holiday Extras backs this up with results. “We get a large amount of repeat business,” says Peiris. “We’ve been very careful to understand what our customers want. To do this we have a paid search term, an SEO team and an email marketing team to ensure that we meeting customer needs.”

The approach seems to be working, Pieris says that when he joined the company, three years ago, it was turning over £160m, it’s has now reached £200m – at a time when people are cutting on holidays. “We taking it all from our competitors,” says Peiris.

Key to this customer-centric approach is the new website, hosted on Amazon EC2 – although the company also uses Amazon’s S3 for its storage needs.

The company has also established a devops, keeping in with current trends. “That’s important,” says Peiris. “We’re changing the way we’re working and moving the infrastructure and development teams together. The traditional approach is to have walls and barbed wire to separate the IT and development teams, the problem with that is that you don’t get agility,

Peiris says the changes that have made cannot separate the code and the network, the two go together for maximum efficiency.

Having made the decision to opt for cloud, there remained the question of which supplier to go for. According to Peiris, there was only one choice. “Amazon were way ahead. Looking at their velocity in the market, there’s no one can catching them.”

He says that Amazon’s prices were very attractive but that wasn’t the main reason for opting for the company. "I love AWS vision of infrastructure as a commodity – they keep dropping the price – they really get cloud."

However, he warns that Amazon isn’t for everyone. “Their support is a bit creaky and we got minimal help in moving to the cloud. I was lucky that I was able to bring a good team in but not everyone can do that.” He did look at Rackspace as well – “I loved Rackspace’s Fanatical Support” but ultimately felt that Amazon’s philosophical attachment to cloud and speed of innovation would suit the company better.

Holiday Extras opted for a big bang approach and switched the whole system over at once. Peiris says that while it was tricky working out what code would work in the cloud, there were few major problems and the system has been running efficiently since.

The company is continuing its move to cloud systems. Much of its development is done on a Ruby on Rails framework on Heroku and the company also uses Google Apps for its corporate email system. Rather surprisingly, given the cloud philosophy, the company doesn’t use Salesforce for its CRM system – “we use on developed in-house,” says Peiris.

Holiday Extras is the perfect example of a company that appreciates moving to cloud isn’t just about making a decision over IT. It requires a change in philosophical outlook and establishment of new business processes but a 25 percent growth in a business during an economic downturn speaks wonders for the benefit of such an approach.


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