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LastMinute.com has bungled so many opportunities, and it lost its footing in the Sabre fiefdom, where it remains entangled. Seizing on last-minute and mobile trends may be admirable, but LastMinute.com has shown no evidence that it can distinguish itself from the throng of competitors that are trying to do the same thing.
The former poster child of the digital revolution in holiday and travel bookings is now being rebooted, says its chief executive.
The trouble with Lastminute.com is that it feels a bit last century, too. The hotels and holidays website, founded in 1998, commands one of the highest scores for brand recognition in Britain.
But the last thing anyone can remember about Lastminute is that it was nearly obliterated when the dotcom bubble burst. Or that Martha Lane Fox quit. Both events occurred more than a decade ago.
Matthew Crummack, the company’s relatively new chief executive, faces the task of rebooting it. He agrees Lastminute has suffered from being an anachronism – but not, he insists, because the company is stuck in the past but because it was before its time.
“Brent [Hoberman] and Martha came up with an idea which, frankly, if the technology had been available at the time could have been even more successful,” he says. “Today the technology is catching up with the business idea. Lastminute was made for mobile.”
This week, Lastminute is launching a report, entitled Spontaneity: the Behaviour that Means Business, which is designed to prove that Lastminute’s time has just come.
Crummack, 43, summarises the research, commissioned from the London School of Economics as well as brand and psychology experts, with a bold claim: “It’s official – Brits don’t have stiff upper lips any more, one in three of us is officially spontaneous – that’s 17m people.”
Away from the marketing straplines, the report has some interesting data: Brits spend £6,000 ($9,815) a year on travel and leisure, with a third of it booked just three weeks beforehand. So the “last minute” market is around £26.1bn ($42.7 billion) in size.
Crummack won’t reveal Lastminute’s market share, explaining that the company, which employs 900 people, is privately owned by Sabre Holdings. He’s more voluble on the chance of grand expansion.
“One in every three pounds is spent ‘spontaneously’,” says Crummack. “Already that’s a huge spend and a huge opportunity for us. And we also know it could be bigger – 24pc of our customers said they would take more last-minute holidays if there were fewer barriers.”
Some of those “barriers” to taking breaks are obvious and insurmountable – the biggest cited was “not having enough cash”. But Crummack insists that others can be worked on. “Around 24pc of customers told us that they didn’t trust mobile bookings,” he says.
“The demographic was pretty broad, it wasn’t split by age – there is still nervousness about mobile. And also you can’t see that much choice, either. So we need to be able to serve up the products in a really consumerable format.”
Crummack also reckons Lastminute can come up with more efficiency and better deals for customers. “We know there is demand that is unsatiated but there is also supply there that is unmet,” he says.
“Data shows that 17pc of seats on planes leaving Heathrow are unfilled – that’s 110 planes from Heathrow every day. On average, 24pc of all hotel rooms go unfilled every day.”
In a new manifesto launched with its report, Lastminute has vowed to work with the travel industry on “price and flexibility”, as well as improve mobile technology and present more attractive propositions to consumers.
But another part of his plan is based on returning Lastminute to its original focus: securing good deals for people who are happy to wait until the eleventh hour for holidays, flights, tickets or hotels. “The travel industry is huge. It spans many different products, destinations, booking windows – you can book early, you can book late, you can do many different things.
We want to do a subset very, very well. We’re not earlybooking.com. Our focus is helping people on spontaneous decision to get away, and we know that’s important from the report we’ve done.”
Crummack concedes that Lastminute has drifted from this aim in recent years. The idea conceived by Hoberman and Lane Fox was that everyone should be able to have a five-star lifestyle for a three-star price.
The company sought to get good deals from hotel owners, airlines and holiday companies who would rather fill their rooms or seats than leave them empty. A year after its launch, Lastminute.com had 500,000 users and had expanded to include travel, gifts and entertainment.
The company cemented its popularity with a much-hyped stock market flotation in March 2000. The shares jumped 35pc to 511p on opening – a record only just beaten by Royal Mail’s float – but had halved within a month, and by the end of the year were just 80p.
As the bubble burst around the world, Lastminute went from being the darling of the dotcom boom to becoming the poster child for its vacuous exuberance. Lane Fox was once asked on the radio what it was like being the most hated woman in Britain.
But Lastminute survived, unlike many others. In 2005 it was bought by Sabre, which also owned Travelocity, for £577m ($947 million, at today’s exchange rates). Under new managers, Lastminute was nursed back to profitability with various new schemes, including restaurant guides and general travel.
“Lastminute did lots of things after it was taken private and it looked for the right competitive advantage that would sustain its future,” says Crummack.
“There were lots of ideas and it wasn’t as clear as it could have been to customers. We’ve just made that super clear today, both in what we do on the site and how we market ourselves.”
Crummack has a strong instinct for marketing clarity, having spent a chunk of his career at Procter & Gamble, followed by Nestlé. Brought up just outside Manchester, Crummack says he developed an early enthusiasm for business from his father, who sold power stations for GEC.
Crummack’s grandfather had left school at 13 to start work in a Yorkshire pit, so his father’s tales of international travel and big business were a novelty for the family.
“I loved to hear my father’s stories when he came back from abroad,” says Crummack. “ I was fascinated by the world of international business. I first subscribed to The Economist when I was 16 – I was a little different from the average 16-year-old.”
Crummack read business and French at university and then joined P&G. After eight years, he quit for “something more entrepreneurial” at a small graphic design company.
He returned to fast-moving consumer goods with Nestlé, managing its relationship with Tesco, particularly as the supermarket group expanded rapidly across Asia. After two years he was snapped up by Expedia, the US travel company, to run its hotel business from Seattle.
Eventually, the constant travel took its toll and Crummack returned to the UK in 2010. When the job at Lastminute came up, via some of Sabre’s directors whom he knew, Crummack jumped at the chance, and joined in the summer of 2011. “The story of Lastminute has always fascinated me,” says Crummack.
He’s kept up with the founders and has explained his strategy to them. “There’s no official connection with [Hoberman or Lane Fox],” he says. “But I’ve met them: they are inspiring people and they are incredibly supportive to us still. We aspire to develop this business and continue to build a brand they are still extremely proud of.”
Family Separated, twin boys
Home London and Haute Savoie, France
Education Altrincham Grammar, Manchester; Aston University, Birmingham
First job selling soap powder in southern France
Current job CEO of Lastminute.com
Hobbies Long-distance running, travelling, watching rugby and spending time with the twins
If I weren’t doing this, I’d be climbing mountains in the Alps