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The Brand - Connections
As high street travel agents struggle to compete with their digital competitors, one pioneering Belgian company offers the best of both worlds
You don’t have to be Richard Branson and market the first round-trips to the moon to make waves in the travel industry. Though he admits to being inspired by the British pioneer behind Virgin, Ronny Bayens, CEO of Belgian company Connections, shows that a little innovation every day goes a long way towards building an exciting travel service, agency and brand.
I meet Bayens for the first time at the opening of Connections’ first travel concept store in Antwerp. There’s a pleasant buzz in the place, as a handful of Connections employees excitedly explain to guests what is so special about their newest location. Part travel gift shop, part travel agency, sprinkled with a few original ways of connecting the digital with the real world, this is a shop unlike any other. Ruud Belmans of design studio PinkEye, who designed the interior of the space in close collaboration with Connections, says: “We’d been wanting to get our hands on a project in the travel industry for a while, because we feel like the retail experience there has not kept up with what is happening online.” Connections’ new concept store aims to change that.
Indeed, browsing the Antwerp shop doesn’t feel all that different from surfing web shops, blogs and online chat rooms or forums in terms of providing inspiration. Just as easily as you click from one site to the next, you can leaf through travel guides, zap over to the electronic gadgets that make any journey exciting, and hop on over to the travel desks to compare destinations or book flights, hotels or complete package deals. The big difference? Everything here is well-curated, gathered in one place, and you can touch it. “I wanted to create a smashable travel organisation: one that speaks to all the senses. You need to be able to taste it, feel it and see it,” enthuses Bayens. “People need to be able to identify with us, and if you treat your customer right, he or she will be your biggest ambassador. We want to keep on surprising them. We may be market-driven, but only while driving the market, too.”
Connections has been listening closely to its customers – or travellers, as it likes to call them – to discover what they want. “In recent years we’ve felt the pressure from big global players and online travel agencies. It has put us on the defensive, in a certain way. But we’re ready to fight back,” Bayens pronounces. “We updated our website, integrating an entirely new web store. But then we also re-examined the traditional bricks-and-mortar travel agency.”
Connections is probably the only company that could have come up with a concept store like the one in Antwerp. “Ever since the beginning, we have been focused on the intersection of travel and lifestyle,” explains Bayens. “We never wanted to put ‘travel’ or ‘travel agency’ with our name. We were and still are a concept company, a kind of marketing organisation that matches the wishes of travellers with the needs of travel industry suppliers.”
Keeping in mind his age (at the time of the interview, Bayens had just turned 52) and the fact that Connections celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, you could say Bayens grew up with his company. The story began in 1985, when he and Angel Olivares, a friend and former employer elsewhere in the travel industry, decided to bring something to the Belgian market that hadn’t been there before. “We wanted to do something big: a hundred percent Belgian, but with international allure,” recounts Bayens.
In order to play in the big leagues, the duo had to enlist the financial support of other big players. They convinced several partners to take a share, and the largest participant was Usit, one of the largest travel companies in Ireland which specialises in youth, student and independent travel. By March 1986, Connections had opened four stores, but it took a while to build up the successful company it is today. “We lost money that first year, and basically we were in a start-up phase for four years,” says Bayens. By 1991, Usit had taken over the shares of all other shareholders, except for a minority share for both Olivares and Bayens, but Connections remained an outsider within the travel industry group. “I’ve always had a special relationship with Usit. I looked up to Gordon Colleary [president of the group at the time] as a kind of mentor, and he coached me to make my own way in a standard world. He also loved Connections. When there were changes in the company and there was talk of name changes, Connections was the only division that kept its name. I said to him: ‘I’m sorry I’ve been such a pain,’ but he replied: ‘At least you’ve challenged us.’”
At the beginning of the noughties, Usit was active in 62 countries. On September 10, 20o1, it bought American company Council Travel USA. The very next day the Twin Towers were attacked and the travel industry went into freefall with the group suffering serious losses. “As Usit started selling off its divisions, I decided to buy Connections myself,” says Bayens. Though a healthy business in itself, the company went through a rough patch. “There was a time when I got up in the morning and didn’t know if the company would still exist by that evening,” Bayens remembers. “We needed to downsize, so some employees left voluntarily, and others offered to cut their salaries by ten percent for six months. Those were seriously tough times, during which I learnt that cashflow is key. But I also learnt that the belief of our crew and their sheer perseverance was more than heart-warming, it helped save the company.”
Sure enough, Connections’ employees knew they were part of something unique: a Belgian company that was making waves in the travel industry because of its constant innovation and never-ending pursuit of the next big thing in travel. Connections was the first agency to offer round-trips to New York at the price of a European city trip, effectively making New York one of the most popular travel destinations from Belgium.
“For our ten-year anniversary, we launched the first ever ‘book early’ promotion on the European continent,” Bayens says proudly. “We convinced ten airline companies to provide us with tickets at children’s rates: a twenty-five to thirty-three percent reduction.” The company also introduced so-called Party Flights, using empty seats on Friday night and Saturday morning flights to take party animals to exotic discos all over Europe, and Last Call tickets, to be booked at the airport, a few hours before the flight and without knowing in advance what the destination would be.
“We’ve also borrowed terminology from other domains such as fashion and food. We launched a ‘menu of the week’ and had different travel formulas: small, medium or large. Competitors in the industry first looked at us as if we were crazy, but now they’re doing the exact same thing. We’ve always done new things that afterwards became the new standard. We feel it’s our calling to keep innovating and searching for the next thing to delight our customers. It’s what energises us.”
TURNOVER BY YEAR
CONNECTIONS THROUGH THE YEARS
Founded on March 11 by Angel Olivares and Ronny Bayens
Launches New York as a city trip
Party Flights are introduced and the Travel Shop at Brussels Airport opens
Bayens buys out the management and makes the company 100 percent Belgian and independent
The company’s 150 employees celebrate Connections’ 25th birthday