Newsmaker: Urhammer preps Contiki for the future

Casper Urhammer

WITH no prior experience in the travel industry, Casper Urhammer took on the top job at Contiki Holidays over a year ago and now plots a course for the millennials-focused tour operator to be better at what it already does best – entice 18 to 35 year-olds to go on group holidays with them.

Despite the inexperience, the 40-year-old CEO, who was most recently managing director of Groupon Australia and New Zealand, and co-founder of Groupon Denmark before that, has the advantage of international exposure and years of technological chops behind him.

Casper Urhammer

Those talents are coming in handy now with Contiki launching a new website in early-2016, which he describes as being “content driven”, using “groundbreaking technology” and “100 times better” than Contiki’s present web portal. The new website will also be focused on generating leads for Contiki’s travel agents, added Urhammer.

While the mindsets of millennials remain a puzzle for many, the fledgling CEO seems to have a good handle on it. Afterall, he has just spent the last one year embarking on more than 10 Contiki trips around the world, interacting with a generation of travellers accustomed to digital formats, mobile technology and novel experiences.

Urhammer speaks to Paige Lee Pei Qi on how best to win the hearts and minds of millennials in this Newsmaker interview:

It’s been just over a year since you took over the role as CEO. How has it been settling into the industry?
It’s been really good. It doesn’t feel like a year. It feels like a lot shorter. There are so many things to learn coming to a business this size, and for me to come from somewhere out of the industry. I have been travelling 250 days over the past year to meet the various regions and sales offices to fully understand every corner of the business.

Apart from the travelling, what else has been keeping you busy at Contiki?
Two things that have taken a lot of my time is setting the vision for marketing and technology. These are critical given that our customers are the true digital natives – 18 to 35 year-olds – and it is incredibly important that we stay relevant to them and we have a bit of catching up to do.

What needs catching up?
Our current website is nearly nine years old now, so we are building a new website which will be fully mobile-optimised because we see more than half our local traffic coming from mobile. The new website will also be more engaging, innovative and more personalised. We want to create an emotional connection between young travellers and our brands. The way millennials consume media today is changing. The way you connect with them is through content. Apart from connecting with them you must ensure they are able to relate to it as well. The website will also be strongly focused on generating leads so that we can then hand over to our travel agents.

Looks like your background in technology is coming in handy?
I am a bit of a geek. I like and understand that space very well. I want to develop our digital assets here and that’s indeed my key strength that I can bring to Contiki.

So when can we see this new website launch?
Wait for it in early 2016. The website is our biggest priority. We are going to launch groundbreaking technology there in terms of how you will explore and navigate. It will be very content driven and I have no qualms about saying it will be 100 times better than our current website.

You are 40 now. How do you go about getting into the mindset of a millennial?(Laughs) I join Contiki tours quite often. This year I joined more than 10 trips. I connect with travellers even though I cannot pretend that I am a millennial. I will chat with them and I am honest about who I am and what I am here for. I will listen to the clients and get their feedback to make sure our strategies are sound.

So for example, how we are building our website now is based on three months of comprehensive research from our clients and what are their habits and challenges they face in exploring our product in a digital format.

Any memorable incidents from meeting your customers?
When I started in Contiki London, I joined a tour there on my first day and I met a lovely young girl called Mary from Arizona, USA. I asked her what her motivation for taking the trip was. She said to me: “Casper, I’m the first one in my family ever to leave America, and the first one in the family to have a passport. I have been working at a Subway for the last four years. I even ate too much Subway and gained a couple of kilos. But I did that to save as much as possible for this trip.”

Imagine the pride radiating from her to be there. To me that was so humbling. It reminded me that my most important role is to make sure that each and every traveller that goes on tour gets the time of his or her life.

How does Contiki stay appealing to millennials?
Friendships. Everyone wants to be independent but what we can provide them is the joy of being part of a group. While they want to be independent, what we do differently is that we also offer them free time. We don’t dictate what they do every minute of the day.

Contiki has a good justification in many ways. It is safe, you can trust us, we know what we are doing and you are in a good environment that guarantees fun and friendships.

Tell us more about the Travel Styles concept launched in 2014.

We don’t believe that there’s a right way to travel. Travelling is intended for everyone. There should be a product for everyone. We acknowledge that no two travellers are the same. The way we differentiate our product is based on the ways they travel. We have eight ways – Discovery Plus, High Energy, In-Depth Explorer, Easy Pace, Freestyle Camping, Sailing & Cruise, Winter & Ski, Festivals & Short Stays.

So for example if you like to wake up early in the morning, and go to bed late at night and see and do everything – you are a high energy traveller which is very popular. On the other extreme, there is an easy pace category where you get up later and spend more time in the destination.

Where are the millennials traveling to these days?
We see a lot of young travellers wanting to get to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, the Mediterranean, and also Eastern Europe with the rise in popularity of Game of Thrones.

What about the business, how has it grown?
For 2015, we are up by eight per cent which is an incredible number given how big our base is. This is in line with our targets and forecasts. For 2016, our sales figures wise, I can’t even give you a good indication. We are up so much we have to pinch our arms to make sure we are not dreaming. We are doing very well now.

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