Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

On Their Travels: Holidays Duo Who Made Crucial Switch for Sunnier Times

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

On Their Travels: Holidays Duo Who Made Crucial Switch for Sunnier Times

Article excerpt

Byline: ENTREPRENEURS Lucy Tobin

ATIDE of British students spend the summer after graduation fleeing abroad for lazy days with uni friends -- but most come home, cover up their tan with a suit and start a corporate job.

Not so Oliver Bell and Ravi Sabharwal, friends who met as teenagers at Marlborough College. The summer of 2002 that they spent in a "crumbling French chateau" in the Dordogne with 30 friends inspired them to launch villa holidays business Oliver's Travels, which is set to hit revenues of PS12 million this year.

It all started on that PS50-a-head week in the South of France. "The chateau was only meant to sleep 16 people, in eight bedrooms," Sabharwal explains. "But we had just left uni, and didn't mind mattresses on the floor, so 32 of us crammed in. We were staying in a huge, walled castle -- in fact, when the first carload of friends turned up, they couldn't believe it was the right place and drove back to the village to check -- but it was so cheap when we split the bill."

A year later -- after Bell had been travelling round the world with his now-wife, and Sabharwal had worked for luxury concierge business Quintessentially -- the pair launched Simply Chateau, a business marketing French chateau rentals to students.

Bell did a cancer-drug medical trial to earn money while Sabharwal worked nights at his local pub. They launched a home-made website in April 2004 and "roped in every student we knew to do flyering" but, Bell laments, "we didn't get a single booking -- they all just wanted to go to Magaluf ".

Instead, the pair used Google Adwords to target young families looking for group holidays. "Our first booking took another six -- very nervous --weeks," Bell adds. "Then, when our first commission cheque arrived, we duly cashed it in and celebrated in the pub."

Working from a spare bedroom in Sabharwal's childhood home in Fulham, the entrepreneurs initially couldn't afford to fly out for recces. He recalls: "We were relying on our instincts from speaking to owners to gauge how suitable their properties were -- with no financial backing, we simply didn't have the resources for trips.

Bell adds: "But we quickly realised it wasn't sustainable. One of our early properties had a church visible in a photo, and a customer asked if visitors to the church ever accessed the chateau grounds. We called the property manager, and his assistant told us monks from the church often came into the estate to play tennis on the chateau's tennis court.

"We relayed this frankly ridiculous story to the customer before the property manager called us back to say his assistant had made it up. Then we had to explain to the customer that the monk story was total nonsense, which was highly embarrassing."

So the pair started visiting their properties instead -- "driving or taking Ryanair to find the absolute cheapest way to ram in as many chateau visits as possible," says Bell. …

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