Back in fashion

 

It's certainly generated publicity but will the audacious resurrection of Boo.com pay off, asks Karlin Lillington.

New travel website is using the name and address of one of the web's most notorious dotcom failures - the British fashion site that burned through £100 million in 18 months before collapsing.

It's audacious - launching a new website using the name and address of one of the web's most notorious dotcom failures - but for the folks behind the resurrected Boo.com, a carefully calculated risk they already feel has paid off handsomely.

"Using it has generated a huge amount of publicity," says Ray Nolan, grinning. "The thing is, people over 30, journalists and Boo's unpaid creditors remember Boo, but no one else does."

Nolan is the entrepreneur behind Boo.com's revamp as an omnibus travel site, the latest addition to the stable in his Dublin-based Web Reservations International (WRI) company, which runs the highly successful Hostelworld.com and Hostels.com booking sites.

Hostelworld brought in $300 million in bookings in 2006, generating $19 million in income before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebidta).

The fact that journalists remember Boo as the glitch-prone British fashion website that famously burned through £100 million in 18 months before collapsing, has guaranteed attention, he notes with sly amusement - publicity far beyond what a newly-launched travel website would ever normally receive.

He is convinced the site will not be besmirched by the former company's reputation as a spectacular bomb. On the contrary, he thinks it will benefit from the snappy URL.

"The fundamental thing is, it does work. It's a cool, short, onomatopoeic URL. It comes out of the box with PR. It is the quintessentially perfect domain name."

Not that the WRI team resisted all temptation to play around with Boo's notoriety. A visit to the site in the recent past brought up teasing "Boo.com is back" messages, and an initial press release played around with the original connection.

WRI acquired the Boo.com URL two years ago from Fashionmall.com, which had bought the name for a reported $250,000 after Boo's collapse.

WRI picked it up "for under seven figures" - presumably six - says Nolan, who won't be more precise. According to WRI chairman Paddy Holahan, who is also chie executive of mobile weblog company Newbay and was executive vice-president of marketing at Baltimore Technologies: "When I saw [ the URL] was available, and heard the price, I said it was worth it."

With its beginnings as a "normal" business that started an online business that quickly became very profitable, WRI is in many ways "the anti-Boo", says Nolan - another reason he is sure the new travel site will not carry negative associations.

Actually, the whole concept behind the new Boo is to bring to the broader travel space the kind of economies of scale, filtering techniques and removal of intermediaries that the web is supposed to enable and on which Hostelworld bases its profits and success.

Nolan says travel has not been particularly revolutionised by the internet, with most sites, whether hotel booking sites that churn out lists of hotels, or travel sites like Travelocity.com, simply transferring bricks and mortar practices of travel agents to the web. Such sites still act as intermediaries, making money through large commissions taken from the service provider, be it a car rental, hotel, tour or airline company.

At the opposite end is the scattergun approach of search sites like Google, which might return nine million pages of hotels in New York, but little ability to match your preferences.

By contrast, Nolan says WRI "made online budget travel into a business" and Boo.com is run on the same model of no intermediaries, no call centres - nothing that adds on significant costs. Instead, service providers list with WRI's websites and pay a standard 10 per cent commission for a booking and also pay for click-through traffic going to their own site to view offerings or make a booking. Boo.com acts as an aggregator, bringing together some 50,000 properties for example, but the booking is made directly with the hotel, which pays less commission to WRI than it would to a site operating as a complete intermediary.

The site offers over a million personal reviews of places and services culled from Hostelworld.com's archives, maps, weather information, and lots of Web 2.0 personalisation. People can also set up individual MySpace-style profiles with their own travel recommendations. If you recently visited Morocco, and know someone planning a trip to the country, you could just have them search your profile on Boo.com to get all your recommendations.

Boo.com allows people to precisely filter their search results, too, with returned suggestions for travel narrowing, the more a visitor tells the site about themselves. The site also introduces filtered advertisements - depending on the preferences you indicate for your travel needs, the ads will reload to more closely match them.Nolan and Holahan figure other travel sites will move in the direction Boo.com has gone, but will lag by 18-24 months, giving them a good headstart in a potentially lucrative market.

And by that point, they wager the web world will see Boo.com as synonymous with travel, its failed fashion beginnings only a fading memory.