An Interview with Len Cordiner on the Fifth Anniversary of the WHL Group

(By WHL Group)

In a few days, the WHL Group celebrates five years as private company. What was rolled out as one company (just one brand) in March 2006 with a network of 25 local partners in just 10 countries has grown immensely, even from just one year ago. It now has five subsidiary brands and spans more than 300 destinations in over 100 countries.

Len Cordiner, CEO of the WHL Group, has been with the company since its earliest days, having helped establish it as a project of the IFC (International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group) in 2002.

In anticipation of this fifth anniversary, we asked Len to take stock of things – look back, look around and look forward.

The Travel Word: Tell us about the earliest days of the WHL Group: How did it all get started?

Len Cordiner: We started as a project of the IFC (International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group) looking for a way to assist small accommodation providers in the developing world by helping them gain access to global markets using the Internet. The project started in 2002 with a few people only, and after a number of failed attempts we ended up with a model that worked.

The basic model, which has endured until today in our whl.travel business, is a sort of destination-based hub-and-spoke model. The hub (a local partner domiciled in a destination) is provided a website, booking platform, payment gateway, training etc. and supported with global sales and marketing. The local partner in turn reaches out to all the local accommodation and tour/activity providers and gets them loaded into the system so they can be displayed and booked.

It is a unique model combining the best of local with the best of global and allows us to connect many small properties and operators to the web who otherwise would never have this chance. We also have a strong focus on building sustainable tourism.

On March 31, 2006 we were spun off as a private company.

As often as possible, Len Cordiner (centre) works closely and directly with WHL Group staff and local partners.

As often as possible, Len Cordiner (centre) works closely and directly with WHL Group staff and local partners. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

TTW: How has the WHL Group grown and changed since those early days five years ago?

Len: It has obviously grown significantly in scale – we now operate in over 100 countries and 300 destinations – but even more importantly we broadened both the range of products we distribute from local partners and the ways we distribute them.

Today, in addition to accommodation bookings via whl.travel, we now provide eco friendly airport transfers (Green Path Transfers), experiential day tours (Urban Adventures) and local collective-buying sites/destination guides (Lime&Tonic), all built in partnership with local organisations and all supporting sustainable outcomes for the local communities. A new business to launch shortly is Gunyah, which focusses on short-duration experiential packages for independent travellers.

These new businesses are different from whl.travel in that products are being sold under global brands and are priced to allow for global distribution via third parties (wholesalers, affiliate partners etc.)

TTW: Has it been a smooth ride? (Have there been a lot of unexpected changes or influences?)

Len: No, it has not been smooth. Like all start-up companies, we are continually reinventing ourselves as we learn and as technology evolves. This is stressful, particularly when cash is tight. In addition, as a franchise business, we have had the challenge of building a global network of business partners, many of whom are in emerging economies, where technical skills, online business skills and infrastructure are poor.

We are not simply a technology play; rather we have positioned ourselves as suppliers of unique products from local suppliers with the technology and business model to connect a very fragmented array of travel products to the global market.

TTW: Are you surprised about where the WHL Group is today? Why?

Len: Yes and no. Sometimes when I stop to look at what we are doing and where we have come from, I am amazed at what we have achieved. The daily reality however is that most of what we want to do is still to be done. It always seems as though we are going incredibly slowly.

TTW: What do you consider the most unique qualities of the WHL Group? Are they same today as they were when you first started?

Len: First, I think we are building a truly impressive network of people (local partners, suppliers and staff) with a shared vision of a better way to travel (local, slow, caring, authentic, win-win) which is quite special.

Second is the boundary-less nature of the WHL Group itself. Most of our team are spread all round the world and all very mobile; people managing their own time and their own businesses. It is quite common to have WHL staff working out of the offices of local partners; to have local partners investing in new businesses we incubate etc.

This is really great, a vision I have had for business since reading Charles Handy’s book, The Empty Raincoat, back in the early 90s. We have as a result become a magnet for young people with values aligned with our own, both as a place to work and a place to try new things.

TTW: Given how swiftly the tourism industry is changing and how much it has changed in the last five years, do you think that the WHL Group has responded well?

Len: Probably as well as we could, given the scale of what we are involved in. I do think that the way we operate keeps us open to new ideas, ready to innovate.

TTW: Look into your crystal ball. What do you predict for the next five years of the WHL Group?

Len: Recently I was talking to a friend about this. He was asking what new businesses were in the pipeline and I had to answer I have no idea, but I am sure there will be several.

The reality is that the WHL Group is increasingly becoming like an incubator for innovations in travel. In the past three weeks alone, I have been contacted about our interest in participating in three new online travel services/ventures. All sound very interesting and leverage well from what we are. Let’s see what develops.