By Martin Kelly
Breakfree founder and serial entrepreneur Tony Smith has set his sights on online accommodation distribution and marketing with a new company called Roamfree.com that has bought ResOnline and owns equity in hundreds of small destination websites.
Smith turned a $70,000 investment into a $200 million windfall when he sold publicly-listed Breakfree Limited – which had 3400 holiday rooms under management – to MFS for shares in early 2005, which have since almost tripled in value.
He sees big opportunities in building a major online accommodation booking and distribution business by focusing on small operators that fall through the cracks while building a portfolio of cross-linking destination websites.
“We’re growing quite dramatically,” he says.
“ResOnline had five staff when we bought it. Now we’ve got 19 coders working and 34 staff … by next February we should have 50.”
Booking technology is central to the Roamfree stategy, commercially connecting the company with a potentially massive network of small accommodation providers.
ResOnline allows accommodation managers to provide an online booking service through which they manage the inventory and take the bookings. It costs A$99 a month or 5% of bookings.
Meanwhile, the company is set to launch a new tech product called Last Minute Manager that manages inventory through third-party sites.
“We also own heaps of destination specific websites – we’ve got 200 at the moment but we might go to 2000,” he says.
These sites – such as byron-bay.com – are generally well established and have comprehensive linking networks, ensuring crucial high-profile search visibility.
“Some of these sites have been around 10 years,” Smith says.
Joining Smith in the new venture is former Breakfree General Manager Mark Frawley, and his brother Bryan Frawley.
All three were instrumental is growing Breakfree and are watching the latest moves by MFS – which include the proposed acquisition of travel giant S8 – with intense interest due to past experience and significant shareholdings in the company.
“There have been some people sitting there and scratching their heads, thinking can they execute?” Smith says.
“I just know from personal experience that these guys have a very big capacity for hard work and making things happen.”
Smith adds: “When I started as a travel agent in Bondi Junction everyone said to me ‘travel agents are stuffed, you will go broke’.”
Yet by focusing on niche opportunities, initially with Sports Break Travel, then Schoolies Week on the Gold Coast, and finally holiday apartment management rights through Breakfree, Smith became wildly successful despite the doubters.
“Right to its dying day Breakfree was a travel agent but everyone thought it was a resort company,” Smith says.
“I think there is massive potential for MFS-S8 and that it will be very big.”