#KnapChat | Matthew Barker on a New Age of Travel Publishing

Matthew Barker Horizon Guides

About eight years ago, Matthew and I were introduced. Back then, he was working for a tour operator in Peru, and today he’s got his own startup all about reshaping travel publishing.

Recently, we got together again for a fascinating (and pretty thorough) conversation, working through his journey in travel marketing that saw him close funding late December for Horizon Guides, a new type of travel guide and tours marketplace for SME operators Let’s dive in…

KW: We met in Peru, what took you there?

Matthew: It was a bit like you really: I was in something of a career rut in Sheffield and I was presented with the idea to go somewhere and try to do some freelance travel writing. 

It just so happened that Peru, via a few other places, was where I ended up. There was no rhyme or reason for it, it could have been anywhere. I told myself – and everyone else – I’d be back within a year but didn’t end up moving back for about 10 years.

KW: You ended up in travel marketing, how has that changed over the last 10 years?

Matthew: I got into tourism marketing around the time of an epoch change – the tail end of quick and easy SEO/PPC. This came to a pretty abrupt end and is where content marketing really came into force.

The direct impact of this was that it pushed people from SEO to PPC and the upshot of that meant that PPC costs went through the roof with diminished returns. But that was the quick fix.

KW: I think this is when we met, and you started moving to consultancy?

Matthew: Lots of people were thinking: ‘sh*t, we need to do content marketing’, and that’s when we started with our consultancy business that tapped into this demand. 

Travel companies knew they needed to do it but they had questions: “What is it? How do you get it?” That’s where we moved into and from there it has been a slow process of extending the opportunity.

We then began to sort/curate/commission content for travel agencies. But there was no strategy with it from their end so we went in to various tour operators with a content marketing playbook.

KW: Is this where the new media model with Horizon Guides really started to take off?

Matthew: At that point we were using inefficient and constraining methods to look after a few operators. Why don’t we produce the content for ourselves, we thought? We knew that if we created this stuff in a formulaic way, we had a product to sell to operators. 

That was our consultant-to-startup realisation. We’ve been incrementally extending what our product does  and have become a complete publishing and advertising solution for tour operators.

KW: You’ve had funding recently, can you talk me through that?

Matthew: That’s an afternoon’s conversation in itself! We closed funding in December 2018 and got £325,000 through the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund.

It was a two-year process, and a real learning curve for me in particular, to get from deciding to raise the cash to actually having the cash in the bank. We started with almost zero knowledge of the process and it’s a relentless sales process basically.

When we finally started talking to Mercia though everything happened very quickly.

KW: What caused the change in pace?

Matthew: What they liked most was speaking to existing customers, and this is pretty essential  in raising funds today. They are our single greatest asset and those conversations really kickstarted the momentum. We now have a new office and are a growing team of four.

KW: What is the innovation with Horizon Guides?

Matthew: It’s a little bit old school actually. It’s a content and advertising  business and the first stage is less about technological innovation and more of  business model innovation. We’re able to aggregate spend and customers across a number of companies. That’s the foundation that we’re building the technology on top of, to become a more efficient marketplace between supply (tour operators) and demand (consumers).

KW: What sort of businesses do you work with?

Matthew: We’re ultimately a marketplace. For SME tour operators we’re  an alternative channel to the classic PPC spend and “hands free” content marketing.

We create in-depth ebooks/guides about experiences people may want to enjoy. Previously these were sponsored by our partners but now they are purely Horizon Guide publications that move people down the funnel.

It’s still very early but it solves their biggest pain point. Google is a huge money grabbing company that takes money off tour operators and it’s expensive to scale for smaller businesses. Our model gives them a more efficient way to market.

KW: There was a bit of force in the Google comment there…

Matthew: It does make me angry at times. I feel that the interfaces are deliberately simple to sign up and put your credit card details in but also deliberately complicated for people to use.

We sometimes see it with clients where the recommendations are followed, suggestions for automation are turned on but these aren’t the most efficient way of doing things. And then stuff is hidden away or they just don’t know how to drive traffic or have the landing page working.

KW: How are the guides put together?

Matthew: As a team we’re big on quality control with everything that we write and publish. We use expert writers with specific expertise to give unbiased views of countries and what to see or do there. As the team has expanded we’ve been able to hire some great in-house editorial and production talent which has helped us level up the quality and credibility of our product.

Readers start with our guides while they’re researching a trip and as they move further down the funnel, we point them in the direction of a number of SME travel operators that offer trips.

KW: How can Horizon Guides build relationships with travellers?

Matthew: That’s a great question – one that we’re working on. It’s all about collecting data and using that data correctly to implement complete user journeys. We know more than a standard travel agent but, oddly, we also know what we need to know – that’s just not easy to get.

We want to treat visitors as individuals and over time we are able to start to build a relationship. 

If you take Peru as an example, that’s usually a one trip relationship. Not too many people will be booking two or three complete trips there. So you can see that someone who booked downloaded one of our guides in the research phase, three months later booked the trip, and three months later they’re there.

For us, it’s about learning if it’s a family of four, what level of hotels they stay in, their budget, whether they prefer soft activity and what the typical user does next after Peru, i.e. where’s the next destination? 

That’s where the real growth lies. We have the metrics and cost per acquisition but what’s the extended lifetime value of a Horizon Guides customer? But that takes time and is where the technological innovation will come in.

KW: Who do you think does travel marketing well?

Matthew: Really, the Gold standard is Intrepid Group. They’re a fantastic organisation with purpose-driven brand building. Ultimately, they have 20 years of hard work behind them but are the largest independent.

The real key to good travel marketing is authenticity. Take a look at Pura Aventura in Brighton or Devour food tours of Madrid, these two are really hitting it out of the park. And it’s because they care; they have that authentic presence and desire.

Tourism has gone from transactional to experiential – and people are even talking about it being transformational. Dangerous really because there’ll be a conference talk about that now and I don’t particularly agree with the premise!

Final Words

So, there we are, a hop, skip and a jump journey through the magical world of travel marketing. From upping sticks and starting freelance travel writing to getting funding for a new publishing model for the industry, Matt is an expert in the space.

Tourism marketing was overdue a facelift and Sheffield-based Horizon Guides are right at the forefront, so head over to find out more about your next adventure. You can get in touch with Matt over on Twitter.

Not had your fill of people with an affiliation to Peru? My very own KnapChat is complete with a Peruvian love-in. Head over to have a PERUse now

Jonathan Bell
Head of Client Strategy

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