Ask Bernard Frelat how his travel website compares with others and he'll give a simple answer: "We take a customer- centric approach, rather than a product approach." That may sound like the same tiresome spin that emanates from the mouths of every dotcom Tom, Dick and Harry, but Frelat may have more horsepower to back it up.
Frelat is chairman and CEO of White Plains, N.Y.-based Eurovacations Inc., a travel site launched in July that, as the name implies, allows travelers to book customized European vacations. Want to fly to Paris on a Monday morning, spend a night at a chic hotel on the Champs-Elysees, hop on a high-speed train the next morning and meander your way through quaint, three-star inns in Belgium, Switzerland and Liechtenstein? No problem-the site allows customers to book complete itineraries (or individual travel components) with a one-click booking option. The site also offers a wide variety of predesigned vacation plans for those who'd rather leave the legwork to others.
The company is the creation of Rail Europe Group and U.S. tour operator Avanti Destinations. Before founding the company, Frelat served as president and CEO of Rail Europe Group, a position he still holds today (not that he's busy or anything). Frelat began to think about online opportunities after years of frustration in the bricks world at not being able to provide all the services consumers wanted. "Travel was an industry that was supplier driven; customers had no real flexibility when trying to arrange their vacations or trips," he says.
Frelat wanted something different: "Our vision is that if you follow the thinking process of customers, the first thing they are trying to do is plan a destination, then think what they'll do there; they think about air and hotel last."
Launching an Internet startup has not been without the usual challenges. For example, after the dotcom market got thrashed last spring, raising capital took much of Frelat's time. His advice to would-be dotcom czars: "Try to secure your financing in the early stage, then focus on the business development. And maintain the integrity of your vision.... What makes a great entrepreneur is vision."