A top priority for any fast-growing business is ensuring its IT infrastructure can scale in line with the growing demands of its customers, while continuing to provide the high level of service to which they are accustomed.
This was precisely the challenge Attraction World and its slew of consumer-facing and business-to-business (B2B) websites faced back in 2010.
The company specialises in selling tickets to theme parks and other attractions to customers via its Attractiontix.com and Floridatix.com websites, and through its B2B arm.
The latter has seen the firm foster partnerships with the likes of Thomson, Thomas Cook and Lastminute.com in recent years, which add value to their holiday sales by bundling in tickets to tourist hotspots with the help of Attraction World’s broker website.
“We offer somewhere in the region of 7,000 different products in 52 countries around the world, so it’s a very wide and varied product portfolio. Anything from a theme park ticket to a culinary tour around Turkey,” says Attraction World operations and IT director Russell Parr.
In the past five years, an uptick in visitors to its sites and ticket transactions has seen its turnover increase from £35m in 2010 to, what is expected to be, £65m in 2015.
“Five years ago, we were turning over £8.5m with FloridaTix and this year we’re budgeted and on track to return more than £30m on that side of things alone,” says Parr.
The online-only nature of Attraction World’s operations mean that its business is dependent on customers and travel agents having access to its services at all times of day, and – to ensure its turnover growth continues – ensuring uptime is major consideration for the firm.
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But as the size of the company’s operations began to grow, it started to outstrip the capabilities of the Claranet shared virtual platform it relied on to keep its websites up and running.
While this method of hosting had served the firm well since its 2006 inception, its limitations soon began to show once the number of people visiting its sites began to grow, Parr says.
For example, the shared nature of the platform meant the performance of Attraction World’s web entities could be hit if another company using the hosting service enjoyed a surge in traffic to one of their sites.
“I was also in a position where I couldn’t load test our system, so I had no idea what the sites’ capacity for traffic growth was,” says Parr.
“We were very quickly getting to a point where we were considering launching a TV or radio campaign and weren’t sure how the sites would cope with that from a technology perspective.
“We’d effectively outgrown Claranet’s virtualised platform, as it was designed for businesses smaller than us that have a lower transactional throughput,” he adds.
The company also invests a lot of time and effort in maintaining its Google rankings, so that any time someone searches theme park tickets in Florida, for example, its sites come out top.
“We’ve got one main competitor in the UK, and there are some other smaller players that are either focused on the UK or the Florida market,” says Parr.
“By the same token, Disney, Universal Studios and SeaWorld all have their own direct-to-consumer websites.”
However, Google penalises sites that suffer excessive downtime, meaning Attraction World had to make the move off its existing platform or risk wasting all the work it put into cultivating its search engine rankings.
From a financial point of view, it goes far beyond anything we could have hoped to achieve had we gone down the traditional route of buying physical infrastructure
Russell Parr, Attraction World
To avoid this, the company opted for Claranet’s managed, private cloud-enabling hardware offering, which would provide the firm with its own dedicated platform on which to run its day-to-day operations, such as its email and disaster recovery systems, as well as its websites.
According to Parr, the deployment took eight weeks during the summer of 2011, from signing the initial order to switching it on.
“It happened in August, which is typically our busiest time. If we ever did it again, I would probably choose to do it in November or December,” he says.
Even so, Parr claims the move went without hitch, as a lot of the work was carried out when traffic volumes were typically low to minimise the risk of disruption.
“Almost overnight we got peace of mind because we could now accurately monitor our usages on the web servers to decide as and when we will need to put more capacity into handling our traffic,” he says.
“It’s also enabled me to load balance my traffic, so all the traffic now goes to the server with the least load at any one time, so we can optimise server capacity for speed of delivery on the websites.”
Aside from the performance benefits, the company has also saved some money too, as the Claranet offering is provided to the firm on a rental basis, with the hosting provider’s team taking care of its maintenance and upkeep.
“From a financial point of view, it goes far beyond anything we could have hoped to achieve had we gone down the traditional route of buying physical infrastructure," says Parr.
“We are able to avoid capital expenditure, get access to best-of-breed kit from Claranet and know that their experts are constantly managing our critical data and applications.”
Despite the move to embrace managed services, which is sometimes associated with a push to downsize IT departments, the team at Attraction World has more than doubled since 2010, as the firm has invested in web developers and database administrators to support its growth.
“My IT team isn’t the typical IT team that most businesses have, as it’s very focused on web development, web design and database management,” says Parr.
“I don’t need a network administrator, for example, as Claranet take care of all of that. So any security patches or anything that needs doing, they just get on with it. When it comes to desktop support, we have a third-party organisation to do that.”
By getting someone else in to take care of the day-to-day aspects of IT maintenance and support, Parr’s team is left free to tackle more innovative tasks that can support the continued growth of his business.
“We’re about to launch FloridaTix in Germany. As a board, we only made that decision in December 2014 and we’ve managed to create an entire new website, new database structure and a new set of contracts to do that in 12 weeks," he says.
“There aren’t, I’m guessing, many e-commerce businesses that could do that while continuing to develop their existing sites to bring new functionality to them.”