The smile of web success

Interview with Lastminute.com's Martha Lane Fox & Brent Hoberman

Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman are standing at a desk in front of a giant map of the world, which is pasted on the wall of their central London office. "How sweet," she says, picking up a thank-you card from a country-house hotel. It is one of a pile of similar cards. "They seem pretty pleased with us," she smiles to no one in particular. Hoberman shakes his head in mock frustration, wanting to resume their conversation.

Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman are standing at a desk in front of a giant map of the world, which is pasted on the wall of their central London office. "How sweet," she says, picking up a thank-you card from a country-house hotel. It is one of a pile of similar cards. "They seem pretty pleased with us," she smiles to no one in particular. Hoberman shakes his head in mock frustration, wanting to resume their conversation.

Lane Fox and Hoberman are the new face of the British travel business. Some 18 months ago, the two young entrepreneurs launched lastminute.com, a website aimed at offloading some of the most spectacular special offers from airlines, hotels, theatres and restaurants on a web-friendly populace.

The site rapidly grew to become one of the country's best-known travel services, and the pair have now established the brand in France, Germany and Sweden. They have 200 employees in their Mayfair office and have received every kind of young-entrepreneur's award imaginable.

While some of the specials look like attempts to offload expensive hotel rooms that would otherwise have been empty in the low season, there are enough bargains there to ensure 500,000 people have joined their weekly e-mail list. "Above all the idea is that people should get excited because they realise they can do things they wouldn't have believed," says Lane Fox.

This does not mean it is a replacement of the old bucket shop; a lot of the deals on the website are obviously aimed at a certain sector of the population, offering suites at impossibly grand hotels at reduced, if still enormous, prices. "It's much more exciting saving £300 on a £600 hotel suite than £5 on a £55 air fare," Hoberman says. The site has expanded to include everything from Christmas presents to home-delivered food baskets, though the emphasis is still on cut-price travel.

Early next year their company, Last Minute Network, is going public and Lane Fox is already a well-known face on television, appearing on Question Time and Newsnight. "I always tell them it's Brent's turn to go on TV and they say, 'No, we'd like you.' It's because I'm blonde," she says, matter-of-factly. Hoberman, 31, is equally sexy in a dark, preppy sort of way. The company was his idea, and together they are pioneering the marketing of a lifestyle that until now has hardly been catered for at all.

Hoberman and Lane Fox are sitting in an empty conference room. Hoberman, dressed in a beige jumper and dark slacks, is on a chair with his feet on another chair. Lane Fox is perched on a windowsill, dressed in a dark green wool suit, fiddling with her mobile-phone cord.

Both of them had business backgrounds before launching LMN. Hoberman helped found the British internet auction site QXL.com. Were they doing their current job just for the money? "I never felt anything for QXL," Hoberman says. "I never empathised with it. There is a still a glamour about travel. I love sending people to all these amazing places with Last Minute."

Lane Fox agrees, broadly. "It sounds trite to say it's not about the money when you're going to make multimillions but that's so far away and I know it might all blow up at any time. I need to love what I do and you can't help but love a business that helps people to do all these things they weren't able to before.

"Plus," she adds with a mischievous smile, "I quite like having the ability to go and shake up the travel industry. It's fun. A year ago I was approaching airlines and companies to put deals together and they would put the phone down on me. Now, those very same people are sending me their CVs."

Both have travel in their blood, but in rather different ways. Hoberman was born in Cape Town, and has visited his relatives there almost every year, despite a family life that saw him living as a child in Boston, New York and London. "In a way, all that travelling as a child had a reverse effect. It makes me happy sometimes to stay in one place," he says.

What are his favourite holidays? "I'm a sun-worshipper," he says. (Martha, sitting above his left shoulder, interrupts: "You also like blonde ladies in bikinis!") "But sunshine," he continues, "has to be combined with things to do. Not so much museums as society, seeing how people are different, and in what way. I also like having my friends on holiday, though my fiancée doesn't always agree! The irony is that starting Last Minute means I have no time to do my favourite thing, which is going away for weekend breaks."

His favourite short-break destination is the Grand Hÿtel du Cap, an art deco masterpiece with fabulous Mediterranean views on Cap Ferrat, between Nice and Monaco. This year, he's been on holiday to Morocco for a week, and on a couple of weekends away to country-house hotels. Otherwise, he's working, from eight until midnight on weekdays, midday to 8pm on Saturday and Sunday.

Lane Fox has been on no holidays at all this year. In her youth she was a traveller of a different kind. Her father, the archaeologist Robin Lane Fox, is an inveterate overland traveller and used to take the family on expeditions when they were children. "We'd sleep on the floor or in the airport or whatever, because it was the culture that mattered," she recalls.

As a student she travelled to Mongolia with a girlfriend, hitching and hiking from Ulan Bator to Kazakhstan, Pakistan and China, one of the most extreme overland journeys in the world, in regions with no public transport. "It was completely mad but I have a rose-tinted view of it now," she says wistfully.

Hoberman and Lane Fox aren't the Richard Branson kind of travel pioneer, restless to cover every inch of the globe in the most peculiar ways. Last Minute is undoubtedly a boon to any traveller, though.

Will they replace travel agents in the future? "I think there'll always be a place for travel agents but they're going to have to change their emphasis and offer a more personalised service, because they won't be able to compete on the range of offers we have," says Hoberman.

"Right now, all the major travel companies are emphasising individuality and quirkiness, and in a way that is what our website is all about," says Lane Fox. "And the market's only going to grow."

www.lastminute.com

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