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An Interview with Len Cordiner on the Fifth Anniversary of the WHL Group

  • WHL Group
  • 28 March 2011

In a few days, the WHL Group celebrates five years as private company. What was rolled out as one company (just one brand) in March 2006 with a network of 25 local partners in just 10 countries has grown immensely, even from just one year ago. It now has five subsidiary brands and spans more than 300 destinations in over 100 countries.

Len Cordiner, CEO of the WHL Group, has been with the company since its earliest days, having helped establish it as a project of the IFC (International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group) in 2002.

In anticipation of this fifth anniversary, we asked Len to take stock of things – look back, look around and look forward.

Len Cordiner, CEO of the WHL Group, at a conference

As often as possible, Len Cordiner (centre) works closely and directly with WHL Group staff and local partners. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

The Travel Word: Tell us about the earliest days of the WHL Group: How did it all get started?

Len Cordiner: We started as a project of the IFC (International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group) looking for a way to assist small accommodation providers in the developing world by helping them gain access to global markets using the Internet. The project started in 2002 with a few people only, and after a number of failed attempts we ended up with a model that worked.

The basic model, which has endured until today in our whl.travel business, is a sort of destination-based hub-and-spoke model. The hub (a local partner domiciled in a destination) is provided a website, booking platform, payment gateway, training etc. and supported with global sales and marketing. The local partner in turn reaches out to all the local accommodation and tour/activity providers and gets them loaded into the system so they can be displayed and booked.

It is a unique model combining the best of local with the best of global and allows us to connect many small properties and operators to the web who otherwise would never have this chance. We also have a strong focus on building sustainable tourism.

On March 31, 2006 we were spun off as a private company.

TTW: How has the WHL Group grown and changed since those early days five years ago?

Len: It has obviously grown significantly in scale – we now operate in over 100 countries and 300 destinations – but even more importantly we broadened both the range of products we distribute from local partners and the ways we distribute them.

Today, in addition to accommodation bookings via whl.travel, we now provide eco friendly airport transfers (Green Path Transfers), experiential day tours (Urban Adventures) and local collective-buying sites/destination guides (Lime&Tonic), all built in partnership with local organisations and all supporting sustainable outcomes for the local communities. A new business to launch shortly is Gunyah, which focusses on short-duration experiential packages for independent travellers.

These new businesses are different from whl.travel in that products are being sold under global brands and are priced to allow for global distribution via third parties (wholesalers, affiliate partners etc.)

Len Cordiner on a rickshaw tour with Urban Adventures in Saigon, Vietnam

Len Cordiner, CEO of the WHL Group, enjoys a rickshaw tour with Urban Adventures in Saigon, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

TTW: Has it been a smooth ride? (Have there been a lot of unexpected changes or influences?)

Len: No, it has not been smooth. Like all start-up companies, we are continually reinventing ourselves as we learn and as technology evolves. This is stressful, particularly when cash is tight. In addition, as a franchise business, we have had the challenge of building a global network of business partners, many of whom are in emerging economies, where technical skills, online business skills and infrastructure are poor.

We are not simply a technology play; rather we have positioned ourselves as suppliers of unique products from local suppliers with the technology and business model to connect a very fragmented array of travel products to the global market.

TTW: Are you surprised about where the WHL Group is today? Why?

Len: Yes and no. Sometimes when I stop to look at what we are doing and where we have come from, I am amazed at what we have achieved. The daily reality however is that most of what we want to do is still to be done. It always seems as though we are going incredibly slowly.

TTW: What do you consider the most unique qualities of the WHL Group? Are they same today as they were when you first started?

Len: First, I think we are building a truly impressive network of people (local partners, suppliers and staff) with a shared vision of a better way to travel (local, slow, caring, authentic, win-win) which is quite special.

Second is the boundary-less nature of the WHL Group itself. Most of our team are spread all round the world and all very mobile; people managing their own time and their own businesses. It is quite common to have WHL staff working out of the offices of local partners; to have local partners investing in new businesses we incubate etc.

This is really great, a vision I have had for business since reading Charles Handy’s book, The Empty Raincoat, back in the early 90s. We have as a result become a magnet for young people with values aligned with our own, both as a place to work and a place to try new things.

Len Cordiner (far right) with family, staff, local partners and friend

Len Cordiner (far right) with family, staff, local partners and friends. Photo courtesy of Ethan Gelber

TTW: Given how swiftly the tourism industry is changing and how much it has changed in the last five years, do you think that the WHL Group has responded well?

Len: Probably as well as we could, given the scale of what we are involved in. I do think that the way we operate keeps us open to new ideas, ready to innovate.

TTW: Look into your crystal ball. What do you predict for the next five years of the WHL Group?

Len: Recently I was talking to a friend about this. He was asking what new businesses were in the pipeline and I had to answer I have no idea, but I am sure there will be several.

The reality is that the WHL Group is increasingly becoming like an incubator for innovations in travel. In the past three weeks alone, I have been contacted about our interest in participating in three new online travel services/ventures. All sound very interesting and leverage well from what we are. Let’s see what develops.

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WHL Group

WHL Group is the largest local-travel company in the world, a global network of companies that help travellers find unique ways to experience a destination through local tourism professionals. WHL Group companies empower local partners who have practice in experiential and mindful travel and a local's knack for identifying, explaining and sustaining the distinctive qualities of a place. Visit the WHL Group website.
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13 Responses to “An Interview with Len Cordiner on the Fifth Anniversary of the WHL Group”

  1. Anne Tischlinger says:

    I knew Len and Sylvia Cordiner briefly many years ago and am very impressed (having googled Len and discovered THIS!) with what they have achieved in the travel sector. Perhaps they will be able to collaborate with young friends of mine who are seeking opportunities to move into the travel field in the 3rd World. I hope Len and Sylvia get to see this posting – it’s rather a long time since the interview appeared!

  2. José Augusto says:

    Congratulations, Len and the whole WHL family! Cheers from Brazil!

  3. Will Turner says:

    Congratulations to all at WHL Group on your fifth anniversary. We thank you for your support in helping the Geotourism Development Foundation (GDF) prepare for its April launch and look forward to working in partnership, in the forthcoming years.

  4. Ron says:

    Keep on the adventure going

  5. A pleasure to read about Len and his modest view on himself and his achievements. We specially liked his vision on an almost empty future in which surely enough new things will loom up. And if one has challenged to fill Handy’s “The Empty Raincoat” for sure it’s Len. Good Luck.

  6. Ashok says:

    What can one say ? The scope and reach of WHL Group has been incredible and swift, even though Len may feel that it is like a slow moving tortoise. Len & his team have done a wonderful job over the years and makes me proud to be associated with such an innovative set up.

  7. Sadia says:

    It has always been a pleasure for me to work with such a big organization of the world. I learnt a lot during these 5 years. Len is no doubt a great leader who is running WHL in such a professional and friendly way…. Best of Luck for future!!!

  8. We are new to WHL and feel really excited and challenged about all it offers. It is as much a fantastic business model as it is a forum for ideas, problem solving and a support network for us crazy people working in some pretty remote areas of the world. We can’t wait to see what happens next….

  9. Steve says:

    As relative newcomers to the whl.travel group we feel a sense of excitement about the constant freshness of everything that is being done. So much of what we are doing is new for us and I’ve come to the realisation that much of what we are doing or going to do is new…..period.

    We look forward with much anticipation to the year ahead – let alone the next five.

  10. Teamworkz says:

    Its certainly has been an interesting journey over the last 5 years – one that has seen our business grow through our relationship with WHL. Our faith in Len’s management of the WHL Group has been a key factor in our continued investment in this sector of our business and we look forward to what the next 5 years will bring.

  11. Darron says:

    whl.travel is connecting people in many ways, local partners in countries across the globe are learning from each other. Travellers are connecting with suppliers of services that are elaborated upon in more detail than a mere directory listing.

    Indeed, the group is still in its infancy… but here’s a hope that it never looses its gentle, feel-good, do-good innocence.

  12. Aivar says:

    It has been a pleasure for being a part of this Movement. It is a great learning experience and a honour to meet many so exiting people. Looking forward for next five years!

  13. John says:

    Very interesting read about a man and an organisation that adheres to their core values; win win approach for all, and impeccable work ethics. I have worked for many international organisations in my 30+ years hospitality career, none come near whl.travel for sheer pleasure to work with. Whl has brought fresh air into travel work, it’s exciting again.

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