Forest Holidays: Six lessons for success from Marketing Week’s team of the year

Beating stiff competition from the likes of Aldi and O2, Marketing Week Masters award winner Forest Holidays knows that open communication, having a vision and talent spotting are the hallmarks of a successful marketing team.

Building an award-winning marketing team is no mean feat, not least when you’re hit with a pandemic that puts your entire business on pause.

That was the case for luxury cabin and lodge business Forest Holidays, which was embarking on a transformation project just as the UK when into lockdown in March 2020. The brand had devised an ambitious plan to address its low consumer awareness, absence of a central data solution and poorly structured digital platform. The work kicked off in earnest, only for the business to be forced to shut down as domestic tourism was mothballed.

With team members furloughed and ongoing uncertainty about when the restrictions might lift, Forest Holidays pushed ahead with its transformation agenda. It devised a new brand positioning and built a digital trading platform under its internal Project Rush initiative, as well as refining every aspect of its creative execution.

The team developed a new brand toolkit, which was delivered to its 800 team members through inductions and masterclasses, while key skills were in-housed and fresh talent brought into marketing from the wider organisation.

The changes were significant, helping Forest Holidays achieve the best commercial return in its history. Given the experiences gained over the past 18 months, the marketers have valuable insight to share on how to build a high functioning team.

This Much I Learned: Forest Holidays on crafting a ‘naturally driven’ team

1. Clarity is king

Head of brand purpose Gemma Chance explains that at the start of the Covid crisis Forest Holidays was in a “great position” because it knew what it needed to fix.

“We’d got a good starting point but to develop a new brand, website and to move to a new data analytics platform all at the same time are mammoth tasks on their own,” she points out.

“I can remember our commercial director saying: ‘I’ve done all three of these things but I’ve never done all three of these things together at the same time and during a global pandemic’.”

She explains the scale of the task forced the team to be clear on the vision and focus on how their capabilities matched the broad commercial objectives. To get into the detail, Forest Holidays built a commercial competency framework to review the skills in the business, drilling down into key pillars of expertise from performance marketing and brand purpose, to web and pricing.

“What this helped us to do is not just to identify gaps in skills, but we also found we had little pockets across the team where roles had evolved and people had almost ended up with remits that were too broad,” says Chance.

“There was a real opportunity to become more specialised to increase our effectiveness.”

2. Be expert driven

Head of performance marketing Michelle Tassi had been at the company for more than six years when the pandemic hit. With responsibility for both performance marketing and the website, her remit had become “enormous”.

“I absolutely recognised that my remit was too broad and this gave me an opportunity to really focus in on performance marketing and identify which skills I needed within the team, as well as Kate [Mitchell, head of digital trading] coming into the business to focus on what she needed in terms of website skill,” Tassi explains.

She noticed several other people in the business had similar broad roles and there was a need to become more expert driven. Tassi divided her team structure into key critical areas, around data, acquisition and retention. When it came to paid media, Forest Holidays had historically relied on agencies, which had proved costly. Keen to become more fleet of foot, in-housing paid media was Tassi’s key priority.

“Since doing that within the last year we’ve made a significant difference in cost savings and efficiency, as well as educating the business more on paid media,” she explains.

Chance agrees that creatively the brand had also been reliant on the support of agencies and freelancers. To rectify this, Forest Holidays brought copywriting and graphic design skills in house, a decision she describes as a “gamechanger”.

“We’ve now created this brand team, which is almost like an internal agency, serving the web team, serving our performance marketing team. That’s been crucial to enable us to react and innovate with our comms and our creative assets,” says Chance.

3. Back the vision

The fact Forest Holidays pressed ahead with its Project Rush digital transformation project was testament to the faith the team had in the vision. Kate Mitchell joined the business in November 2020 from DW Sports as head of digital trading, tasked with making Project Rush a reality.

“What I was brought here to do was around that sole purpose of developing a focused trading team with UX specialists, having done that in a number of roles in retail,” she explains.

“I was really the last piece of the puzzle in terms of that really focused capability. Michelle was already forging ahead with her paid marketing strategy, Gemma in brand.”

Mitchell believes bringing that digital capability in-house was a powerful way to kick on with Project Rush. One of her team, for example, is from a retail background and decided to leave the world of big corporates when she saw the mission and its commercial opportunity.

The objectives of Project Rush were to deliver an “evolved brand experience” that remained true to the Forest Holidays identity, while also providing a clear framework to engage new and existing customers through an enhanced user experience.

I absolutely recognised that my remit was too broad and this gave me an opportunity to really focus in on performance marketing and identify which skills I needed within the team.

Michelle Tassi, Forest Holidays

“Prior to Covid the business was acutely aware that as well as needing to restructure the team around pillars of expertise, technically we weren’t structured for rapid growth and focused growth, and we were lagging behind in terms of brand awareness and digital capability,” Mitchell explains.

To ensure the vision landed at board level, Forest Holidays hired former Soho House and Tog chief information officer Peter Anderson as chief technology officer.

Tassi believes the fact the company even continued with Project Rush demonstrated bravery and the optimism the leaders felt for the future as Forest Holidays, despite the Covid crisis.

“This project gave us an absolute focus and demonstrated that we wanted to succeed no matter what, despite all the challenges we faced in the sector,” she adds.

At the onset of the crisis, the business identified key people needed to deliver both the Covid comms, the marketing strategy and Project Rush. Tassi explains some people were involved in this project who wouldn’t necessarily have been included pre-Covid.

“One of the project managers who was absolutely brilliant was from our planning team that looks at new locations, so his expertise in being able to plan such a massive project was critical,” she says.

“What we found was because we had this focus as a business, we were incredibly efficient and productive, because we had very clear understanding of what our deliverables were and our timings.”

4. Talent spot

Alongside bringing in the necessary skills needed to push the business forward, Forest Holidays has also focused on developing “grassroots talent”.

Chance explains that this year several executive level employees have completed apprenticeships, while other team members have taken part in the company-wide leadership academy. This year the academy ran a project around retention and loyalty, the insights from which the business plans to take forward.

“We’ve got a couple of great success stories of individuals who have started in our contact centre in customer service facing roles and they now manage our social media channel, work in IT or are working in ecology monitoring,” Chance adds. “Some really great stories of success and that’s so important to us as a business.”

5. Prioritise open communication

Tassi, Mitchell and Chance all agree the Forest Holidays culture is a big reason why the team has been able to flourish amid the challenges of Covid-19.

Despite people being furloughed at the onset of the pandemic, the business ran weekly company-wide virtual huddles. During these sessions the marketers updated the business on the progress of Project Rush, wider performance and the Covid strategy, while also opening up the floor to questions.

Mitchell explains the business’s relatively flat structure means everyone’s opinion and contribution is recognised. She believes this approach creates accountability and ownership at all levels of the team, because everyone understands how they make a difference.

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“A great example is the trading squad we’ve recently implemented. That’s a multi-disciplinary team of experts who work in our individual organisations, but they all come together to make really important decisions and they have the autonomy to do that,” says Mitchell.

“Whether that be around trading messaging or content changes, pricing, email or paid media strategies. They can take ownership of that and know that they’ve got our full support in terms of forging ahead and delivering.”

Tassi agrees it is imperative to have shared objectives and clear KPIs, which demonstrate how you are contributing to the business. She believes being transparent about what’s working, as well as what isn’t, has brought the team closer together.

For Chance, being on the same page is the hallmark of a high performing team. She explains the company has worked hard to keep its brand essence at the centre of everything, an agenda that starts from the top down.

6. Appreciate the individual

Another characteristic of a successful team is flexibility and not being afraid to adapt, says Mitchell.

Prior to Covid the role at Forest Holidays would have been out of the question given she lives 100 miles away from the office. However, the way the business has adapted to remote working has enabled it to hire “a team of experts” spread across the country, opening up a nationwide talent pool.

Despite being located across the UK, the team come together every two weeks to catch up face-to-face and have critical meetings that are better conducted in the office.

In addition, every new person who joins Forest Holidays is given what’s called an insights discovery profile. These profiles explain the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as how they prefer to work and be communicated with.

“We know exactly what type of person each individual is, but we use that to really help us get the best out of each other,” Tassi adds. “We have a really open and honest culture, and we encourage everybody to challenge at all levels, but also to embrace their differences as well.”

Marketing Week will be publishing a podcast with the Forest Holidays marketing team later this week.



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