Thinking Galapagos with Rachel Dex

Laura Dean

Laura Dean

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with our client Rachel Dex, founder of Think Galapagos. What started out with the intention of being a client-agency case study, turned out to be a delightful discussion about business, pandemic lessons, and my key take away – “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

Rachel enlightened me about enjoying the business you have instead of trying to take on more, doubling your risk, and diluting your client satisfaction. Our chat was filled with passion and anecdotes that made me proud we have Rachel as a client, and envious of the business she has built and the life she leads!

So, in an alternate take on our usual client case study, here’s how we helped Think Galapagos recover from the damage that the pandemic did to the tourism industry, and brought their website back from a disastrous drop in rankings that had the potential to close this wonderful small business.

But first, some background…

What is Think Galapagos?

To quote owner and founder Rachel Dex, Think Galapagos was an ‘accidental’ business that began from a passion project, keeping a link to South America after moving back to the UK.

Rachel had been living in Ecuador for 10 years, after a series of enviable career opportunities saw her travelling on yachts as a Mystery Shopper and working with a local business to help bring safaris to South America. I was only a little jealous (read: a lot) as Rachel talked about the time she met Sir David Attenborough on a beach in the Galapagos and explained how she had worked as a Foreign Correspondent, which helped her to build an expansive network of professionals in the region.

Key to Rachel’s business and personality is the ability to build lasting relationships, something that served her well when, together with her partner Santiago Bejarano, a Galapagos National Park guide, they started to organise bringing British photographers over to Ecuador on specialist birding tours.

After a change in circumstances brought Rachel back home to the UK, she found herself switching careers and exploring a role in PR & Marketing, but her knowledge and experience still had people coming to her to plan trips around South America. With a strong desire to keep the connection to Ecuador, she and Santiago launched Think Galapagos.

Starting modestly with a small website that she described as ‘homegrown’ with a ‘DIY feel’, they used the website to promote group trips initially. It wasn’t long before they started to get enquiries not just for tours, but for tailor-made holidays. Together with Santiago, Rachel began putting together bespoke trips using their excellent network and knowledge of South American tourism. Think Galapagos was born.

Word of mouth is the best form of marketing

Rachel admits that they did very little in the way of marketing and advertising Think Galapagos in the early days. This niche offering combined with Rachel and Santiago’s excellent customer service skills and their in-depth knowledge of South America and all the tours it has to offer, meant that quickly and organically Think Galapagos grew into a successful business. As the only dedicated UK specialist to offer this service, Rachel was getting regular enquiries and seeing an increase in visitors to their website. Think Galapagos were also servicing 25% of clients that had enquired internationally. It’s fair to say their ‘DIY’ website was performing well!

Website evolution

As most readers will know, the importance of mobile responsiveness on websites has become increasingly evident, and Rachel was also keen to introduce a content management system that would allow her and her small team to regularly update her website.

Speaking from an agency perspective, we love to work with clients who understand the benefit of marketing and we’re especially fortunate that Rachel has a background that means she understood the value that making these changes to her site would bring.

Branding is not just external

In 2010, recognising the need for a strong visual identity and keen to put her stamp on it, Rachel was delighted to work with established Ecuadorian visual artist Belen Mena, to bring the Think Galapagos brand to life.

Like music to any marketer’s ears, Rachel spoke passionately about the role that branding plays. “I was so pleased that Belen agreed to do our visual identity. It’s not just the colours and images that you share externally, but the values that you bring and the way that your business operates. Belen did an amazing job of visually representing Think Galapagos and we were so pleased to work with a local graphic designer.”

The next step was to build a new website. Although Rachel was incredibly fond of her ‘homegrown’ style site and the work that her web developer had done so far, it was important that she improved the client experience with an updated site, mobile responsiveness, and new features that would enable her to better manage the content.

It was this part in our conversation where Rachel shared a problem that no client has ever mentioned before. She had too many leads. The website was a solid build and was performing exceptionally well in SERP. An unlikely problem to have, but Rachel’s focus was on providing that personal touch. “I get to know each and every client very well. That’s how I can plan amazing trips that are perfectly tailored to their needs. If I have too many clients, I can’t give them all that same level of service.”

Finding the right fit

A labour of love, Rachel found a full service agency and spent 12 months working on building a new website, which finally launched in 2019. Think Galapagos had been performing exceptionally well and Rachel was excited to have a new website that represented the next phase of the business.

She shared, “unfortunately the new website was not what I wanted. Once it was built, it didn’t look visually how I had hoped, and to make matters worse, it really didn’t perform.”

She continued, “my previous website had performed so well, and I was often the number one result for many of the relevant business terms, including ‘Galapagos Holidays’. The new site completely disappeared from the rankings and the impact to my business was catastrophic.”

Rachel had gone from one extreme to the other; receiving too many enquiries, to only those that came from referrals. Her business had halved with the launch of her new website. The world soon entered the global pandemic and Rachel was left with suppliers holding funds and clients that needed immediate refunds for their now cancelled trips.

Rachel looked back with a positive outlook, saying “although I was very disappointed about the new website, it turned out to be a saviour, because it meant that I had less bookings that needed to be refunded when all travel was stopped.”

Recalling the real point of difference for Think Galapagos, Rachel felt fortunate that her business model meant she had built up a level of trust and ongoing relationships with her clients that meant very few actually requested refunds. Instead, most of them chose to reschedule their holidays, which saved Think Galapagos and Rachel from the financial burden of the unexpected situation that Covid-19 brought. More than three years later, it was only in August 2023 that her last rescheduled holiday took place, after some clients had been forced to rearrange twice.

Shifting Focus

Recognising that the tourism industry was recovering more quickly for the US market, Rachel was keen to pivot and quickly planned for internationalisation. Working with the Department for International Trade (now Department for Business & Trade, or DBT), she was able to secure a grant to internationalise Think Galapagos.

She shared, “diversification of my client base saved my business. The US market began travelling again much sooner than the UK market, and I also identified that English speaking countries such as Canada and Australia were interested in booking trips with me. I knew I needed to build specific landing pages to reach those visitors.”

Left slightly hesitant after her previous website/agency experience, Rachel signed up to a workshop with the DIT and it was there that she met Browndog Director, Alexis Bradbury.

Throughout the pandemic, Alexis had worked with the DIT to develop and lead workshops that focused on helping local businesses to recover and learn new skills in Digital Marketing. He commented, “the pandemic really highlighted the need for digitising your business. We were inundated with organisations that suddenly realised the value of digital marketing and it served as a great catalyst for business transformation. So many businesses realised that having a strong online presence was no longer a luxury, but a strategic necessity that would help them survive and thrive throughout uncertain times.”

Rachel shared the realisation that she felt she had no choice but to rebuild her website, despite the investment that she had made in her recently launched site. She spoke kindly about meeting Alexis, “Alexis led the workshop and I was very impressed. I liked that he had a local, Yorkshire agency. I appreciated his approach, frankness, pragmatism and creativity. Most of all, he seemed like a nice guy that I felt I could work with.”

Working with Browndog Agency

A partnership began. As we were navigating the choppy waters of the pandemic that threw the team into hectic work schedules, desperately trying to get businesses online and improve their digital presence, Think Galapagos joined our rapidly growing community of clients.

Rachel worked closely with the Browndog team to materialise the exact look and feel for her website that she’d hoped for back in 2019. She explained the difficulty of the process, “it’s hard to visualise and create what you have in your head. I wanted to choose a font that was friendly but professional; I needed to make sure that the colour and designs portrayed the right visual message that represented what we are about at Think Galapagos.”

Speaking highly of designer and developer Sam, and project manager Eleanor, Rachel added, “Sam was so patient. When we first began exploring the visuals it didn’t feel like the brand I had envisioned. We continued to work together to get it just right, and Eleanor made sure that everything went smoothly so the process was quite painless once we got started!”

Commenting on the collaborative nature of the project, “due to the pandemic, the build took longer than I’d have liked, but we had open and frank discussions about the challenges we faced and I was really happy with the ideas that the team had for my site. We all worked closely together to achieve the look and feel that I had imagined.”

Online Success

After a successful site launch and the lifting of travel bans, Think Galapagos is “running at full speed” and back to exceeding expectations with a constant stream of enquiries. Reaching a global audience with dedicated sites for the UK, Australia, Canada, and the USA, the website is now enjoying annual visitors of over 29k, compared to just over 9k in 2019.

Commenting on the performance of the website since launching, Rachel shared, “last year was my best ever trading year. I’ve found the team at Browndog easy to work with, really responsive, and with the hosting package, I have no need to worry about my website being safe and secure.”

The right audience

When it comes to marketing strategy, Rachel’s focus is on providing high quality content (which as we know, is great for SEO), and building relationships to provide the best experiences for her clients.

It’s testament to her excellent reputation, knowledge and customer service that Rachel still does not need to proactively advertise her business. She spoke candidly, sharing “in the beginning I tried PPC, but it wasn’t for me. I could certainly see the benefit as it brought in so many enquiries, but those people were at the wrong stage in their journey and they rarely made a booking. By relying on my site’s organic performance to attract users who are at a more mature stage in their journey, I can manage their enquiry more efficiently and more than 90% lead to a booking.”

In closing, Rachel shared that her clients really like her website. “It’s well laid out and designed, providing all the information they need to conduct their own research before they’re ready to make a serious enquiry.”

A simple contact form helps Rachel to manage the steady flow of enquiries that she receives directly from the website, leaving her time to design and create the holiday of her clients’ dreams!

What’s next?

Rachel’s response to the question of ‘what next?” was refreshing. She shared, “I have no plans to grow. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The pandemic was a lesson to us all – if my business had been booming when travel was stopped, I might not have recovered.”

She continued, “now I’m focused on getting to know my clients so that I can provide them with exactly what they want. I wouldn’t want to take on more because I wouldn’t be able to maintain that level of service and personal touch that sets me apart from others in the industry. I’m happy with where Think Galapagos is now.”

What Rachel is doing is clearly working, and this is proven by her highly satisfied clients, which has resulted in Think Galapagos being awarded the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Award in 2020, 2022, and 2023!

It was a truly fascinating discussion about overcoming uncertainty, pivoting in times of crisis, and the value that having a great working relationship between agency and client offers. I’m excited to continue working with Think Galapagos and very much hope to become a client one day!

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