Bud Finlaw Takes On Internet Vacation-Booking Giants

Have Web, Will TravelBud Finlaw goes toe-to-toe with online vacation-booking giantsBy Lilly Rockwell

Nine years ago, Bud Finlaw saw opportunity in the Internet when his Panama City advertising company began to stall. With no office, a handful of computers and two employees, Finlaw opened an online travel-booking business that now rivals dot-com giants like Expedia, Priceline and Travelocity.

"We started out very small," Finlaw says of his company that today employs 250 and will soon open a new 25,000-square-foot complex near Panama City Beach’s burgeoning Pier Park shopping center.

BookIt.com is a fast-growing travel reservation Web site, specializing in vacation packages to exotic destinations, such as Mexico and Jamaica, and U.S. destinations that range from nearby Pensacola to California’s Lake Tahoe.

"We are not afraid of giants," Finlaw says of his best-known competitors. "We love the story of David and Goliath. Most of the giants we know are clumsy oafs."

Finlaw is an unlikely Internet pioneer. He attended college at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, and started out as a radio disc jockey at a local rock station. After working at the station’s ad sales department for several years, Finlaw opened his own advertising agency in 1982 and started catering to the area’s booming hotel industry in the early 1990s.

"He’s always been a marketing genius," says Jack Bishop, a longtime friend of Finlaw’s and the owner of four restaurants in Panama City Beach, including the popular beachside haunt, Breakers. One of Finlaw’s marketing tricks, Bishop says, was to obtain contact information for callers to the local tourist development council and send them an informational packet about his clients a day later.

"It was the first large agency, the first multimillion dollar agency homegrown in Panama City," Bishop says.

But Finlaw’s print-based advertising business was hit hard as the Internet began emerging as the preferred method of booking travel. His business revenues were suddenly cut in half. So Finlaw launched a new strategy: a Web site offering online hotel reservations for some of Florida’s top destinations. Bishop says he’s been able to "stay on the edge."

At first, Panama City area hotels were reluctant to try the service. So Finlaw targeted Orlando as his first market. Within a year, the company became the first online travel business to do $1 million worth of bookings with Walt Disney World.

After the success in Orlando, Finlaw targeted Destin and Panama City. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which brought Florida’s travel industry to a screeching halt for three solid months.
But, Finlaw says, this slow period translated into steeper discounts by online operators, and in the end, led more travelers to use the Internet to book reservations.

Another pivotal moment came in 2004 when he emptied his bank account to purchase the BookIt.com domain name to centralize myriad city-specific names.

Finlaw is keenly aware he’s up against much larger competitors, and looks for ways to keep customers coming. BookIt.com has offered free $50 gas cards and BlackBerry mobile devices to travelers. It also offers location-based pricing by pinpointing a user’s hometown region through an Internet protocol address and offering deals from a nearby airport.

Finlaw is modest about his success, chalking it up to entrepreneurial tenacity.

"When people quit is when you keep going," Finlaw says, repeating advice once given to him.

"There were some very, very tough lean years. But we kept plugging away," he adds. "We never lost faith in the idea that it was a good idea and that it was going to work."