Single, 30, millionaire son of a Greek shipping magnate, with homes
in Monte Carlo, Athens and London, Stelios Haji-Ioannou has all the
credentials of an archetypal playboy. But you won’t catch him sipping
champagne when he flies first or business class. That’s because EasyJet,
the controversial airline he founded two years ago, runs single-class
jets with no free drinks or food.
’Stelios’ - as he is known by staff and clients - thrives on
contradiction and surprise. The same man whose privileged background
allowed him to raise pounds 30 million to start an airline refuses to
have a secretary. His corner at EasyJet’s open-plan office at Luton
Airport is so undistinguished that a Japanese airline executive on a
trip to the UK asked to take a snapshot of his desk.
His management style - he insists that every memo or decision can be
accessed by all members of staff through computer terminals, only
salaries are secret - is as informal as the weekly Friday afternoon
barbecues for all staff.
There is no false modesty when he hears that Campaign wants to discuss
why he won the direct marketer of the year award at the recent UK Direct
awards in Jersey. Mild impatience, yes: he’s leaving for France in half
an hour and would rather be monitoring the telephone response to a new
travel offer through the Daily Mirror, which has so far elicited 18,000
calls a day. And he is also engrossed in the ongoing court proceedings
in Amsterdam which has pitted his airline in the David role against
It takes much pressing for Stelios to account for his recent award: ’I
suppose I have proved direct marketing can work in an industry in which
everyone said it couldn’t,’ he concedes.
He is referring mainly to the British Airways axiom: you can’t sell
seats without tour operators. But as John Watson, chairman of the judges
of UK Direct, says: ’He has taken all the conventions in the travel
trade and turned them on their heads.’
In fact, EasyJet is built entirely on a direct proposition: a
combination of low prices, low ground costs (flying from Luton, not
Heathrow) no tickets, no travel agents, no network tie-ups, no on-board
food (’If you want a meal, go to a restaurant,’ says one ad) and no
fancy staff togs (crew wear orange sweatshirts and jeans).
’The message is that customers can fly cheaper and we try to explain
why. We can monitor the message directly,’ he adds, pointing to the
150-plus telephone operators behind him who work on commission-only and
operate 24 hours a day.
’What appealed to the judges is the phone number on the side of the
plane,’ says Watson, referring to the 0990 29 29 29 number that is
emblazoned along the fuselage of the bright orange planes.
All the press ads - the pounds 4 million campaign uses lines written by
Stelios and his staff while local agencies handle media placement -
carry a number depending on where it appears. ’We can measure which
media gives us better value in sales terms,’ he says.
The marketing strategy strives to establish a direct connection with the
audience. Sometimes these are planned, as in the link-up with Tottenham
Hotspur fans through the sponsorship of an EasyJet stand at White Hart
Lane and a special hotline number.
Other times, campaigns are opportunistic and cheeky responses to events
in the industry. During the recent strike action at British Airways,
EasyJet ran ads with the line: ’Our catering staff would never vote for
a strike. We don’t have any.’
Of greater importance are the ads running in the Dutch press to promote
fares on the Luton-to-Amsterdam flights in what is a direct challenge to
KLM and Air UK. EasyJet has succeeded in persuading the European
Commission that the KLM chairman should be investigated for deliberately
starting a predatory pricing war to drive EasyJet out of the Amsterdam
The proceedings, which Stelios is convinced will end in victory for
EasyJet following leaked information of incriminating memos written by
top KLM managers, could lead to a major PR coup.
Stelios’s ambitions to run an EasyJet operation out of Rotterdam reveal
a self-confidence that was nurtured by his background at the London
School of Economics and at City University.
He has already confounded the critics by running successful routes to
Scotland, Nice and Barcelona.
He claims EasyJet’s low prices led Air France to stop running its London
to Nice service, a claim furiously denied by an Air France
The next step is a pounds 500 million investment on a further 12 planes
which will allow EasyJet to carry up to six million passengers in the
next two years to new destinations including Athens and Geneva. ’We’ve
proved that lower prices can push up demand,’ says Stelios, who is quick
to point out that carriers such as ValuJet and Southwest Airlines set
the precedent for no-frills airlines in the US.
But it’s not just a case of imitation, a point that British Airways,
which is considering the launch of its own budget airline, may want to
note. The message has to be as effective as the costs are low. ’Direct
marketing is about results,’ Watson says. ’Someone who’s been so
successful so quickly must be doing something right.’