Most developers build a site, increase readership and then sell advertising space. Unless you own an ultra-premium geographic domain name like FrenchRiviera.com, in which case the brand alone is enough to set up meetings with some of the most exclusive potential advertisers in the region.
After a career of more than 25 years with institutional grade retail shopping centers in central Florida, including Target, Albertson’s, Staples, Home Depot, Lowe’s and others, Hardy has turned his attention on virtual real estate, with more than 7,000+ domain names and a Riviera domain name portfolio unmatched by anyone.
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Here’s your program.
Michael Cyger: Hey everyone. My name is Michael Cyger, and I’m the Publisher of DomainSherpa.com – the website where you come to learn how to become a successful domain name entrepreneur directly from the experts.
For people that love to launch new products, website services, or offerings, today’s show is sexy, interesting, and exciting. It’s sexy because it involves building out a geodomain in one of the most affluent areas of the world – The French Riviera. We’re going to learn about a brand new offering – FrenchRiviera.com – how it was acquired, what plans are for development, how revenue will be generated, and how branding will be accomplished. Joining us to share his strategy and tactics is Toby Hardy – the Chief Executive Officer of FrenchRiviera.com Media Group. Toby, welcome to the show.
Toby Hardy: Michael, it’s delightful. I’m glad you extended the invitation.
Michael: Toby, for those watching the show that have heard of French Riviera but don’t know exactly where it is, where is the French Riviera?
Toby: Southern France. It actually goes from the Italian border on the East all the way West, some would say, to Saint Tropez; and others would say even further West to Marseilles.
Michael: So it’s basically a region. It’s not a country. It’s not a region within one particular country. Well, it is within France, but it actually includes Monaco, which is its own little entity.
Toby: It is a Principality. About thirty thousand in population. Very lucrative, tax free environment. Prince Albert II is the current ruler of the Principality and it’s very tiny. And there’s more buildings and they can use every square inch of that real estate like I’ve never seen before.
Michael: Yeah, it’s amazing. Alright. So, South of France. No official boundary, but it extends from one area to another. Why is this area so desirable from a geodomain standpoint?
Toby: We had the opportunity to buy this site, or buy this name, three years ago. I had never been there. One of our team members had been there twice in their younger years if you will. But it was such an iconic brand worldwide that it was too good and too lucrative to pass up. I have been almost aged beyond my limits of how phenomenal the, as you said, affluence. But the beauty of the region, the history going back to the Romans and the Greeks; it’s just an area that is astounding.
Michael: Yeah. And so, I went to Wikipedia to look up some information. I saw that it’s an enormous population in the whole French Riviera; probably somewhere in a couple million range. Maybe more.
Toby: We’re using the two million mark plus or minus. Obviously seasonality plays into it.
Michael: Yeah, definitely.
Toby: You go back in years passed, the Brits would come down and would be in certain areas. And different groups from Europe would go there. Obviously the three hundred days of sunshine, if you ask all of the surveys, that is the number one driver why people go to The Riviera, believe it or not.
Michael: Well, I can believe it. Living up here in Seattle, that sounds pretty desirable to me on a lot of the days. So we got three hundred days of sunshine. I’ve read seventy-one miles of coastline and beaches. A bunch of golf courses. There’s ski resorts there also?
Toby: There are ski resorts within an hour and a half from Cannes or Nice. If you care to go up and ski in the century, the extension of the Swiss and France Alps.
Michael: Wow. And of course you mentioned Cannes, which has the Canned Film Festival.
Toby: Coming up next month.
Michael: Next month. I also read that according to the Development Agency out there, each year The Riviera hosts fifty percent of the world’s Super Yacht Fleet and ninety percent of all Super Yachts visiting the regions coast at least once in their lifetime. That’s just phenomenal. You’re not talking about just rich people or mega rich people. You’re talking about the ultra-rich people in the world, who own these Super Yachts, and they’re spending their time in The French Riviera.
Toby: I’m fascinated by that whole subject you bring up. Paul Allen, up very close to you there in Seattle, Co-Founder of Microsoft, has a big presence in the Mediterranean. Owns Octopus, which is a four hundred and twenty-three foot plus or minus beautiful yacht with two heliports on it. Has a team of X Navy Seals that essentially are his entourage, if you will, besides normal crew. He has a full time birth on tape at the big marina. And then the newest and greatest is Eclipse, which is Roman Abramovich – Russia; now in London – and owns the Chelsea Soccer Team, and he took delivery of that, I believe, in December 2010. And he just had it down in Saint Marteen for the big New Year celebration, and all the stars – George Lucas, Martha Stewart, and Bon Jovi, and all the others – were in attendance. And he had the Eclipse and his two other yachts there also to help in accommodations and what have you. It’s a little over five hundred feet. It is the longest yacht in the world. It has a anti-paparazzi laser. It has a submarine. It has, on the bridge and on the master suite, bulletproof glass. He has an anti-missile system on it. It is built for any kind of contingency you can imagine, but if you go up on Google you’ll see it. It’s an amazing ship.
Michael: Yeah, it sounds like it. So I also already another interesting piece of information about the people that go to that area. And I may have pulled it off one of our media kits. I can’t remember where I got it. But the people that travel to The French Riviera take, on average, three vacations a year. Was that an appropriate number?
Toby: Yes. And we went to a Luxury Travel Expo last December. One of the new innovations – it’s kind of coming on itself – is now it isn’t just three vacations a year, they’re doing maybe one of those three is multi-generational, which, in this case, would be your mom and dad, your children, and if you’re old enough, maybe your grandchildren. And you go in an entourage or a group of ten, maybe fifteen, people. So it becomes a new direction that you’re travel agency is heading.
Michael: Yeah, unbelievable. So, what kinds of things are people in this area – the end users of FrenchRiviera.com? What kind of companies would want to advertise to reach this type of market?
Toby: I’d have to go to kind of my shopping center experience years ago. The direction will be an institutional grade site. I want one of the bank cards, one of the airlines, whether it’s Air France, British Airways, American Express. Visa, or MasterCard, One of the cruise lines. And, again, this is for a home page, high visibility banner opportunity, and then the list goes on. You could be with Bose for the headsets. If you don’t have a GPS in your car in The Riviera, it’s very dangerous.
Michael: Alright. So, ultra-expensive. The getting there. How you spend your money. How you travel there and back. What kinds of amenities you want while you’re travelling there. And a lot of the restaurants, hotels, and services that are in The French Riviera.
Toby: The two big things in our site that’s very special is one, we offer three to twenty-one day itineraries. Never been there before. Maybe you’ve done a little research. But you don’t know what you’d like to do. Here’s an opportunity where we give you some ideas tailors to what your preferences are. The second thing is the Calendar of Events. We’re really looking for, down the line, it will be one of the, what we would call, Luxury Retail Advertisers – The LBMH. Hermes. David Yurman. People that have the means that would like to travel there; we think this is a great opportunity where they can do one-stop shopping and cover all those spaces.
Michael: Yeah. That makes sense. Alright, Toby, this sounds exciting. And I want to dig into all of the information. From when you bought the domain name, to how long you sat on it, to how you came up with the idea, and everything in the middle. But first I want to take a step back and find out what you were doing before you invested in The Riviera’s Internet Real Estate. So I went onto LinkedIn. I did some research like I always do. And I see that you used to be, or currently are – you tell me -, a real estate developer. Physical real estate.
Toby: For north of twenty-five, thirty years. I’ve lost track anymore. But came up through the ranks of being a real estate site selector for McDonalds. Had the privilege of working with Ray Kroc for a while, while he was alive. That was a tremendous experience. Graduated to working for Jerry Reinsdorf, in Chicago, before he owned the Bulls and the White Sox, and when it was a syndication company. And then went to Florida and said I’m going to do this on my own. And we ended up doing many, many centers close to two million square feet of retail. Did up to ten Targets, and eighteen Staples, and some Home Depots and what have you. And got into, if you will, the Big Box Arena, and it was a great experience. Great people. Great industry. Obviously the Weinman Brothers meltdown in 2008 had a huge effect on development that it literally came to a stop on all fronts. So, at the end of the day, I’ve just taken my skills from the shopping center industry and I find that they are very similar in the digital real estate environment. And we felt that this was a new Golden Age and we were going to jump on the train.
Michael: Alright. So let me unpack that a little bit. Let me ask you a more specific question. You worked with The Home Depot. You worked with Target. Did they approach you and say, ‘Toby, we need help selecting a new site in this zip code. We need you to find it. We need you to build it out’? How did that relationship work and what kind of services did you do for them?
Toby: You had to initiate that relationship and build it over the years. They had preferred developers. They had preferred tenant reps. But we went and got the business convincing them that we were, obviously, one of the best in the industry, and we were fortunate enough to get a lot assignments, and we had a wonderful run with it.
Michael: And what kind of work would you do for them?
Toby: Go out and determine where. Set whole strategic plans for markets. As an example, the Target and Staples were new market entries in Central Florida. We helped, essentially, recommended a market strategy by phase. Because you don’t do it all at one time. And getting permits in Florida is very, very difficult than many (Unclear 15:08.9). So you had to do a three, five year verizon, and we did that for that. We, in some cases, did build-a-suits, where we would actually be the developer by the land, go get the entitlements, and then we would end up building the building and they’d become a tenant.
Michael: Oh, wow.
Toby: And then we had small shops, and (Unclear 15:35.1), and it keeps going on and on.
Michael: Yeah. And did you, sometimes or always, do the strategy development for these companies as well? Did you go to Target and say, ‘Here’s a certain number of people in this area, in this demographic that you said that you wanted, and we think that this property would be great to serve that local area’?
Toby: Absolutely. But I have to say that Target, by example, had a tremendous market research team assisting their real estate directors and managers. So, in many cases, it was something that they may or may not have had on their radar screen that we then were able to underwrite it and demonstrate that to them of why that either was or was not a good decision.
Michael: Yeah. So you would really handle a lot of different scenarios in real estate development. From the customer knows exactly what they want, and they know the exact area and they just need you to locate something and build it out for them, and they’re paying it and they’re paying you your fee, all the way to you’ll take the risk and buy the property, and develop it out and then lease it back to them over a twenty, thirty, ongoing lease.
Toby: Exactly correct. And we will get the construction financing, and then get permanent financing. Because we were a long term hold. A lot of people will do merchant building, where they flip it before the paints dry; but that was not our style.
Michael: Yeah. Alright. So, all of that is interesting to understand because I think people can easily see the analogy between online development, where, say, you’ve identified a whole region in France that isn’t being served properly that if you were to get property online serving that area, and then you understand the strategy for reaching them, and how you want to build it out, and how you’re going to serve them. The direct analogy to real property in the physical world and online property, there’s an easy analogy to see there.
Toby: No question. But we really probably simplify it. We look that we’re the master digital virtual real estate billboard for the entire Riviera in the South of France, including Monaco. Instead of selling or building for the tenant bricks and mortar, we’re obviously now; because it’s a supply and demand market, Michael. I don’t know if a lot of people realize that. But when you’re in season over there, if you haven’t ordered your room or made your reservations way in advance – Villas, whatever it may be, Boat Charters -, you may not get the place on the dance card.
Toby: So, in that regard, the digital billboard we envision is still the very same thing. Versus bricks and mortar, it’s not online with IAB Banners and embedded throughout this site.
Michael: Right. So not only are you doing the real estate development that you were doing in the physical world in the past, but now you are the target as well. You are supplying the content. You are delivering what the people are looking for. And we’re going to talk about how you’re doing that with Fred Mercaldo a little bit later. But you mentioned you were doing real estate development. Then the recession hit in 2008/2009 and it continued for a number of years. We’re now 2012. Some people say that we’re starting to head out of it. What do you think from a real estate perspective living in Florida?
Toby: In ’04, we moved up here to Birmingham. They have the different lifestyle. Four seasons instead one hot or you end up with rain all the time and cloudy overcast. And I lived in Portland when I was in my Freshman and Sophomore year, and it got so bad I had to go Nevada. I couldn’t take it.
Michael: Some people just aren’t tough enough, Toby.
Toby: You’re a brave guy. But at the end of the day, we just felt like it was an opportunity that we just couldn’t pass up.
Toby: That’s all I can say about that.
Michael: Alright. So tell me how the economic downturn affected your physical real estate business and what happened to that business. Is it still operational today?
Toby: Well, we moved up in ’04. We just sold our last center. It closed in the middle of last year. We did attempt to try several developments here in Alabama. And we could see the storm clouds gaining strength if you will. Just never realized that the downturn would be that severe. But, basically, the world stopped. I don’t care if it was tenant interest. I don’t care if it was construction or permanent financing. It came to a halt. When I went to the International Council Shopping Center’s (ICSC) Annual May Convention in Las Vegas in 2007, there were fifty thousand plus attendees. When I was the Chairman of the Florida Real Estate Convention for ICSC – just for Florida -, we would have maybe fifteen to eighteen hundred people. In ’07, that was up to seven, eight thousand people.
Toby: So, after 2007, both on a regional level in Florida and all across the country internationally, it went from fifty. I understand in 08/09, they were about fifteen to twenty thousand people. It fell off that dramatically. You couldn’t give product away. But let me share one thing that’s very important here. Because I’ve never seen this in my entire real estate career. You had teams coming out of Corporate Real Estate America and their tenant reps go to landlords and getting, and requesting, and forcing in some cases, cramdowns for leases. As an example, you might have a lease with XYZ big box. It’s fifteen dollars a foot. You start it at twelve. At the end of the day, if you wanted them to extend either five or ten years because they were getting close to their lease term ending, you’d be down at ten, eleven dollars.
Toby: Quiznos had three teams out of Denver that would go around the country on behalf of their franchisees and get twenty to twenty-five percent rent reductions.
Toby: All kinds of things. I’ve never seen the real estate business be this brutal. And, from that, I feel you ask the question of whether we’re there or going to be back, I think it will be very fragile. I think it will be very tentative. Unless you’re a huge developer – probably one of the public companies like Simon, CBL; one of those great companies – that can borrow from the public market and have a far better way than, say, a small developer and they can bill for all cash, that’s the way we do it.
Michael: So are you currently doing any physical real estate, Toby?
Michael: How and why did you make the transition from physical real estate to Internet real estate? Like I understand why you stopped physical real estate, but how and why would you get into Internet real estate?
Toby: Just felt that from when we were collecting domains, when we started in the late ’90s and we did it as a hobby, and then it almost got us fixating. And it’s easy to start hand registering $8.95 names. You can be going all night long and all of a sudden your bill is a thousand bucks because you bought a lot of product in that regard. And at one time we were up to over six thousand names.
Toby: Crazy. And then we saw how tough, and long, and hard it is to build these. Because you’re building a city brick by brick.
Toby: It is tough. And I’ll have to give credit to Elliot Silver. Elliot told me three years ago. We were in a group, waiting at the lobby of a hotel in Hollywood during Domain Fest. And he just made a general conversation statement like, ‘Man, I don’t know’. He says, ‘It just seems like when you’re building these, it’s really hard work’. And he was building Burbank then. And that was remote. That’s across the United States. And it’s tough to do remote. So I think that we just felt like the digital age was coming. You went through that .COM bust in, what, 2000/2001. And it was time for it to come back and you saw all the tech industry get many successes. So we just felt that it was the new beginning, if you will, of a new era. And we jumped in with both feet. We really haven’t paid attention, like I said, to the bricks and mortar market. Because, quite frankly, even if you and I went and saw a site today, I don’t know. You might be doing it for a very, very thin margin because there’s twenty other people that’ll do it for cheaper than you and I would.
Michael: Right. Alright. So throughout your career you realized the value of property clearly. You started playing around with domain names online; registering them throughout the years. At one point you said six thousand domain names?
Michael: Do you have six thousand today? Or do you have more?
Toby: No. We’re probably between seven and eight thousand.
Michael: Seven and eight thousand. Are they all geographic related domain names? Or do you do brandables and generic words as well?
Toby: No. They’re about half and half. We have The Riviera portfolio and some of the other portfolios that we have assembled to dominate an entire region and/or market – it’s about four hundred. And then we have others like PreOwnedJets.com; ExecutiveJetCharter. Some day we think Rick Schwartz, down in Miami, has got a great saying. “If you’re going to make money in this business, you got to be real patient.” So that’s kind of our doctrine here. And if my grandchildren end up developing them so be it. If not, they’ll give it to their children. They’re great names, but we called the herd.
Michael: Yeah, definitely. So you own more than just FrenchRiviera.com. We’re going to talk about that. You own a lot of Rivieras. Is that correct?
Toby: Yes we do.
Michael: What are some of the other Rivieras that you own. I wasn’t even aware that there were other Rivieras.
Toby: Well, we thought if The French Riviera has such a dramatic effect in that region that there had to be a reason that the Mediterranean was so unique, if you will, and had its mystique and its allure. So we went around and we essentially control all, but one, Riviera name. And we have Israeli, and Israel, and Tel Aviv, and Greek, and Spanish, and Espana. Barcelona Riviera, which if Sheldon Adelson with Las Vegas Sands builds his nine casinos for thirty-five billion dollars in the next five, seven years, it’ll be a nice win-win for us.
Michael: So do people in the area say, ‘I’m going to the Greek Riviera, or I’m going to the Israeli Riviera’? Or are you sort of scoping these out long term?
Toby: Yeah. I was going more for the Mediterranean in the water. The Israeli, if you will, and North Africa. Well, of course, you’ve had the Libya, the Arab Spring and all that, so it’s not in development mode right now. But Greek, yes. Spanish, yes. And I’ll tell you who comes to Spain. It’s people that are in Europe – many of them – that can’t afford The French Riviera. It becomes more of the, what I call, middle of the bell curve of people who want the sunshine, but it’s a lot lower priced. Fred was saying that he had very dear friends that had just gone to Barcelona. Dinners were ten to fifteen Euros, where for us it was eighteen to thirty-five. The price differential is just so much less expensive in Spain. But if we just get Greek and Spanish, and what have you, I mean I’m looking at it. It’ll take three to five years to build all that out.
Michael: Yeah. Definitely. So did The Riviera portfolio come together after you purchased FrenchRiviera.com? Or were you acquiring other Rivieras before that?
Toby: No. That stimulated the whole idea of dominating the market.
Michael: Yeah. And so, you stated earlier that you bought FrenchRiviera.com from Elliot Silver?
Toby: Not from Elliot. No. From Latona.
Michael: Oh, from Latona. I’m sorry.
Toby: I don’t know what that arrangement was – Elliot had him selling it or Rich had bought it -, but we ended up buying it from Latona. Actually, the night before President Obama’s Inauguration.
Michael: Oh, wow. And how much did you pay for FrenchRiviera.com?
Toby: Let’s say north of a hundred thousand.
Michael: Alright. Fair enough. I try and ask those questions with as much of a straight face as I can, Toby. So I appreciate you being as honest as you can. So north of a hundred thousand. Alright.
Toby: Well, I’ll give you a where I think the business is going.
Toby: You saw the PrivateJet.com sale recently by chance.
Michael: I did. But I don’t remember. Was that a public number that came out?
Toby: It was. But it was purchased in 2009 on Sedo for three hundred and seventy-five thousand. They just sold it February of this year for 30.18 million dollars. And that is a function of, obviously, having great business and income streams, and the multiples are off the chart.
Michael: Right. And to be honest, that was a domain name with a website and a full business. They had revenue. They had income or earnings.
Toby: Yeah. But I have no clue. I suspect that, Michael, but I don’t have the exact knowledge that that was all the way correct. I don’t know if it was partial. In fact, there was a press release that said that the new owners were going to redo the site. So that would be a big number to pay and then start doing a rehall on it.
Michael: Definitely. So one you bought FrenchRiviera.com, you decided to go after all the other Rivieras. Were you able to hand register some of them? Did you have to buy all of them from other domain name owners and negotiate each one individually? How did that shake out?
Toby: We negotiated Greek and Spanish, I believe it was, and then we hand registered everything else.
Toby: We have Rivieras all over the world. It isn’t just in the Mediterranean.
Michael: Yeah, I can imagine. And so, did you do those negotiations yourself? Contact the owners – the registrants – of the domain name yourself? Or did you hire somebody to go do that for you?
Toby: No, we did that. It was internally done with our team.
Michael: Okay. How big is your team? What is your team right now for your media group?
Toby: Well, within our family, we’ve got five share holders. We have really using Fred and his team out in Scottsdale for not only development, but to operate it; to help us with content. We have independent writers that we have retained that have supplied unique content independent of what Fred did that those folks are doing. But I’ve really outsourced a wide share of what we do on any front.
Michael: Yeah. And so, it’s mainly a family run business.
Michael: Okay. And when you say family, is that like you, your wife, your kids? Or is that you, your brother; you, your parents? How does that shake out?
Toby: It would be my wife and I, and some of our children. And our son-in-law. And we just kind of kept it close knit. We kind of got our education on the guantlet with sun tan. And worked that hard for two years. And so, we got the education we needed. But now, when we need help, we’ll go out and source it. I don’t want big overheads. I want to move, shoot, and communicate – an old term from my Cobra Gunship Helicopter days.
Michael: Yes. I saw that also. So you said you cut your teeth on SunTan.com. You actually own SunTan.com. Is that correct?
Toby: That is right.
Michael: Okay. Or your media group. And so, you decided to buy that domain name, you developed our the website yourself, you had the content written, and now you publish it and run that as one of your portfolio companies.
Toby: Yeah. I will say that David and Michael Costello are limited partners with us on that. We actually acquired it from them. Right now we’re having Fred completely do a whole revamp with the site. They will run it and operate it. And really go after the outdoor, if you will, industries – the Johnson & Johnson. The merks of the world that have sunscreen and sun products.
Michael: Yeah. Fantastic. Well, that’s a nice tie in with the Rivieras as well.
Toby: Well, let me tell you. That was a real – I won’t say – shock, but I was blown away by how many sun worshipers are on that beach. And one is on our site of one of the leader board flash photos. And people love the sun. They use the proper sunscreen it appears. But they tan up over there. They go for that timid, like you and I are kind of on the white side. We’re toned down. They go the other way over there.
Michael: Yeah. I went to that website. I saw the picture of the hand shadow on people lying out. People need to go to SunTan.com to look at the pictures over there. It’s pretty funny. So that website has been up and running for how long roughly?
Toby: We got it going summer of ’09.
Michael: Okay. So a few years. Are you able to monetize that website well right now?
Toby: Not as well as I’d like to.
Michael: Okay. Have you received payback on the acquisition of the domain name?
Toby: Not yet.
Michael: Okay. So you’re looking for Fred Mercaldo and his Cities Planet team to really revitalize the website content, and functionality, and drive more strategic partners.
Toby: Exactly. And we really focused a couple years on the indoor tanning industry. And just felt that at the end of the day, a much broader market is Coppertone, and Aveeno, and Oakley Sunglasses, and Patron Tequila, and the different beers, and the Vitamin Waters, and anything that you would do on the outside. We just think that’s a bigger market. The reason we didn’t go to that originally is it’s so fragmented. The reason I say that is, if you and I were in Seattle in business together, in that business probably everybody we would have to see would have to be site-specific meeting with that individual retailer or industry user. And that’s one of the beautiful things of these conventions; is you can see multiple parties and multiple prospects. In that business, it is fragmented and you have to search it out.
Toby: So we have now decided that while as hard as that is to climb, we feel that that’s the proper way to go. Because it’s just a much larger industry all the way across.
Michael: Yeah. Well, great tip for anybody trying to build out a generic or geodomain and trying to reach all of those people. Because it is so fragmented, the people that would potentially advertise or sponsor that, you need to try and focus your energies best. And that can be done through conferences, expos, and things of that nature.
Toby: No question. Like we did the GeoPublishers. I will say this. SunTan – we were very successful in getting two registered trademarks, which we think is kind of like the seal of good housekeeping if you will. And any site that we build to the best of our ability, we will exhaust all avenues to get registered trademarks.
Michael: Alright. So I’m going to ask you. That wasn’t on my list and I’ve got a ton of questions for you, Toby. But that’s one of the questions that I deal with personally. How do you trademark a generic word?
Toby: Very tough.
Michael: Yeah. I’ve done it myself recently and I got rejected recently.
Toby: Not only do you have to have great council, but there’s a lot of precedent that’s against you on the generic names. So if you can get the .COM with it. I mean, we didn’t get SunTan, if you will. We got SunTan.com.
Toby: And obviously with the products that we sell and the like. So if you can get it, by all means. Michael, I would recommend anybody in this business to do that to the extent that they can make it happen.
Michael: No, I fully agree. I have a trademark for DomainSherpa. I have a trademark for some of my other media companies. And I try to do it whenever possible. It just protects your assets and adds more value.
Michael: So when you purchased FrenchRiviera.com three years ago I think you said. Is that correct?
Michael: When you purchased it three years ago, how much of a business plan was in your mind or on paper when you acquired the domain name?
Michael: Absolutely none?
Toby: None. It was too good of an iconic worldwide brand. And one thing Michael and David keep pounding into our heads is brand, brand, brand. And it was essentially the equivalent of having the best real estate in New York City. And we all know where that is – in Times Square or up there on the park. And I’ve never been to that region. It was just such an incredible brand. I said it’s got to be good and I have been absolutely blown away of how so much more powerful it is in breath and depth; and it’s beyond my wildest dreams.
Michael: Yeah. So, you didn’t do any planning? You didn’t say, ‘Let me go out and see which brands – which domain names – are currently dominating this market’?
Toby: No. Because .COM is king.
Michael: .COM is king.
Toby: .COM is king and I’ll show you a good example. I don’t know if you can see it. This is the Air France Magazine along with their Madame, which is their fashion magazine. And then you have Carlton, and you have Cote. Over in The Riviera, they do a lot of beautiful, beautiful print in big magazines that are heavy, and an inch thick and alike. But here’s the thing that’s the real telltale sign of whether you’re on the right track or not. When you go through this magazine, over ninety percent are .COM. And the majority of these are from Europe. Not the US, but from Europe. So if those folks are in .COM, I know that that’s the Gold Standard.
Michael: Yeah. So even those people that are in Europe, that are in France, that are publishing their marketing materials, they’re not putting CompanyName.fr – for France -, ninety percent of them are putting CompanyName.com.
Toby: No question.
Michael: Because they want to reach a worldwide audience, not just the French market.
Toby: No question. Louis Vuitton. Dior. Chanel. Hermes. It goes on and on. Now, you’ll get some that’ll do .IT for Italy. You’ll do a few that are .FR. But go to the watches. I’ve been fascinated in The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal of how timepieces are advertised along with jewelry over the last, say, hundred and eighty days – obviously leading up to Christmas and the holidays. But these timepieces have taken a life of their own. And the line share of those folks are .COM.
Michael: Yeah, definitely. So, you bought the domain name and then three years passed before you launched FrenchRiviera.com. Is that correct?
Toby: That is correct.
Michael: Okay. So, what did you do in those three years after you bought the domain name and before you launched?
Toby: Well, the two years from when we bought it, we were still really heavily engaged in development, and operation, and roll out of SunTan. And then we spent the last year in research of The Riviera and we so amazed of how, again, incredible this market is and how amazing it is in all fronts that we decided that this was good time economic-wise or the economy wise. People say the Euro zone has got to be burning that down and Spain got its problems with youth unemployment – eighteen to twenty-four. I think it’s more close to fifty percent. Overall, their unemployment rate, I think the latest, was twenty-three, twenty-four percent. Tourism is going to be one of the big drivers. And that’s where the hotels, at least during our recent almost two week trip over there, we were welcomed on all fronts very warmly to start in negotiations to get the Luxury Hotel properties on the sites. So there’s a silver lining in everything and at the end of the day, if the world was great over there, they might not be as excited about coming onboard with us. And I will have to say that the big four hotels in Monte Carlo. That is a public company registered on the Paris Stock Exchange. Their 2011 vacancy was fifty-four percent. Their occupancy was fifty-four percent.
Toby: So, that’s not anywhere near they need to be, so that’s a good example of where not only on the hospitality side, but on the gaming side that there’s been a retreat. And that’s the silver lining for us that we can help those folks out.
Michael: Yeah. Okay. So, fast forward to October 2011. You and I met. We sat a table together at the GeoPublishers Conference in Chicago.
Toby: That is correct.
Michael: And Fred Mercaldo, runs Cities Planets – he’s currently the President, I think, of GeoDomain Publishers; GeoDomain Development Ventures he runs. And so, you met Fred for the first time at that conference?
Toby: That is right.
Michael: And so, between October and January, you and Fred decided that you liked each other and trusted each other enough to work together to launch FrenchRiviera.com in its current form and to setup a travel schedule to go to The French Riviera for twelve or fourteen days.
Toby: That is correct. But I will say that Fred and I, and his team, and our team were communicating for two and a half years previously over the phone or via e-mail. So we were romanced by many, many fine development companies out there. At the end of the day, we felt that Fred’s extensive experience of seven plus years in the Travel Industry and what works, what doesn’t work. And we get along great. We’ve had a marvelous relationship. They’re very professional in how they approach the business and they like to have some fun along with the hard work. But Fred and I spent an hour or so in the bar there in Chicago. One lady being mapped out a strategy, but I’ve always had a saying, Michael, that I make my mind up about somebody in about ten minutes.
Toby: That’s just been instinctively one of my strong suites for all of my career. And I’m not always correct, but nine times out of ten I can normally hit the ball in the right end of the part.
Michael: Yeah. And for anybody that doesn’t know Fred Mercaldo, I interviewed Fred probably two or three months ago. Search for Fred on DomainSherpa. You’ll bring up his interview. You can spend an hour with Fred and understand City-in-a-Box and all the other great experience that Fred has in developing out geodomains. So you partnered with Fred. You sat down for an hour in the bar and strategized. What was that initial strategy that you came up with?
Toby: Believe it or not, he was blown away with my passion and my excitement for the market. He almost had to go back to Phoenix and sleep on that a while, but we have been so excited about this market and it was like a kid in a candy store. You didn’t know which candybar to grab first.
Michael: It’s true. For those of us that are so US centric, and I hate to classify myself as being US centric, but I am. Because I’ve only travelled around the world a few times, and not even to all the different countries. And so, until you start digging into the research on The French Riviera and that whole area, you don’t become as excited as I think you were probably at that time and Fred was after he had that meeting with you.
Toby: I remember having breakfast with him the next morning before he had to leave and gave him several periodical, and maps, and what have you. And after he got home and absorbed all that, it started to really sink in of how incredible the market was. It was an opportunity. He did Tuscany, that launched first of the year. And that is a region in its own, and is very exciting, and very high on many, many folk’s list to go.
Toby: It was funny. Someone told me that Arnold Palmer. And he used to fly his own citation tin and, of course, as successful as Arnold has been, somebody asked him what he still needed to do on his bucket list. And the bucket list number one was go to The Riviera. I was amazed that this old man in his age would find that that would be exciting. But you mentioned the Cannes Film Festival and then you got the Formula One Grand Prix. You have three Yacht Shows on Team Cannes and Monte Carlo. You have Carnival in Nice. And the list goes on. So it’s just the most phenomenal market and that’s probably one of the biggest things I love to enjoy. Kind of back to that strategy with Shopping Centers and creating markets for retailers. I love to analyze them and I can tell you that this is the best one I have ever come across. And Fred, when he saw that passion and the excitement that I was feeling and our team was feeling, he caught the fever. His City-in-a-Box works terrific. And so, we were off to the races.
Michael: Alright. So you worked with Fred. Fred has a woman named Holly on his team. Is that correct?
Michael: What is Holly’s last name?
Michael: And so, Holly is in charge of business development. It was her job to get on the phone, to get on e-mail, to somehow make contact with businesses out in The French Riviera, set those up, and then you, Fred, and Holly were going to hop on a plane, head over there and have those meetings.
Toby: Well, we had planned this out way back. We flew to Phoenix around the first of December. And we go to Phoenix once a month or about and have one-on-ones. But we planned that we would be going to The Riviera two to three times a year. We’d eventually have a local presence. But we had it on the dance card that we were going to be in that April, maybe May. But with Cannes being almost an invite only and hundred thousand people sending on to Cannes, it’s just crazy. I mean your room, traffic, and all the above. And you don’t get to see much of the festivities.
Toby: So we had this on the dance card, but to Holly’s credit, she set up all those meetings with these Luxury Properties – four and five star. No media kid and no live website.
Toby: She is a very, very talented young lady and we’re delighted to have her on Fred’s team and be a part of that.
Michael: So the power of the brand and a great salesperson.
Toby: No question.
Michael: Alright. So she set those up. What did she do to set those up? Did she e-mail? Did she call? Did she write letters? Did she FedEx letters? How did she set those up?
Toby: I can’t say exactly, but I do know that she e-mailed and phoned. That was her primary way to get folks attention over there. We didn’t get a lot of callbacks. I mean we could’ve had forty properties. But some surprised us, some didn’t. But nine times out of ten, the ones that we did appointments with were delighted to see us.
Michael: Great. Well, it sounds like I need to get Holly on here to give us a crash course on how to do sales when you have nothing but an idea, and passion, and a fantastic brand behind it. That would be a phenomenal interview. So I’m going to ask you after the show for an introduction to Holly.
Toby: I will do that. And I will say, right now, that she’s in Shanghai at another Travel Conference. So she’s got a worldwide perspective that’s second to none. She’s a very talented young lady.
Michael: Okay. So Holly booked these meetings. You had twenty meetings in twelve days I think it was. You flew out there. You walk into these opulent hotels – probably five star hotels. Who are you meeting with?
Toby: It depends. It was all over the board. In some cases it was the Director of Sales. One was the General Manager of the property. Some were even an eCommerce person. But the thing that was different – and this was amazing because we talked with the Ex-Director of part of the Tourism Office there in Nice -, you would be surprised that many people fly into Nice, at the airport because that is the main destination via airline, with no reservation.
Toby: I was shocked to hear that.
Toby: Bags in hand. Children. Want and need a place to stay.
Toby: So Nice Tourism Office has done a great job of kind of creating a infrastructure to accomodate that kind of late demand. When you look at the Larazuru down in St. Tropez, as an example, they close in, I think it was, October to the end of March. They’re closed. And they have a wonderful, kind of, Boutique Hotel. But then they have, I think it was, seven of these Villas. Three to five; I think they’ve even got a six bedroom down below. Michael, these run at the high-end, the high season, two week minimum and could run up fifty thousand euros per week.
Toby: And people stay, on an average, for four weeks.
Michael: How do we get that sort of lifestyle, Toby? Just the fact that you’re planning strategically to go out to The French Riviera three times a year, DomainSherpa’s closing down. I’m coming to work for Toby Hardy.
Toby: And when they’re leaving, they book it for the next year already.
Michael: Yeah. I believe it.
Michael: It is astounding.
Toby: Now, this is Wine Country. It’s about ten minutes out of St. Tropez. Nearby is Nikki Beach if you want to really party all night and certainly during the weekends. But this particular property is exceptional. It’s very quiet and secluded. People can be there whether they’re celebrities or very, very wealthy that want to be by themselves with no paparazzi. This is a property that can accomodate that.
Michael: So, Toby, you went to these meetings. You talked about the area. Clearly, they know the power of The French Riviera and any of the cities like Nice or what have you. They know how much money is being spent per year in there. They know how many tourists are coming into the area. They probably, arguably, know the cities better than you and Fred do. You go in there and say, ‘I’ve got this fantastic brand. Arguably, the number one brand for the entire region’. And you say, ‘We can help you by delivering more customers to the products and services that they want to buy. Your hotel, for example’.
Toby: That’s right.
Michael: And so, they say to you – I’m imagining -. ‘How many unique visitors do you have on your website per month?’
Toby: Never came up.
Michael: It never came up?
Toby: No. The power of the brand blew them away. They knew it was new. We’re not high enough to be tracked by (Unclear 1:02:23.7). But the power of the brand was just incredible. Let’s step back just a moment. There was a little downturn of tourism to The Riviera, but France is the number one destination in the world for in-bound visitors with a little over seventy-six million people go to France per year.
Toby: And I think Paris is at fifteen million. And then next was London with nine million. Or New York City was a nine million. So if you’re sitting at number one, France is the largest destination worldwide for tourism. The French Riviera had a (Unclear 1:03:26.8) just slightly almost eleven million in 2011. Many of those were on the cruiseliners. So you have ten million people coming, but you have properties that were, in some cases we’re talking about, the most opulent properties in Monte Carlo and they’re at fifty-four percent occupancy
Toby: So we’re delighted to be able to help. We may not with some properties that Holly was able to set up. Maybe we don’t help them during the Film Festival and during July-August.
Michael: They don’t need help during that time. They need help for the rest of the year.
Toby: The rest of the year. So we play a big role in that. The other side of this is our itineraries. You can book online with us. But our real strong suit is having professional travel planners that can help you sort out all that that you want to do and you don’t have to spend hours, and hours, and hours online trying to figure it all out; and you don’t know if that’s a reliable source or not.
Michael: So you’ll work with travel planners and you’ll get a commission of everything that’s booked through the travel planner?
Michael: Okay. Will they work for you or will they be partners?
Toby: Oh, we’ll be outsourcing all that.
Michael: Do you envision that the hotels that you work with and the restaurants will purchase advertising with you? Or will you take a referral fee or commission for referring customers to them?
Toby: We can do a lot of different ways with the hotels. We could do it with direct advertising. We can do it where they give us a rate, if you will, and then we’re able to add our fee on top of it. But it’s got to have rate credibility, if you will, where if you could get on site and book a site on one of the travel services that are out there that’s substantially less than what we can, everybody loses.
Michael: So you’re not requiring to be lower than, say, Travelocity or any of those third party sites. You just want to be on par with them.
Toby: That’s correct.
Michael: Okay. Got it. So is that mainly how you’re planning on making money? For the business model you’ve got advertising; you’ve got sales of products or services that you might get commissions for; you have services like personal travel itinerary planners that you can work with.
Toby: But really the power of the brand and the advertising – that digital billboard; that’s going to be a huge component of how we approach this. And look, we jumped into this with both feet and the kitchen sink besides. At the end of the day, we’re going to take as long as it takes to do it right. We’re going to be patient. We’re not going to force it. We don’t go out and throw a lot of money at marketing to get a pump. We’re going to let this thing move along. We’ll have different campaigns that will be selected, targeted if you will, for the people we want to approach. But, over time, we just feel that if it takes three years, fine. If it takes five years, that’s fine too. Doesn’t matter.
Michael: Got you. You’re in it for the long haul. You have money that you’re investing in it. And you believe that you’ll get payback on it if you put forth the effort in a structured fashion with your partner.
Toby: But the thing that’s nice is, you probably saw it just recently, digital is now overtaken print in gross billing and the like.
Toby: And we don’t see that slowing down at all. So, over time, it just gets better and better.
Toby: It’s being at the right place at the right time and the old thing is in real estate – location, location, location. That’s what we invested in and, like you say, we’re in it for the long haul.
Michael: Got you. Alright. So, Fred Mercaldo did a guest post on Elliot’s blog. He said, in our meetings, the phrase, “We understand your brand name was mentioned to you many times from people that you were meeting with and companies you were meeting with”. He said, “It’s doubtful that we could’ve secured not only the meetings, but the attention and interest we experienced if we had hit the market with anything but the FrenchRiviera.com label”. Let back up for a second. That makes sense. I’ve done interviews with Michael Costello; with David Costello. They’ve talked about the power of the brand and geodomains. That it can’t be reproduced. You can’t have InsideFrenchRiviera and make it feel like it’s as good as a brand as FrenchRiviera. When you were out in The French Riviera, did you notice competing websites, competing magazines, that you weren’t expecting that have taken a subclass domain name – a subpar domain name – and are building on top of that?
Toby: Well, no. We pretty well had researched that across the board. You’ll see a lot of them that are FrenchRiviera-Tourism.com. That’s the Nice Government Office that now has gotten over fifty-four small communities that all contribute, and they throw a lot of money at this, and put out very nice guides. They do a great job. But candidly, with a hypen in the middle, and tourism in the title, at the end of the day, and we will be multilingual over time, but right now our market is North America, and The UK, and Ireland, and what have you. Though it’s amazing on our first three weeks we’ve looked at Google Analytics and Russia’s coming up; China’s coming up. We’re getting some interest from other parts of the world if you will, but that’s where we going after. That naturally branded type in traffic get fifteen or twenty percent capture up rate that those folks don’t have.
Toby: And you see that there are some other competitors. We did a pretty extensive competitive analysis. But to answer your questions, we didn’t find anybody over there that was a surprise that we didn’t know about.
Michael: How many unique visitors do you have to your website per month right now?
Toby: We’ve only been up three weeks, so I wouldn’t even go there right now.
Michael: Alright. Your website is up and running right now. What are you next steps? What are the major milestones that you’re planning for?
Toby: Number one, we’ll be going over two to three times a year, but at least every Spring and Fall. And the one in the Fall will be in September. In all likelihood it’ll be lined up with the Cannes, or Monte Carlo, Monaco Yacht Show. By the way, I was at the one in Cannes in September, and that was over five hundred boats.
Toby: Plus the suppliers. Cannes does a great job, by the way, of reaching out to all of these. Luxury Travel Industry has a huge show every December. The G20 was in Cannes. The big Poker Convention in Cannes. I mean, it’s just pretty amazing of what they bring to the table. But let me share with you one thing. And I haven’t been able to validate it totally, but I’ve gotten pretty close. That when they hold the Grand Prix, they’re in Monte Carlo. If you’re one of the big yachts, and you’re coming in, and you want to be in the harbor, a million euros a day for that privilege is what we understand is the tariff. And, supposedly, it has a minimum of for the entire show. So that’s kind of a Thursday to Sunday event. You can get the idea. Euros are up thirty-one to what it is versus the dollar. So at the end of the day, it’s an expensive sport.
Michael: Definitely. Do you have projections on what you think the revenue of FrenchRiviera.com will be in five or ten years?
Toby: I could only guess.
Michael: Sure. It’s all just a guess based on your plans and based on the markets.
Toby: But we do intend to be into the seven digits in revenue by fifth year.
Michael: By fifth year. So, over a million dollars in revenue by the fifth year.
Toby: And that’s very conservative from our viewpoint.
Toby: But we don’t like to make assumptions unless we feel we can live up to them.
Michael: Yeah. That makes sense. I’m not going to ask you for all the details. But clearly you spent more than a hundred thousand dollars on the domain. You’ve done some development. You’ve bought other domains in the portfolio. You’ve invested a significant amount of money. And so, you’re looking at a payback that’s not within three months, or six months, or twelve months. You’re looking at a payback and to build it up to a real business within five years – somewhere in that order of magnitude.
Toby: I like to think we would be doing, if we have the success on the other businesses that we were able to get with the hotels. And even just capitalizing on a portion of what we met with. At the end of the day, I’d say by the third year, we’ll be doing very nicely and we will be on track to be at seven digits in some fashion by year five.
Michael: Excellent. One of the points that you mentioned earlier, Toby, was that you are putting together three to twenty-one day itineraries. So the people can go online. They can look at this itinerary. They can reserve their hotel; their sightseeing; their helicopter rides; everything sort of put together for them and it takes a lot of the planning out of it. It makes them easier to spend the money when they can forward a URL to an itinerary to their entire family and everybody says, ‘Yeah, that sounds great’. What kind of preferences do you focus on when you’re looking at the type of people that are travelling to The French Riviera?
Toby: A lot of that just depends on. Holly has designed a really nice, if you will, preference sheet. Because it’s all over the board. And if it’s multigenerational, your mother isn’t maybe going to want to go to the golf course, but may go with your wife and want to do the shopping of the La Crosse. And you go to the golf course or you’re playing out on the beach, or wherever it may be. So it’s all over the board in that regard. But I think we’re just trying to tailor it so we take out all of the hassle. We take out and give you some great experiences. We know you want value. But we want it to be a great experience for you and your family.
Michael: Alright. So you’re putting together packages where you take out the hassle, you give them great experiences, and it’s a good value. Do people that are traveling there actually care about values, Toby? Buying things on value.
Toby: I’ve heard several of the very exclusive retailers, as an example, the Tiffanys and Cartiers, people want something special. The last thing that they want is to go in and spend twenty-five thousand dollars on some kind of jewelry or wrist timepiece and then know that they vastly overpaid. People pay, but with their pocketbook. So I think you’ve got to give great value. What we do is, some of these properties that we saw, Michael, were wow! Just over the top. I mean they were stunning properties up by St. Paul da Vince, down by (Unclear 1:17:49.1), Monte Carlo; it just doesn’t end. It just depends on what your preference is and whether you want something a little more classical and formal or you want something Mediterranean and modern. And we try to get that depth of what your preferences are so we don’t underperform and you become away with, ‘Gee, I wish I would’ve done something else’.
Michael: Got it. So you’re finding out preferences in terms of how much money people want to spend; what kind of environment – like hotel room – they want to be in; what kind of activities they like to do. Maybe the wife wants to go golfing all day and the dad wants to spend time with the kids all day doing traveling, doing day trips, going to beach. Maybe you’re just a sun worshiper and you want to go for five days and just spend your time on every single beach there is.
Toby: Yeah. And most of those beaches, by the way, you pay for them.
Michael: Oh, really?
Toby: Oh, yeah. There are some public. But many of the ones that we saw could be anywhere from twenty to sixty euros per person.
Michael: Wow. Twenty to sixty euros per person per day.
Michael: Yeah. Well, you can pay that in California to go the beach. Alright, Toby. The final question is this. Now that you have launched FrenchRiviera.com, you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, organizing your portfolio, partnering with Fred Mercaldo and his team, getting it up and running, line up advertisers, having discussions with them. Clearly, there’s a long way to go and I want to have you back on here in a year and I want to do a status check with you on how your plans have come to fruition; what you’ve learned along the way. But up until this point, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs that want to develop out geographic domain names in a large metropolitan area like what you’ve done with FrenchRiviera.com?
Toby: Well, are you saying in The United States?
Michael: Let’s take this anywhere. I don’t want to be US centric like I said earlier. Anybody that wants to develop out a good size geographic domain name into a full website media enterprise. What have you learned in the past three years that you can now share with them so they don’t make the same mistake?
Toby: Well, number one is it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s not going to be shake and bake easy. You’re going to have to keep drilling down in your market. You’re going to have to keep adding unique, compelling, and fun content. You have to be at the top of your game for who your customer base is. And a lot of people will say, ‘I can just go out and I can develop a site for two thousand, five thousand dollars. I can put it on autopilot and away I go’. Don’t even start. Don’t go there. I think that that is a recipe for disaster. I would say, if you’re going to be dedicated and you have the financial resources to do it, get your plan together and be patient. Know it’s going to be a lot of hard work. It’s best if you go and live where you’re developing. I mean, really get enriched into your market. We’re doing it from remote. That’s why we’re going to have onsite assistance over there by the end of the year. We’re in negotiations right now. But I have to say that it’s like building a city brick by brick and it’s not going to be easy. There are going to be a lot of other competitors that are going to have a leg up because they’ve been there beforehand. But maybe it’s not the .COM brandname. So you have to convince the people in the marketplace and it’s going to take a lot of face-to-face meetings.
Michael: Yeah. Alright. Just like the physical real estate world. If you could’ve bought land when it was cheap, or relatively cheap, and built up the buildings that housed all the workers and all the businesses fifty years ago. If you had the resources today. A lot of people can get the resources to do the same thing, but it takes a lot of dedication, persistence, and a stick to itness that is required in order to be successful.
Michael: Tenacious. Great word. If you have a follow up question for Toby, please post it in the comments below. We’ll ask him to come back and answer as many as he can. Toby, if people want to follow you on the web, do you have a blog? Are you on Twitter? Can they see you if they go to the GeoDomains Conference again this year? What’s the best way for them to stay in contact with what you’re doing and where you’re heading?
Toby: I don’t do Twitter. I should be, but I’m not into that. Probably the best way is LinkedIn. I love that format that they’re doing. We’re right in the process of getting a Facebook page for FrenchRiviera. They always can e-mail me whenever they care to at Toby.Hardy@FrenchRiviera.com. Glad to answer any questions and I love the GeoPublishers.com format that you and I shared up in Chicago. It was small, but it was quaint. And I think we all made a lot of (Unclear 1:23:49.9) relationships. Education and what works and doesn’t work.
Michael: Definitely. I fully agree. So I urge the audience now. Go to FrenchRiviera.com. Check out the website. See what Toby and his team, and Fred Mercaldo and the Cities Planet team are working on. Watch it over time. See the new advertisers that are coming in. See the new content they’re adding. If you want to consider developing out a geodomain name like Toby is doing with FrenchRiviera, you got to start benchmarking and see what other people are doing. Toby Hardy, CEO of FrenchRiviera.com Media Group. Thank you for being a DomainSherpa, sharing the details of how you’re building out FrenchRiviera.com, and thank you for helping other become more successful domain name entrepreneurs.
Toby: Michael, and thank you. You do a tremendous job with all your interviewees. I’ve been on several of them and it’s a hell of a job on your part.
Michael: Thank you very much Toby. I look forward to seeing you again in, hopefully, Chicago this coming October for GeoPublishers Conference again.
Toby: You can bet on it.
Michael: Thank you all for watching. We’ll see you next time.
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