Guaranteeing an exclusive offer loaded with savings of up to 70%

IN-DEPTH: Interview with Secret Escapes’ managing director, Tom Valentine

Published: 24 Mar 2011

IN-DEPTH: Interview with Secret Escapes’ managing director, Tom Valentine

By Ritesh Gupta

There are lots of travel sites/ ventures that have emerged to offer heavy discounts for diligently chosen hotels/ packages. These sites, which are focusing on flash sales and that too mostly for exclusive members, believe such offering is surely a way to enhance the overall research and decision process.

One such offering, Secret Escapes, believes it is important to have a clear positioning and also a precise understanding of how can one buy from the company.

For instance, the company says one can buy a deal from Secret Escapes just as he or she would on any other travel website, or one can pay £25 to hold a room while he or she decides. Considering that organising a holiday takes time, the company is giving an option to its users to take their time by paying this small holding fee to reserve a booking while the decision is being worked out. “No-one else will be able to book the offer you hold, which will remain held until the end of the deal period. If you buy the room, we will take the holding fee off the price, if not, we give you back the money as credit on your Secret Escapes account,” says the company.

“I think it’s important to have a clear position that explains why a customer should be on your site rather than an alternative provider. In our case, saving up to 70% on boutique and luxury hotels explains what we do, and importantly what we don’t do,” says Secret Escapes’ managing director, Tom Valentine.

“We need to be strict with ourselves and make sure that everyone who visits the site understands that we are the UK’s best source of discounts on luxury travel,” added Valentine, who is scheduled to attend the forthcoming Travel Distribution Summit Europe 2011, to be held in London (May 10-11).

Secret Escapes is an exclusive members-only travel club from the travel experts behind The company says with nearly one million people signed up to the weekly newsletter, the team has the expertise to deliver in this arena.

Valentine spoke to EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta about his new venture, Secret Escapes’ core audience, its value proposition for the industry and lot more. Excerpts:

Many travellers today are overwhelmed by the research and decision process. Can you elaborate to what extent you have been successful in explaining your concept?

That’s exactly where we fit in. They are less than 20 hotels on Secret Escapes at any one time.. We go to great lengths choosing the hotels and our customers are starting to see us as an alternative to searching for a holiday.

Here’s a great quote we got the other day:

Just wanted to say I think your site is excellent. For someone like me, I do not have a preference where I go abroad, I just want to go somewhere of a good standard with a bit of sun, and I think this way of selling holidays is much better than typing in a destination that I know little about! Keep up the good work!

Secret Escapes is an exclusive members-only travel club. How do you assess the maturity level of such offering at this stage in the travel industry?

I think online travel has a long way to grow full-stop. Members-only and flash sale sites are a great example of how the industry is finding better ways to serve hotels and holiday buyers, but they are very much in their infancy.

The concept of flash sales is gaining traction in the travel industry. For consumers, flash sale sites are becoming increasingly popular because they’re an attractive way to access overstocked inventory, or to get introduced to new offerings. How do you expect this concept to shape up going forward?

I'd expect to see some consolidation around brands that consistently offer their customers great offers across particular categories, brands that flourish will do so by becoming a trusted service to loyal customers.

Which areas are you trying to address through your venture and how?

We like the model of flash sales in travel a lot. It meets the needs of hotels and customers very well. We don't think anyone has cracked it in luxury travel for UK customers, so that's where we are aiming.

Can you describe your core audience?

Our product is discretionary travel. So (it could be) - a weekend or holiday that you may not have otherwise been planning to take. Our friends with young kids assure us that they aren't in the market for unplanned holidays, but other than that we aren't really targeting a traditional demographic, just putting ourselves in front of people that love travel.

Can you explain how typically you go about offering deals/ exclusive offerings to your subscribers? How do you make it enticing for them to avail the same?

The deals sell themselves, with prices that are lower than anywhere else. We are very open about this and provide links to other agents to allow customers to check for themselves. We're fortunate enough to work with aspirational hotels that look great on the page too. Because we only have a limited number of sales at any one time, we avoid the cluttered look that many travel sites suffer from. Hopefully we are a treat to browse.

Hotels want to reach new customers that want to experience all the hotel has to offer. What do you think hotels need to understand and do in order to make sure they make the best of your offering? For instance, in the US, companies like SniqueAway are saying hotels should not assume private sale sites are for only last-minute and distressed inventory.

We don't think it's only for distressed inventory either. We're very clear that the deals that sell are good deals. If you wouldn't buy it yourself it's unlikely that a customer will. So we're not about selling a beach resort out of season.

We market ourselves as a way to grow occupancy without global discounting. Also, hotels rather like being marketed to hundreds of thousands of users for free. Being commission only is a good structure for hotels, especially as they tend to see a spike in their own website sales.

How do you think hotels can play their part in terms of making the offers attractive? For instance, should hotels make sure that their offer is compelling across all fronts, including travel dates, room types, and the entire stay experience? Do hotels have to plan something different for private sale sites or flash sales?

We're very keen to learn from hotels, but what we're seeing is that the offers that sell well are discounted - but not so much as too scare people away - and have a good range of availability and room types. Given that hotels need only ring-fence the rooms for a week, there's no reason not to trial a pretty wide offer. Mini-packages to increase the perceived value of the offer also work wonderfully, like a dinner or a spa treatment, and if they are designed right they can also increase the profitability of the deal.

Your venture says there are no `mystery’ hotels on Secret Escapes. One of the new online travel venture launched recently matches room within a given hotel based on traveller’s preferences for view, floor, distance from elevator and connecting rooms. How do you assess the significance of transparency in booking at this stage? How are you focusing on getting consumers closest to knowing what they are booking before they actually complete the transaction?

Many UK customers have come across "Mystery Hotel" products where you book a 5* hotel without knowing name or location. We're making it clear that you know exactly which hotel you are getting when you book, over time we'd love to increase the transparency even further, perhaps by plugging in some of the exact room services.

How do you think you can increase transparency as far as your offering is concerned? Are you relying more on imagery, videos or user-generated content?

The next step for us is to get comments up on the sales, it feels as though it would be very powerful to allow Secret Escapes' users to discuss the deals on the site. This combined with the clear links to hotel and travel agent websites make it very clear we aren't trying to exaggerate the quality of any deals.

What’s your plan for the mobile channel?

Shockingly, we're working on mobile applications. I think it's a legal requirement these days... However, we're keen to make sure that our applications are fun to browse even if you don't want to buy a holiday that day. It's the same rule we have for the site.

What’s on your agenda? What are your expansion plans in terms of number of hotels offered, subscriber base etc?

We're aiming to grow fast. We'd like to be helping thousands of people a month take luxury holidays by the end of the year.

Travel Distribution Summit Europe 2011

EyeforTravel is scheduled to conduct its flagship event, Travel Distribution Summit Europe 2011 in London (May 10-11).

For more information, click here

Tim Gunstone
Managing Director, EyeforTravel
Phone: +44 (0) 207 375 7557 (London, UK)


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