Escape Artist

Secret Escapes launched as a membership website offering exclusive flash sales of upmarket hotel rooms at discounted prices last year. It has just received £8m of new funding and plans international expansion. Co-founder Alex Saint explained the challenges and opportunities for the company to Marketing Week at the recent Abta Travel Convention.

Secret Escapes
The Secret Escapes website offers discounted luxury hotel rooms to members.

Marketing Week (MW): Given the challenging economic climate why did you think it was the right time to launch Secret Escapes?

Alex Saint (AS): I think there would be an opportunity for Secret Escapes in any economic climate. When time are tough it’s a great time to launch a product where you are offering value for money.

MW: What is the company proposition?

AS: The promise to people is to offer hand-picked luxury hotels and holidays cheaper than anywhere else in the market. We want people to feel they are part of a club that gives them benefits that are exclusive to being such a member.

MW: How as an aggregator brand do you build trust?

AS: Firstly, by the rigour with which we select hotels and check the prices Following through on your promises is absolutely critical. In travel there is the generic problem in which people advertise a product with misleading price claims or the routes are sold out.

We are very transparent in where we are quoting the discount from – we are 20 per cent cheaper than a hotel’s own website price. We get trust from the fact we openly encourage people to research our properties elsewhere on the web. It takes years to build up trust and only a few minutes to destroy it – you can very quickly damage the brand.

Customer service is critical and it’s important that we address people’s concerns immediately.

MW:What media channels are you using to build brand awareness?

AS: We now have 2.1 million members and our television campaign has been fantastic for us. It’s been a real revelation and demonstrated to us that it’s entirely possible to treat what some people see as a blunt tool in a sophisticated way. We can see the response to the ad in real time – it’s building equity and driving response, a big chunk of our sign-ups come at the end of the ad spot.
We can optimise the ad like an online campaign – we can choose channels by genres or stuff that works for us like food shows. We work a lot with Sky but ITV has not worked for us so far – if anything it’s audience is too mainstream.

Our customers are not the kind of people to turn up with lunch in a carrier bag

MW: What role does social media play for Secret Escapes?

AS: We are very alive on Facebook and Twitter but social media is really a hygiene factor for any Online Travel Agent (OTA). We do use Facebook as both a customer service tool and for engagement. Some people want to raise issues in public and we try to address them. We are trying not to be too commercial about how we use Facebook – we’re not pumping commercial messages out – we see it as better for developing a longer term relationship.

MW: What is the big investment the company will be making to improve its offering?

AS: At the moment we send out up to seven emails a week and members can opt just to receive the weekly summary. A big project is the next phase of CRM activity. We are moving away from the early stages of the business where one size fits all. We currently have minor alterations in emails and next quarter we will start introducing segmentation – we will be managing people’s content on the basis of their behaviour. Every time they visit the site we know who they are so we can tailor the experience and tailor the mailing programme.

MW: What are your priorities – driving repeat business or new customers?

AS: We do get repeat buyings and multiple bookings. In our first 18 months we had nearly 20 per cent repeat rate. We are aiming next year to double the audience and to increase repeat purchase within that audience. We have plans to expand internationally and will be launching Secret Escapes Impulse to tap into the last minute booking market.

MW: One criticism of aggregator sites is that they don’t drive loyalty for their partners and potentially could send ‘the wrong kind of customer’ to high end experiences. How do you counter this?

AS: We have had great feedback from our suppliers. I know the daily deals model has tainted things somewhat but our customers are not the kind of people to turn up with lunch in a carrier bag. They are good quality customers that hotels feel are worth having – they are not people only taking up the offer and not spending a penny more.

MW: How do you see the partnership with hotel brands evolving?

AS: I think the pipeline [of partner brands] will build. We do a great job for hotels and smart hotels are not just using us for getting rid of distressed inventory, for most of the year they are not fully sold. They can wait to the last minute or try to move inventory they know they cannot sell in a controlled fashion [with us] and give away less discount.

MW: As a members club you must be gathering some very useful data on individuals. Are there plans to monetise this data?

AS: I don’t think we will ever commercialise the data base in the way a data base marketing company would like to do. If we had exclusive access to an online sale we could tell our member about we would consider it. Looking at expanding our offering there are two main opportunities in tourist boards and airlines – they are relevant product.

MW: Will you look to carry third party advertising on the site?

AS: We [founders] are from a media background rather than a travel retail background – the ad business model is second nature to us. We will start to experiment with third party ads very slowly – we don’t want to taint the experience for visitors.

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