Secret Escapes CMO on driving acquisition through personalisation

Harnessing the power of data to develop a single customer view and drive personalisation is a big focus for online holiday provider Secret Escapes, which following a £41m cash injection is aiming to become a multi-billion pound company by 2020.

Secret Escapes #Smugface campaign for the UK market represents the second stage of driving awareness.

Luxury members-only travel site Secret Escapes aims to engage consumers with personalised content early on, looking for any preference a customer has shown either on the website or through a Google search. From the welcome email onwards the customer is sent content specific to their travel preferences, from city guides to targeted deals.

“We want to offer personal recommendations in real time,” explains Secret Escapes CMO, Cian Weeresinghe. To do so the brand needs to understand how a location like Peru might be similar to Vietnam, for example, so it can make an appropriate recommendation at the right moment in order to entice consumers to go through to purchase.

“We have to think about how and where we present the recommendations to users – whether that’s on Facebook, the website, via email or as a Google advert next time they search,” he adds.

As all 16.5 million UK members and 31.5 million worldwide users have to log in to use the site, Secret Escapes can track individual user ID and uses the Salesforce marketing cloud to segment customers by preferences.

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While Secret Escapes cannot collect vast amounts of demographic data unless a customer has booked, Weeresinghe says the company curates “rich behavioural data” on price point, location, type of holiday and date of travel. Based on the customer’s ‘wish list’ information, Secret Escapes can also send deals related to their destination bucket list.

If the behavioural data shows the customer is likely to convert, Secret Escapes tries not to bombard them with communications, instead opting to send fewer emails and remove as many friction points as possible in the purchase process.

Global expansion goals

While the UK is the company’s largest, most mature market, Secret Escapes has seen strong growth in Germany, especially during the first quarter of 2016, a market where 24-hour flash deals prove particularly popular.

To support a push into Asian markets, last July Secret Escapes secured £39m of investment from Google Ventures, which combined with further funding from Index and Atlas Ventures takes the total to £41m.

At the time, co-founder and CEO Alex Saint, said the company expects to be “a global multi-billion turnover business by the end of the decade”.

The investment was focused on Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Indonesia, where Secret Escapes relies on digital marketing for a large proportion of its user acquisition, finding Google and Facebook easy tools to launch the campaign.

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“The expansion into Asia has been of double benefit to the business as it has created a supply hub of hotels for all markets and over the past couple of months we have grown our membership using digital channels and local agencies,” he explains.

“It’s early to tell, but each market is performing to plan. Indonesia, for example, benefits from strong Facebook adoption, close affinity to the UK through the ex-pat community and strong use of the English language.”

Weeresinghe sees opportunities in countries like India, China, Japan and South Korea, although expansion is likely to be on hold for 2016, as the CMO acknowledges that executing a digital strategy using a Korean search engine, for example, will prove more time consuming than launching via Google.

Secret Escapes also has its eyes on the US, a region where the business made its first foray in 2014. “The great thing about the US is its scale. There is a high level of digital awareness and digital acquisition channels are very powerful. However, as the US is really big we’re taking our time and adopting a regional approach to carve up the market,” Weeresinghe explains.

Driving acquisition through TV

The overarching marketing approach is focused on using TV, Google and Facebook adverts to acquire members. The site is seeing a shift to mobile, with an increased amount of trade coming through the app. The strategy is driven by the 32-strong marketing team at Secret Escapes’ London headquarters.

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While the team has launched in Asia based on a solely digital approach, Weeresinghe believes in the impact a TV advert can have in terms of driving acquisition and conversion. First aired in 2012, Secret Escapes continues to run it’s ‘Best Kept Secret’ adverts in the UK, US, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and Spain, although last year the site unveiled its new #Smugface television campaign to the domestic market.

The two adverts, one set in a country house, the other on safari, are designed to explain the fact Secret Escapes offers both luxury and value, moving beyond purely an acquisition focus in the mature UK market to presenting the website as the first destination for customers planning a holiday in advance.

Reaching the billion pound target

The plan for the rest of the year is to crack the four new Asian markets and create an environment for steady growth of members and bookings, as well as growing the German market through aggressive spend across marketing channels.

In the UK, the team will explore paid marketing outside TV and digital, taking a look at print and direct mail. Radio is also back in the discussion, although Weeresinghe argues that as it is harder to measure the impact compared to TV advertising, the approach will be slow.

“Having scaled up the business over the past 18 months the springboard for growth is to continue to grow the markets we have launched in this year and drive performance. We are well on track to attain that growth. It’s nice to be in a business where the founder says we are going to do something and we do it.”

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