Managing Director Stefan Menden talks about Secret Escapes’ acquisition of JustBook and the larger digital trends in the tourism industry
After being acquired early this year, JustBook will soon become Secret Escapes. How does the user experience change for those used to JustBook?
JustBook was a service for last minute hotel bookings. Secret Escapes has successfully established itself as a hotel flash sales product in the UK, with more than 100 million pounds in revenues in just three years. So the difference is that Secret Escapes focuses on very special deals on luxury hotels that can be booked ahead of the actual itinerary.
Is the focus international?
Yes. But the role of the JustBook team is to strengthen the presence and the offers for Germany and German-speaking countries. We have already tripled the number of hotels for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. This is becoming a very relevant offer for deal-seekers in these countries.
In mid-March, you said you were at almost 500,000 users in Germany. Your offer is pretty exclusive – how many more people can be targeted?
There’s no limit. It’s right that we have exclusive offers, but they are still within the reach of a large fragment of the population. We don’t just feature the Adlon, we have a lot of selected 4- and 5-star hotels and boutique hotels at very attractive rates.
Looking at the various travel deal services, we have the impression that there’s heavy competition. How do you experience this market?
I’m relaxed. The beauty about Secret Escapes is that we feature unique offers. Many other deal services run hard discounts and don’t put so much attention to the quality, the details. Most are just about the price. Secret Escapes has very high hurdles to admitting hotels. We manually test the offers and demand uniqueness. And then we always offer links out to comparison sites where users can verify that the offered rate is the best one. We also feature direct bookings on our platform. We don’t believe in voucher sales where people need to call the hotel five times to finalize their booking.
How do hotels react to yet another service that focuses on special deals?
They love it. We bring them extra attention, new customer groups. We have seen it already on JustBook: 9 out of 10 people hadn’t actually planned to book the specific hotel. So it is a great way for hotels to get to new audiences. Secret Escapes is inspiring people to travel. What should hotels not like about that?
What do you see as the big trends in the tech-meets-travel market?
We see that “one-size-fits-all” is a past model. The variety of offers keeps growing. A lot more attention goes to the customers and their lifestyle and preferences, while the traditional platforms just sold hotel rooms with a focus only on the supply side. We’re seeing a shift from online hotel supermarkets to offers that focus on specific needs and tastes of individual users. It’s not about a wide spectrum, but a suiting experience.
How does this change customer relationships?
You initially have to ask yourself: What does the customer want? And how can I make a differentiated, helpful offer? If I know this, how do I present specific offers? This calls for intelligent communication when presenting the specific offers and setting up customer service. New technologies allow for this completely new approach to tourism.
How do you understand what customers want?
New technologies help us gather a lot of information. One example is the use of Social Media at Secret Escapes. The engagement is strong and this helps us analyze what customers demand and expect. Facebook is a very important and strong channel for Secret Escapes. The company understands that it can reach potential customers with high-quality emotional content and attract them to a hotel booking service. The editorial part, the description and the pictures, are very important.
Do you think it would still be possible today to walk into a travel agency and get a better value hotel deal than when booking through Secret Escapes?
I haven’t been at a travel agency in at least 10 years. But I talked to a representative of a tourism company at Berlin’s trade show ITB, and he told me that the old concept of travel agents as experts in the field of traveling is simply outdated. The agent may be a completely different personality than the client and therefore put his attention on offers that don’t really suit the customer. Today’s target groups will look for deals that suit them individually.
Among your customers, who is responsible for selecting and booking a destination, men or women?
In Secret Escapes, average customers are couples. Women tend to book a bit more than men. The inspiration and impulse to book is rather seen on the female side.
You have gathered experience in the German market with JustBook, now you’re part of Secret Escapes that have executed their own strategy in the UK. Can you simply roll out the UK model here in Germany?
There’s a lot of things in Secret Escapes that need to be adapted to the German market. This is what’s challenging for us and fun at the same time. It starts with landing page optimization after testing user behavior in Germany. There are also differences where regulation and law is concerned, for instance marketing opt-in and the offering of complete travel packages. And there’s a huge difference in payment models that customers accept. The sum of it is that Secret Escapes is a sexy international product delivered with a specific version managed by a team of people that understand customers in Germany.
What are the targets for the new Secret Escapes in Germany?
The first step was tripling the number of hotels for Germany, which our former JustBook team has done already. We have also transferred our know-how of mobile commerce and applications into the Secret Escapes group, the results of which will be seen when the app comes out. Looking at the longer term, Germany will have the potential to become at least as important a market for Secret Escapes as the United Kingdom.
What are the lessons learned from the JustBook startup?
The most important thing is to be as close to the market and its shifts as possible. Be ready to evolve your concepts, move according to market trends. There’s a lot of competition, so differentiating is an ongoing task. It calls for flexibility and speed. This will continue to be an important quality.
You had your own startup, now you’re part of another company’s plan. How has this changed your work?
Not a lot has changed. There are a lot of advantages. We used to be involved in a lot of research of all aspects of the product – and now Secret Escapes delivers proven solutions that we can work with. We don’t need to justify us all the time before our investors, because there’s only one stakeholder. But we’re still hugely independent here in Germany and not just a sales office. My impression is that Secret Escapes have understood that we are a team of entrepreneurs that are dedicated to establishing and succeeding with Secret Escapes in Germany.
In 2011, Stefan Menden founded the startup JustBook to promote last-minute hotel bookings at exclusive prices. He is an experienced player in the German starup scene and the man who founded the online career network squeaker.net. He founded the European Venture Capital Network in London and is among the braintrust that successfully established European Pirate Summit in Cologne.