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Heaven on Earth: Secret Escapes CEO Alex Saint is out to make luxury travel mainstream

Six years have passed since Secret Escapes launched to make luxury travel more affordable, so Real Business visited the company’s shiny Holborn office for one-to-one time with CEO and co-founder Alex Saint, a man who you might say is creating Heaven on Earth.
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Secret Escapes unlocks exclusive deals to those who subscribe to the mailing list, and the business model has been a success in the UK, helped along with TV advertising campaigns. However, the ultimate ambition is to achieve mass adoption worldwide.

And while the outcome of the EU referendum on 24 June resulted in the launch of a Brexit, which has made some bosses worried to push ahead with business growth plans, Secret Escapes CEO Saint had no such feeling. In fact, with such a diverse mix of staff, many of whom are from overseas, he was quick to alleviate any worry in their minds.

“Within half an hour of the day starting that morning, I’d proactively written to everybody,” he recalled. “I said ‘There’s absolutely no reason to panic. Nothing is going to happen for quite some time, but also I’m confident the government would be insane to do anything which would really jeopardise the ability of UK businesses to operate successfully with the workforces they’ve currently got.

“‘And finally, whatever the case, whatever the process is in terms of formalising residency in the UK, as a business we’ll do everything we possibly can to support you’.”

That quick thinking resulted in responses from employees expressing their gratitude and Saint said no such fears have surfaced since.

“Common sense tells me it would be extraordinarily unlikely the government would shoot the country in the foot so badly it would be impossible to retain the people we rely on,” he said.

Secret Escapes now has around 450 team members globally, with 250 in London. In addition to the UK capital, its hometown, Saint pointed to Berlin and Warsaw as the other major hubs, while small offices can be found in New York, Stockholm, Barcelona, Singapore, Munich, Amsterdam and Zagreb.

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You’ll never go thirsty in the London office of Secret Escapes

Other than outsourcing customer service, a decision that was made when the business started, everything is done internally – from technology to product design, sales to marketing and editorial content to country management.

To consumers, Secret Escapes helpfully sources luxury trips around the world from hoteliers who need to fill otherwise expensive rooms, but offering such a distinct model doesn’t come without recruitment challenges.

On the topic of the skills gap, Saint said: “There are definitely some job roles we find difficult to fill, but I think, in honesty, that’s to do with the fact we are a very rare example in that not many people do what we do.

“For example, typically with us, a great contract manager has to be able to sell because our concept is relatively unknown with the hotels. Whereas, if you come from one of the big online travel agencies, as a contract manager you don’t have to sell – you’ve already got relationships with all the hotels. So we’re looking at a small subset of people who can exhibit they can do the role – those are difficult to fill.”

On the other hand, he laughed as he noted the vast number of applications that pour in to become a member of the content team.

“There’s no shortage of people wanting to be travel writers,” he said, adding that other roles such as digital marketer, accounts assistant and more generic openings are easy to fill. “Broadly speaking, I don’t think there is a structural or endemic skills gap that I’ve noticed.”

Building on the London hub, Secret Escapes is currently in the process of launching a development centre in Bristol, which has become an epicentre for technology developers and startups.

And with technology, and funding, in mind, there has arguably been no bigger win for the business than clinching the a $60m Google Ventures-led investment and partnership in July 2015.

At the time, Saint said the money would “bring us closer to our ambition of becoming the number one destination for consumers looking to book their holidays”.

Secret Escapes

Secret Escapes founders Tom Valentine and Alex Saint strike a pose

Detailing the specifics of Google’s involvement to Real Business, Saint explained: “They’ve been great – it’s a set of people whose focus is entirely on investing in new businesses.

“They have a lot of resources at their disposal to help portfolio companies. We’ve had design experts and also people in recruitment and technology helping, so they really are fantastic.

“Our representative is pretty well connected at Google, so if there are issues with email delivery or whatever, we can get to the right people pretty quickly. Fundamentally, they are a venture capital firm with more digital expertise and resources than virtually anyone else in the world.”

Supercharged with that capital, Secret Escapes made major strides this year to serve new markets. This summer alone, the business pushed across Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia in a bid to tap into new markets and expand its presence.

“We extended from Poland out into Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Warsaw and Croatia. And we launched in Asia in Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore,” said Saint. “It gets quicker and quicker the more you do. The major roadblocks are hiring.”

Helpfully, the former UK sales director had experience of working in Asia Pacific (APAC) and was only too happy to return and set up the sales and operations team in Singapore, which sped things up.

“Once you’ve got the right people in place to lead the project, it’s very quick. We’ve done the technology rollout several times; we’ve done the editorial process where you translate the content; we’ve done the marketing,” he continued.

“Once you have the local head of supply, the team to look after hotels and a GM to coordinate all efforts, you’re in business and it’s a small matter of a couple of months to launch.”

A look at a night market you can find in Hong Kong, one of the company's latest territories

A look at a night market you can find in Hong Kong, one of the company’s latest territories

According to Saint, deciding Singapore would serve as the local APAC headquarters was straightforward. “It’s such a transport hub and it’s so friendly in terms of language and regulations, it’s a really obvious choice,” he said.

He added broadening across Asia will be more taxing, however. “Japan, China or Korea, I don’t regard them as being part of that chunk of Asia – they’d be standalone operations. They’re such big challenges in their own right, you’d need a dedicated team and offices in those individual territories.”

With 30m customers, it could be easy to fall into the trap of throwing out the same travel recommendations to everyone in hope they’ll take the bait. But Saint explained Secret Escapes has thrived with little competition around due to a lack of service quality from others. He highlighted Groupon and LivingSocial as two of the only vaguely similar outfits around.

He said: “The most significant thing is your product selection. So when we launched in Southeast Asia, it was a matter of knowing what is going to appeal to Singaporeans.

“We might know Bali sells well to people in Germany and Sweden, but just because Bali is close to Singapore doesn’t means Singaporeans will travel to Bali – you’ve got to find a product relevant to the local population; that’s critical. You can do that by hiring someone local with experience in that market.”

Closing, Saint offered insight on where Secret Escapes is heading to next.

“For me, the main thrust for next year is going to be making sure we consolidate on the fantastic start we’ve made in all the territories we’ve launched in recently.

“There’s a danger you can spread yourself too thinly and carry on launching in loads and loads more territories, but not making sure you’ve gone from successful test into full-on production.

“Along with identifying one or two other major, major places to launch, for us, it’s about continued growth using the same model. There’s no big plan to significantly expand the product range, so really it’s more of the same with really brilliant execution.”

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Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge is the deputy editor of Real Business, specialising in media, innovation, technology and the digital sector. A media professional with eight years worth of experience he has worked for both startup and established publications.

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