HR & Management

Alex Saint: "We hand pick only the very best hotels"

8 min read

24 July 2013

A mixture of thinking big, persistence and self-belief will get your business going, according to Secret Escape's CEO Alex Saint

Name: 

Alex Saint

Role and company: 

Co-founder and CEO of Secret Escape

Company turnover (and most recent ebitda/most relevant profitability metric): 

£27m in 2012, projected to be £65m in 2013

Employee numbers: 

55

Growth forecast for the next three years: 

Forecast turnover 2015 is £350m

In under 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace:

We’re very different from the big players in online travel because everything we sell is exclusive to us while we’re selling it. We hand pick only the very best hotels in the categories we focus on and we make sure we sell significantly cheaper than anyone else in the market.

What’s the big vision for your business?

To go global, and to do it the right way. We’ve got a great business here, with great people – so the last thing we want to do is grow unsustainably. We need to make sure to follow our core beliefs and operate in a transparent and open way at all times – that’s why people value us, and will continue to do so. In terms of achievable goals over the coming months and years, I think a launch in the United States is potentially massive for us.

Current level of international business, and future aspirations: 

We have over 3.5m members in the UK alone, and have recently started operating in Sweden and Germany. We’re passionate about ensuring people get more for their money when it comes to shopping for a holiday, and we feel the model that is working so well in the UK can work elsewhere in Europe and beyond. We’re also thinking big and looking to build Secret Escapes into a truly global brand.

Biggest career setback and what you learned from it: 

I co-founded a travel price comparison business called dealchecker.co.uk which I ran from 2005 to 2011. In 2009 we were very reliant on Google for our audience and one day, without any warning whatsoever, they banned us from advertising. That took me three months to resolve and, in that time, we were in serious danger of having to decimate the business to keep it alive. Through a mixture of persistence and negotiation we did resolve the issue when many would have given up. This highlighted to me that the extraordinary self-belief we had at that time and the value of our mutual support was a super powerful force. I think much of what we have achieved where others have failed is down to a deep seated belief that we can change the course of events.

What makes you mad in business today?

Negative people irritate the hell out of me. I get a great deal of energy from being around ‘can do’ people and I think if you gather enough of us together we can really move mountains. The destructive influence of just a couple of ‘can’t doers’ is something I try very hard to avoid.

What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?

Online travel companies will realise that breadth of product is useless if you can’t help consumers find what they want. We’ll see a return to the values of the good quality high street travel agent where travel companies use their human and technical expertise to help consumers find the right product for them.

Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?

We were fortunate enough to have the proceeds from selling dealchecker.co.uk that we could invest in Secret Escapes. We were also lucky enough to be connected to some experienced internet angel investors like William Reeve, formerly of LoveFilm, so we didn’t struggle to raise our start-up funds. We’ve raised two further venture capital rounds since then and never found the process particularly difficult so I would say that the funding environment for good quality travel companies is not at all bad. Of course, things could always be easier but the government has made angel investing more attractive through the Enterprise Investment Scheme tax breaks and the UK is not a bad environment for raising venture capital so I think that travel companies with great ideas and a great team have a fighting chance.

How would others describe your leadership style?

I would say that we’re a very non-hierarchical business where everyone is encouraged to interact with the founders and share their ideas and concerns freely. I think we give people plenty of opportunity to really make a difference and that in return we expect our team to take real personal responsibility for their areas of the business. We have a business plan that we are very open with and each team has objectives that directly relate to areas of that plan so that they can see exactly how what they are doing impacts on the business. Visitors to the office very often remark on the buzz that they can sense and I’d love to think that because we treat our people like grown-ups and we’re very clear about where we’re trying to get to, everybody feels a strong buy in to the plan.

Your biggest personal extravagance?

I don’t have a long shopping list of stuff I want to buy when I can afford it. From memory, the first thing I bought when we sold dealchecker.co.uk was some nice saucepans! More recently though we had our house renovated and I pushed the boat out and had a swimming pool built. This is by far the most I’ve ever invested in something like this and I have to say that for the past two months I’ve used it virtually every day and I love it more every time I get in it. Money very, very well spent I think.

You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:

I’d ask him to make Enterprise Investment Scheme tax breaks as valuable as possible to encourage angel funding in early stage start-ups, to raise the Entrepreneur’s tax relief threshold even further and to provide much stronger guidance for early stage companies on how to make the most of the legislation and infrastructure that is designed to promote entrepreneurial business.