TravelerVIPÂ wants to exploit its local advantage and get in early on the growing online hotel market in the Middle East.
Figures from Euromonitor show online travel in the United Arab Emirates alone is worth $1.6bn. In 2012 the online travel market in the Middle East was US$10.4bn and is expected to reach US$15.8bn by 2014.
In addition, VISA says annual ecommerce spend has seen 40% annual growth and average online spend is among the highest worldwide according to the World Tourism Organization.
Further opportunity lies in providing relevant product to Arabic speaking travellers because there is currently a limited amount of local language content according to the startup.
TravelerVIP is manned by a team of 13 led by chief executive Blagoja Hamamdziev, previously with a Sweden-based softtware start up and, chief marketing officer Sameer Poonja, who was vice president of development at Kiwi Collection.
The company has raised more than $1.1m to date including . The bulk was raised during its last seed round of $800,000 led by BECO Capital, an early stage venture capital fund out of Dubai, and key angel investors including Soha Nashaat, former CEO of Barclays Private Bank for the Middle East and Turkey.
The current booking path for most cosumers is to use traditional travel agents, book direct through the hotels or via online travel agents. TravelerVIP is claiming a first on operating a website in the luxury market for hand-picked and curated travel experiences.
Q&A with chief executive Blagoja Hamamdziev:
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves (differently to what is already out there) and for whom?
TravelerVIP is a one stop shop for booking four and five-star hotels tailored to the Middle Eastern traveler. We save time for our customers by hand-picking the best hotels around the world, so customers donâ€™t have to do the research. We save money by guaranteeing the lowest rates with discounts of up to 50%.
We provide unbiased hotel reviews of what makes each hotel unique, in English and Arabic, and all the necessary information to make a booking decision.
Why should people or companies use your startup?
If you are looking for a four or five-star hotel, we offer a great value proposition. First, we do the research for you through our travel correspondents in each major city. We get â€śon the groundâ€ť information to pick the best hotels. Then we use that insight to give you real, unbiased reviews. And since we only pick select hotels in each city, we have leverage to either get you extra perks (free upgrade, breakfast, etc.), periodic special offers (up to 50% discount for certain periods), and in any case, the best price online (or we pay you!).
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
Besides the traditional channels, and online marketing, definitely word of mouth. We are organizing a travel blogger contest with big prizes for getting the word out on our company.
We also believe that partnerships are key, with several deals with banks and publishers ready to be announced shortly.
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
We originally focused on â€śflash salesâ€ť, but have realized that there is a real thirst for quality content in the region. In fact, all three founders and our board of directors are real avid travellers. We realized that saving the time to do all the research, and having a trusted hotel review source, was just as important as getting great prices. So we decided to combine the two, and our model has really taken off!
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
In three years we want to be the first place Middle Eastern travellers think of when looking for a four or five-star hotel around the world. The main challenge to overcome is managing fast growth and hiring and retaining a quality team. Our product is unique with a very strong value preposition. The opportunity is huge as the Middle East consumer is hungry for a travel product tailored to their needs.
We have hundreds of ideas of how to further develop the business, but being able to prioritize and execute is key, otherwise you work on many and get nothing done. Execution requires dedication and a quality team that is sometimes challenging to put together.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
Speaking about our region, and on the B2C side, there is a limited travel offering that is tailored to the Middle Eastern traveller. Global powerhouses like booking.com and expedia do not tailor the product to the market. By tailoring I mean, providing special offers at prices up to 50% lower than booking.com in destinations relevant to the Middle Eastern traveller. Originally written hotel reviews in Arabic that include information relevant to the market (visa information, hotels great for families, hotels that serve halal food etc.).
In addition, mobile will be a key driver (which is why we are rolling out a new application shortly) and anything to do with videos. People in the region love mobile and videos and I think a start-up with a mobile travel video sharing model would do very well.
It’s interesting that despite the amount of negativity surrounding the flash deal sector at the moment there’s no shortage of people creating Â startups around the model with slightly new takes each time.
TravelerVIP (formely known as Rihlaprime) is playing to the home advantage and it is a growing online market ripe for those who get in on it early especially if the numbers quoted above are to be believed. How long it will be able to maintain that first mover position is debateable. There is already competition from the big guys – booking.com, Expedia etc. and even Wego has announced the opening of an office in Dubai in recent weeks.
TravelerVIP is also bringing in the consumer review element via a partnership with TripAdvisor and says it has picked the Â hotels in each city so maybe these elements will help it build volume and generally spread the word.
It’s also interesting that the startup is going for the luxury market as it the more niche flash sale sites might find gaining traction easier.
Of the cash raised so far, the company says it plans to devote it to advertising and expanding the team.
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