The secret quietly disrupting the peace in the travel market

What’s the knack to Secret Escapes’ success?

— — A version of this story first appeared on — —

White sand beaches, a frosty cocktail in hand and the peace of mind that it didn’t cost the earth to get it. That’s what Secret Escapes do for their customers.

In real terms, Secret Escapes is deal site for luxury holiday packages. If you know the concept behind Groupon, you’ll understand this pretty quickly. The holidays you’ll find on the site are exactly the same as those you could pay hundreds of pounds more for. However, hotels don’t make any money if expensive rooms remain unfilled. That’s Secret Escapes angle. They strike a deal with the hotels to market the rooms in a luxury package at cut-price. The same applies to the airlines, tour operators and restaurants that often make up a complete Secret Escapes’ package holiday. These are flash sales, available for a limited time and only bookable to holiday on limited dates.

Exclusivity is created by the site’s member-only status (for where there is luxury there surely must be exclusivity). Entry to the club isn’t too strict though as it’s free to sign up. Membership allows you entry to a world of luxury travel options at huge discounts. As their advertising boasts, you get the same room and service as the people next to you in your hotel but at a far lower price — up to 70% lower in fact. And thus, Secret Escapes is a door through which you and I have the chance to treat ourselves to travel, service and luxury that *should* be out of reach for us. Think spacious, pool-side hotel rooms, in hotels with impeccable views.

Back in London, in an office location that’s not quite City aka stock brokers, lawyers etc and not quite Tech City i.e. the hotspot for start ups in London with Old Street being the epicentre, is the team behind Secret Escapes putting in the grunt work behind the glossy holidays. The company is just 4 years old but has already gained 10 million users and continues to grow 260% year on year.

This is what disrupting the travel market looks like; modern marketeers, using digital innovation to sell adventure, relaxation and luxury self-indulgence. The media headlines scream of wealth and big name investment, “British luxury travel site Secret Escapes just raised $60 million”, “Google invests in Secret Escapes”, “The Secret Escapes ‘nerds’ who found success with hotel luxury on cheap”.

Those nerds are Alex Saint, Tom Valentine and Troy Collins. Saint and Collins both have experience in travel. They worked together at Dealchecker, a price comparison site, and it was at Dealchecker that the idea for Secret Escapes was dreamt up. Tom Valentine was brought in for his knowledge of ecommerce.

In another interview with The Evening Standard in 2013, Saint confessed,

“There’s a lot of science to what we do, but there’s also a little bit of magic, that we don’t necessarily and perhaps won’t ever understand, as to why one deal really flies and another one doesn’t.”

It seems they’re narrowing down that mystery though as they’re consistently achieving growth.

Over the summer I went looking for some insights into the strategy that is obviously working so well for Secret Escapes. (Discloser: Secret Escapes is an early user of Formisimo, a form analytics tool and where I work, and their optimisation team have been very supportive from the beginning). What I found was a humble, personable bunch of people, heads down, getting on with it all. The brash headlines don’t seem to have gone to their heads. It’s all rather calm and considered, quiet.

The ‘optimisation team’, as I’ve referred to them, is a division of Secret Escapes that uses methods of conversion optimisation to improve the product and the website and ultimately increase sales.

Conversion optimisation, or conversion rate optimisation (a term many professionals in the industry are trying to get away from), acronym CRO, is an up and coming method in online marketing. These methods aren’t brand new but they are gaining traction. Marketers are finding it increasingly difficult to succeed with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), the old darling of the marketing world. SEO is more competitive than ever and produces a lower return on investment than it ever has before. It also has a reputation for trying to game the search engines. Although thought leaders such as Rand Fishkin tell us that to do well at search you must cater to users, it’s conversion optimisation that actually focuses on improving the conversion path and that means making things easier for users.

Conversion optimisation looks at the journey users take on site to achieve their goals. Optimisers isolate parts of conversion path and run experiments to find out what changes could increase users success through that part of the site. Got it? Okay, let’s go on.

To understand how Secret Escapes are using CRO, I spoke to two product owners in the company, Thomas Evans and Rohit Gupta. Thomas has been with Secret Escapes since the beginning while Rohit joined the expanding product team in 2015. Although both Thomas and Rohit work under Head of Product, Marianna O’Hagan, they say there is little division of roles or hierarchy in the product team.

Rohit, an enthusiastic and fresh-faced all round ‘product guy’, introduced me to the structure of the product team.

“Everyone does a bit of everything but if you want to break it down to who has ownership of a particular area, I’m more on qualitative testing and Tom is more quantitative. We don’t tend to talk about it in that way though.
We each know what other people on the team are doing because we work closely. It’s divided by projects rather than products. Our similarities are that we’re all driven by metrics.”

Letting data and metrics lead decision-making is the essence of conversion optimisation. So is continually seeking to improve on your existing numbers. While bigger, older companies are struggling to make cultural changes to accommodate conversion optimisation, Secret Escapes has always done things this way.

Thomas, who is a keen traveller (read his post on his adventures in Kyrgyzstan) and one of the original conversion optimisers at Secret Escapes tells me,

“Optimisation was here from day one. Tom Valentine (COO) was already pro-optimisation. He led much of the early A/B testing, has always been a huge supporter of on-site optimisation. We test and iterate. Almost everyone here has read the lean startup, and buys into many of those principles.”

With that kind of culture it’s also the norm to try out new methods and tools.

“We trial tools at the same time as trying new things on the website. If we spot something that we think will help us then we’ll try it out. Whatever helps our team do their job better. Staff can bring tools to the team and we’ll trial them.”

Another trait of conversion optimisation as a discipline is that its practitioners never presume to know what will work. They trust the data more than their hunches, experience or pre-conceptions.

“The most surprising thing is when we run a drastic test and it doesn’t see change.”

In fact, the team rely on numbers above other sources of insight, to guide them. Rohit, who I am told is responsible for qualitative data as required, is keen to reiterate,

“We work on numbers first. We’re very much data led and we find that that tells us where something’s not right. We can then investigate further by going on to qual (qualitative testing).”

Discussing qualitative testing allows me to put it in opposition to quantitative testing. Thomas, Rohit and the rest of the team look primarily at data from analytics tools, which give them hard numbers to work on. They’re not unappreciative of what their users think and feel but Rohit explains that they’re still working using lean principles,

“I’d like to do lab testing but time is a big factor for us. We watch back session recordings (screen recordings of users on the site) and those offer us a lot of insight.
We actually have a great customer service chain and we make the most of the feedback that they get. The sales team also pass on hotel feedback. It’s a great chain from customer to support to product team.”

So, despite their successes, Secret Escapes still trust the modest methods that got them to this stage, as Thomas laughingly tell me,

“I get laughed at in the office for saying this, Google sheets are one of my most useful and used tools. I use them for everything; whether to track tests or maintain a backend for a large test. They’re the most versatile thing I use and I do get laughed at for saying that.”

He goes on,

“Google sheets are so useful because they allow us to do things cheaply. We use Google forms to gather feedback from the website. It allows us to start off very cheaply — something we’ve stuck to from the beginning.”

Thomas also believes that Secret Escapes’ competitive edge is the product concept that it began with i.e. hand picked hotels for members only mailing list that requires active engagement to join.

“I think it will always be discounted flash sales of luxury holidays, maybe down the road we’ll expand into other things too.”

On the subject of future plans, it’s clear that the product team are wholly focussed on the growth of the product in its current form.

“We have a roadmap for the next 3 months in advance. We’re not afraid to add something to the site, try it, take it off, add it again if they want to try again.
We’ve got ideas for what we’d like to do in 6 month or a 1 year but it’s not in the roadmap as such because we work more quickly than that, adapting to right now.”

Since speaking to Thomas and Rohit, Secret Escapes have made two noteworthy announcements. The first is a new site, Secret Fashion and the second, a partnership with Gilt luxury travel site. How these will link with the existing product team, I don’t know, but I do take it as a sign of the strength of the core business and its optimisation practices.