More Than Just a Flash in the Pan: Secret Escapes’ Big Plans For Germany

By David Knight |

A quick wander through the streets of Berlin’s upscale Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood reveals a surprising theme. Dotted at fairly regular intervals amidst all the trendy fashion boutiques and fancy kids’ stores are old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness travel agents. When was the last time you actually went into one of these places and booked a holiday, rather than doing so online?

But they are still fairly prevalent in Germany, perhaps a sign that, in many ways, the country is behind the likes of the UK when it comes to mass take up of technology. The same can be said for smartphone market penetration, for example.

Thus the travel space in Germany is ripe for, if not exactly disruption, then modernization. The team behind Secret Escapes, a British flash-booking travel platform, certainly think so. This week they announced the acquisition of German startup JustBook, best described as a clone of last-minute hotel booker HotelTonight.

The move will have numerous technology benefits for a company with serious growth ambitions, co-founder and CEO Alex Saint told Silicon Allee earlier this month, but is also designed to help it crack the German market – one in which, he believes, Secret Escapes (SE) should soon find greater success than in its core British space.

The idea behind SE is simple. Unlike online travel agents (OTAs) like and Expedia, the platform is designed to tempt users into trip they were not planning on taking beforehand. Sign up is free, following which regular emails are sent out detailing discounted premium travel options both within Germany and across the rest of the world.

Much like HotelTonight, the platform enables suppliers – in this case hoteliers – to fill up spare capacity while offering users cheap deals.

A Big Statement of Intent

Saint is typical of the well-spoken, slightly older founder with plenty of business experience who can often be found in British startups. Originally from Buckinghamshire, he worked for Unilever before going on to advise media companies on their online businesses, eventually founding the UK’s third-largest travel comparison site, He certainly talks a good game.

And the acquisition of JustBook for an undisclosed sum is a big statement of intent towards Germany from SE, which is also planning a push into the US.

In the meantime, it is hoping to fully benefit from acquiring JustBook, the advantages of which are three-fold according to Saint – in technology, product and market entry. For starters, he said, “they’ve got mobile app development skills and app marketing capabilities that we just don’t have. Right now in the UK we’re not an app-enabled company.” Alongside the technology, JustBook will also fill a hole in the product by offering the kind of last-minute inventory which SE doesn’t currently have.

Obtaining a senior management team in Germany, meanwhile, will “allow us to get to a position within three or four months which would otherwise have taken us 18 months to achieve had we done it organically. The German market expertise enables us to take what is a really successful business in the UK and avoid falling into the trap which a lot of people fall into when they internationalize a business, which is to say we’ve got something successful over here, let’s plonk it over there in exactly the same format and assume that its going to work.”

And, as Saint acknowledged, the “significant” differences between the markets in the UK and Germany have already made their presence known in the seven months which Secret Escapes has been operating here. The biggest so far is in advertising – a key part of the company’s growth strategy, as any viewer of Sky TV in Britain could tell you. The fragmented nature of the UK’s television ad space was not repeated in Germany, a discovery which, says Saint, took months and that was “a classic example of where, if we had had a German team in place, they might have been able to speed us through that learning process more quickly than we did ourselves from the UK.”

Germany ‘Years Behind the US and UK’

But Germany’s travel market is similar to the British ones in terms of its maturity – Germans love going on holiday as much as their Anglo-Saxon cousins – and the fact it is dominated, on the surface at least, by the same large players such as TUI and Thomas Cook.

And yet, just like in the UK, there are hundreds of small and mid-tier travel operators, and it is on these which SE focuses; its “heartland” as Saint puts it. And while he also admits that Germany is “a couple of years behind the UK and the US,” he believes that it is following the same pattern of development – leaving SE in a great position to benefit.

The exploitation of that potential depends on actively growing discretionary travel in Germany. “We believe that our proposition at Secret Escapes is entirely driven by us pushing inspiration at people and changing their behaviour.”

Since its launch in January 2011, SE has managed to gain around 1.5 percent of the highly-fragmented ‘accommodation’ market in the UK – good enough for around sixth place with no one in double figures percentage-wise. With so many challengers, securing market share is all important. But Saint remained bullish about competition in the flash sales sector, naming French company Voyage Privé as their only real global competitor: “In Germany, I would be very surprised if there were anybody who were bigger than us. There are a few small startup type operations but I don’t think there is anybody in Germany with what I would call a global operation where they can leverage the kind of learnings, supply base and knowledge that we’ve got.”

Vouchers a Lousy User Experience

Travel platforms with user-led demand such as won’t come after the flash space, he believes, while the hotel industry “hates working with” voucher players such as Groupon because of a lousy user experience.

“People buy our hotels because they are inspired; we put something ion front of them that they wouldn’t normally see. It’s new demand.”

It’s also repeat demand, with the average number of purchases per purchasing customer at around 1.5, while playing the long game is important, too: “People are becoming new buyers in the same numbers in month 36 [after joining Secret Escapes] as they were in month one. … I can understand why people continue to open our emails three years after they first joined up; it’s because what we sell is beautiful, and even if you’re not interested, you still want to open the email to have a look. People don’t tire of looking at infinity pools and beautiful tropical beaches.”

It all sounds extremely rosy. But cracking Germany will be a seriously hard endeavour, local expertise or no, even if, as the largest travel market in Europe, it’s somewhat of a golden egg for Secret Escapes. Ever the optimist, Saint insisted that “I want Germany to be a €250 million turnover business. If anything, it should be a bigger market for us than the UK, and given the numbers I have seen in the past few months, I see no reason why we can’t do that.”