Travel Flash!

September 22, 2011

Why Jetsetter’s recent UK launch is likely to give online hotel bookers a run for their money, and why it is not at all like Groupon.

Jetsetter, a members-only flash-sale site, aims to help travellers discover and purchase curated holidays at a discounted rate. Set up two years ago in the U.S., and this week in the UK, funded by flash-sale site Gilt Groupe, it now has two million members, and sells 400,000 room nights through 20-40 flash-sales per week at prices up to 50 percent off.

Drew Patterson, 34 year-old CEO and founder of Jetsetter, reminds me of the eloquent, young, American tech-wizards portrayed in Facebook biopic The Social Network. We meet at the aptly named The Booking Office for breakfast at the Victorian-terminus chic St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

Patterson is no stranger to dabbling in travel technology; after graduating from Harvard, he joined Starwood Hotels where he launched a consortium with leading hotel brands to compete with Expedia and Travelocity. He left to become part of the founding team at KAYAK, thence to Jetsetter.

The genius of the flash-sale model, thinks Patterson, is that it really can enable affordable luxury: “By having a variable inventory, a mix of destinations, limited amounts of rooms, constraining the amount of inventory available on any given night, our partners are able to […] segment their customer base and address this audience that otherwise wouldn’t be coming to us.” Eighty four percent of his customers say that they discovered a property by seeing it on Jetsetter.

As the bad news continues for daily deal company Groupon, whose suppliers seem to be getting the raw end of the profitability deal, deal companies using the flash model can smugly point out that they are driving discounted business in a profitable way by working cannily with their vendors’ inventories. “We know when and where suppliers are looking to fill rooms, trips or boats,” says Patterson, “which allows us to make sure we’re creating profitable business, as opposed to displacing things that would otherwise be sold at a higher rate.”

But is an experience as fretted over as a holiday really suited to the flash model; how many people can make such a spontaneous decision on a holiday? Patterson tells me that it generally happens like this: a couple, or a group of friends, have been talking about taking a trip for a month or more and sort of know what they want to do but haven’t pulled the trigger. Then they see the deal on Jetsetter, think it looks good, and get off the couch and book it. The Jetsetter CEO thinks his site provides a “call to action”. Members can also search and book from a blackbook of 500 favourite hotels featured in the Jetsetter 24/7 collection.

Finding that members enjoy spending time with other likeminded travellers, Jetsetter have also run a couple of members’ events: one was a weekend with a celebrity chef at Surf Lodge in the Hamptons, and the other was a recent 200-people summer camp in Connecticut filled with outdoor activities and yoga.

Digital fantasy
The first thing you’ll notice when surfing to Jetsetter is its simplicity. It’s a good-looking, image-led site, even more pronounced in the iPhone/iPad app which uses 360-degree views of properties.

Though filled with mass-market players like Travolocity, lastminute.com and Expedia, Patterson had a sense that the web’s luxury travel selection was a “huge white space”. Travellers booking opulence need: narrative, emotion, an inspirational shopping experience. “It’s hard to get excited about a link or price point, it doesn’t have emotional appeal, or help me imagine what my holiday is going to be like,” he explains.

To do this, the site draws on a handful of editorial staff who aid the commercial team in selecting appropriate properties and help filter out the noise. A stable of 200 experienced travel writers then go and review said venues. Patterson admits that the couple of times when a writer hasn’t visited a new tour or excursion, they “got burned… it puts us in a place where we’re not living up to the promise we’ve made our clients.”

Sending a writer to a place rather than merely craftily re-writing a press release tends to highlight which locations are suitable for which travellers, so families don’t pitch up, for example, at an 18-30 party hotel. Jetsetter surveys members upon their return, asking them if they got what you were expecting. Patterson tells me that over 90 percent reply in the affirmative.

Unlike online bookers which offer a static portfolio, Jetsetter is “engaged in a daily conversation with our members about travel and how it relates to culture and their lifestyle.” The idea is that members spend perhaps a few minutes each day in escapist mode, gazing dreamily at safari experiences, Med cruises, tropical villas or beachside boutiques.

“We’ve been able to marry the editorial sensibility and inherent consumer interest that you’ve traditionally gotten out of print, to put that into a digital environment, then tie it to commerce,” Patterson concludes, with a flourish.

Watch this space to see how eagerly Brits take to the idea.

Main caption on blog homepage: Screenshot of a section of the new Jetsetter.co.uk

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