How Blake Hutchison is leading Luxury Escapes, a $200 million holiday provider for sophisticated travellers
Tuesday, September 13, 2016/
Australia’s travel industry is a fiercely competitive clash between budget operators and higher end offerings. Travel deal provider Luxury Escapes has found a niche by courting a group of Australian travellers chasing that “VIP” feeling – those wanting to book packages with added extras like car transfers and spa services, while leaving all the details to the experts. The website lets customers book complete package deals with palatial accommodation – think ocean views from The Ritz-Carlton Hawaii or evening cocktails on the rooftop of a five-star Singapore hotel.
Under the ownership of Lux Group, the operator that also manages online brands such as The Gourmet and Brands Exclusive, Luxury Escapes has notched up a 198% year-on-year growth rate and secured $200 million of revenue last year.
Luxury Escapes general manager Blake Hutchison has had a varied career, including stints at Lonely Planet and cloud accounting platform Xero. He’s traded business travel for project management and has a front-row seat to watch an industry that is being constantly “disrupted” by technology and new models of accommodation. Since arriving at the company in April, he’s has had plenty of time to speak with a group of sophisticated online shoppers about the holidays they want.
My background with travel began with Lonely Planet in the US. I also worked for a tech travel company in San Francisco before my “entrepreneurial” journey really began. It’s been a pretty multi-faceted career so far.
Travel has been one of the only truly innovative industries in the online space. For us, the goal is to have a vision for the world’s best holidays and provide a hand-picked, road tested selection of them.
We negotiate on the customer’s behalf, looking for good deals on price. If you’re a mainstream travel agency, you might be dealing with 10,000 hotels at a time. We focus on our ability to look for quality.
A lot of success is about building trust and integrity. With holidays, you really have to sell and then deliver exactly what is expected. The offers have to go through a rigorous process of getting the devil in the detail beforehand.
Our customers get a VIP experience and mainstream Australia is really coming to expect this kind of holiday – a “flop and drop” kind of thing, I call it, and they’re looking for a hand-held experience to organise it.
For me, I absolutely love the “flop and drop” aspect of what we have on offer. What I personally love is a sunny destination, some cocktails and I’m good to go. Holidays for me now are less about exploring and more about indulgence.
I absolutely do not miss travelling for work – business travel sounds luxurious, but it isn’t. I do love working on models, though, especially around product value, so my current role is much more what I want to do.
I’ve found personal relationships are now more important than ever before. Our other staff members do need to travel, so they have a very strong knowledge of the sector and the relationships we need to build with brands and hotels.
We also always have to demonstrate the success we’ve had before. The worst thing you can do in this industry is over-sell.
We have a high repeat customer base, because we talk to our customers literally every day. They tell us whether we’re doing things right.
Australia has a very strong travel industry and we’ve come to understand that “luxury” is a relative term. At every time on our site there is something for everyone.
Ultimately, we have grand ambitions. We launched in India a few weeks ago and we have a team on the ground there now. Our presence there will focus both on India as an outbound travel market, and repurposing what we already do for the Indian consumer. We’ve seen that India is a great travel destination in its own right and Australians travel extensively in South East Asia.
I think travel is one of those industries that will be constantly “disrupted” and re-disrupted. This means that you just have to keep on talking to your customers.
This has been a really hands-on management role for me. Team leadership and structure and progress is important, but there’s also a lot of strategic things involved in the job.
You have to keep educating your customers about the quality of your brands.
I think customers are more sophisticated than ever before, so then they’re really able to make informed decisions themselves about what they want.
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