Chris Orrell founded HotelStayUK in 2003 at the age of 23. The idea behind it was both simple and groundbreaking for its time. By operating as a closed online member club, Chris was able to negotiate great discounts on hotel rooms and offer them as a staff perk to employees of large companies.
He has since gone on to launch a number of products under the HotelStayUK umbrella, including AfternoonTeaforTwo.co.uk, HotelHippo.com and HotelDailyDeals.co.uk, and launched the company’s flagship consumer brand, HotelVoucherShop, in 2007. HotelVoucherShop vouchers and gift cards are now sold both online and by leading retailers.
Q: What inspired you to start up HotelStayUK?
A: After graduating from University, I worked for Rank (the European leisure and entertainment company) and soon became a sales manager for Haven and Butlins. It was while working there that I had the idea that was to form the basis of HotelStayUK. While existing companies sold discounted hotel rooms to businesses, no one was offering these business rates for staff to use at their own leisure.
Having worked in the industry for some time, I knew that many hotels were unwilling to open offer these big discounts direct to consumers – they would see it as running the risk of devaluing their own brand. My idea was simple - by setting up a closed user member club, we could offer these discounts.
Q: This is a popular industry, with many competitors. Was this a concern when starting up?
A: When we started up, there were relatively few big online hotel travel agents. As a start-up, we knew our only way to succeed would be to find a low cost way to market hotels, and a clear niche. Primarily our niche was to create a hotel members club for staff, simultaneously getting new members and providing discounts to keep both users and hotels happy. It’s a simple and effective business structure that really works; and having this database of happy customers and happy hotels continues to keep us a step ahead of competitors.
There is a lot of price-fixing in the hotel industry, but operating a members-only websites helps us get around this obstacle to offer real value. We find that operating in niche areas is far more successful than competing with the ‘big boys’.
Q: What is HotelStayUK’s USP? Did you find it hard to set yourselves apart from the other online businesses in the hospitality and leisure industry?
A: We primarily are a hotel members club. Our key point of difference is that we offer discounts that you cannot get if you are a member of the general public.
In the case of HotelVoucherShop, the consumer hotel gift site we launched in 2007 off the back of HotelStayUK’s success, the huge amount of choice we offer really sets us apart from competitors. The gift cards and vouchers we sell can be redeemed at over 74,000 hotels worldwide, including many big chains. They are now sold in big retail stores such as Tesco and WH Smith, and we feel they are the first and best in class for hotel gift vouchers in Europe now.
Q: What difficulties did you face when launching new products such as HotelVoucherShop, and CottageStayUK?
A: I have always had a knack for spotting relevant gaps in the market – and this is why I have gone on to launch a number of new products in the hotel and gifting industries. The hard part is always bringing the ideas to life in a sustainable way. When creating a new offering, the main difficulty you face is resource. Quite simply, you can never have enough man-power when launching new products.
Until new products show signs of success, we tend not to invest too much money in them. It is generally not until we have gauged the public’s response to a new product that we invest heavily and are able to put the right amount of man-power in place.
The first six months post-launch are really hard work for the team, but always worth it. Seeing something brand new hit the right nerve and make sales is the thing that most excites me.
Q: During the first few years of your entrepreneurial experience, did you find yourself working every day?
A: Yes, is the simple answer! I worked all day and often all night. I pretty much missed my 20s for work and did not have the social life of most of my friends that age. Once I had the idea for HotelStayUK, I wanted to push forward no matter what. I had faith that all the sacrifices I made back then would pay off – and thankfully this has been the case.
Q: How do you balance your business and family/social life now that the business is established?
A: The hardest thing, as a small business owner, is to balance work and family time. I’m still very hands-on with the business and so it can be a challenge to switch-off. I used to work every weekend, but since having my little girl, Cleo, I have very much changed the way I work. I now get up really early on Saturdays, go into work at around 7am so that I can finish midday and enjoy time with my family on a Saturday afternoon.
Q: Do you think an individual has to possess certain skills and characteristics in order to be a successful entrepreneur?
A: Yes, if you want to find success as an entrepreneur you must, above all else, be highly motivated, competitive, and be able to use common sense. Quite simply, you need to be a grafter, with real determination to succeed. Everything else you can learn along the way.
Q: Has starting your own business always been one of your goals?
A: Yes. I’ve worked in a number of different roles and environments, from supermarkets to car hire companies. When working for other people I always thought “that could be me”. Corporate environments really don’t suit me; I’ve always preferred to do things my own way, and being my own boss was always my dream.
Growing up, I was not what you would call ‘well-off’. I made a decision very early on in life that I never wanted to struggle. Having your own business means being wholly responsible for your own success.
Q: What advice would you give to businesses that may be struggling in the recession?
A: Concentrate on your core; know your strengths and never lose sight of what you’re best at. That said, don’t ever stop looking for new angles and areas to develop in order to broaden your scope.
HotelStayUK has survived by offering diverse products that play to our strengths – we know the hotels and gifting industries inside out. If one branch of the business suffers, which some have, other new areas naturally pick up the strain.
Another piece of advice I live by is “sell, sell, sell”. Sales are what business is all about and all too often business people lose sight of this. No matter how brilliant your business, you will always lose clients and there will always be tough times. If you can pick up more clients than you lose, you will always do better. Never rest or stop developing clients and new ideas around your core business.
Last and by no means least, keep an eye on costs! Don’t overspend or overtrade.
Q: If you could start-up all over again, would you change anything?
A: Yes, I would work to acquire more funding from day one to accelerate growth. That said, I’m very happy with the path I have taken.
Q: What is the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
A: The best thing about being an entrepreneur is seeing your ideas transformed into successful businesses. It’s also great to see other team members do well and learn – I’m really privileged to be in the position to mentor my very ambitious employees.
Q: What stops you from giving up on your business ventures when you are frustrated?
A: It’s easy to wind yourself up when coming across an obstacle however frustration actually triggers me to work harder. I try to focus on solutions rather than problems, and it’s often in those difficult situations that the best ideas are born.
Q: What are your business plans for the future?
A: We are growing globally and doing so successfully on fairly tight budgets.
Operating an international company is a very exciting new challenge, and has been my dream since day one. We are also looking to occupy the market we are in, across all verticals within the hotel member and hotel gift market. My aim is to make it so that no matter where you purchase a hotel gift, from us or from the hotel direct, we operate the technology and the sale comes via us.
Q: What three pieces of advice can you offer to entrepreneurs?
- Have a well thought-through plan. Be clear on your strategy and position in the market, work out a low cost way to start your business and what returns you will get, then work out a way with funding and lots of money and do the same, decide which you are happy with and get up and running as it may be you can do it with a low cost base and not have to put your house on the line or get outside investment
- Stay open to ideas and keep an eye on your market and competitors. Watch what people are doing in the US or other countries where technology is moving faster than in the UK and try to get there first
- Keep selling and moving forward. Never rest or become complacent as someone will always be coming up behind you.