Rebecca Masri, and her brainchild Little Emperors, are taking the tech travel industry by storm. In a new age of travel, The Sybarite speaks to Rebecca on the trends born out of the pandemic, personalising luxury with tech and bridging the gap between male and female entrepreneurs.
We would love to just start with a little bit of a background, tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you came to create Little Emperors.
So I guess I started back in investment banking, when I graduated many, many years ago.
About 8-10 years into my career, the market crashed in 2008. And this changed the lives of so many people who travel for work. A lot of luxury hotels were removed from the corporate travel platform. This presented an opportunity to create what is now Little Emperors, a membership club signing corporate rates, which are negotiated through a collective buying power of a very large membership base.
Little Emperors was formed initially just for fun, and now turned into a business. And in the last few years, we’ve got quite a large leisure offering as well as a corporate rate. So as a business, we’re a login-only travel platform, which has access to both corporate rates negotiated through collective buying power of our members, and then also leisure benefits.
We’ve got both the web and app based presence, and consider ourselves as an essential travel companion, for value. Our business model is very much focused on value in luxury, as opposed to the service that a traditional concierge might offer. So there are companies, like The Sybarite, who specialise in sort of handcrafted itineraries, we just connect members to the hotel, and we broker rates. We’re about booking quickly, using technology to book quickly through four clicks to complete a booking, and delivering value and luxury through our collective buying power. That’s essentially the business model of Little Emperors.
How did your career evolve from investment banking to working on Little Emperors full-time?
When the market tumbled, a lot of investment banks were sensitive to being associated with luxury. So their existing travel platforms, disconnected from luxury tier hotels, leaving the luxury hotels with a big gap of their occupancy. People, obviously, still travelling in business wanted to have the corporate rates and luxury properties. And at the same time, a big boom in SMEs evolved as people lost jobs in larger federal corporations. And those SMEs didn’t have such regulations on travel but didn’t have volumes to negotiate rates.
So the twofold opportunity presented itself to negotiate rates, corporate rates and luxury hotels. We then used collective buying power of all the members that have been signed up to approach the luxury property and say,, consider that you’re not actually presenting a luxury corporate solution to large banks anymore, give it to us, and we’ll bring the consumer back in. That’s how it evolved from that. And suddenly, I found myself in a lot of trouble as the business completely took off.
You focus a lot on tech – how did the company evolve to that and what does that involve?
We have a cookie cutter travel agent model, which involves logging in or not logging in, searching a city or hotel, selecting a room and booking. But we really wanted to differentiate ourselves, especially in such a competitive space, so we spent a lot of time and investment in technology. Today, we would be categorised probably as more of a tech company. I’m not a tech person, well, I wasn’t, now I am. There is lots of engaging in conversations with developers, we’ve taken on a credible CTO, Chief Tech Officer, and recently an incredible CPO, Chief Product officer, who actually was at Mr & Mrs Smith for 20 years, and she joined us.
The user journey which they call in the UI/UX, which begins from the moment you arrive on our websit or app, is engaged on so many different levels – content, imaging, to actually prompting tactical suggestions. So based on that particular member’s booking history, we know if they have kids, if they like spa, if they like food etc. We have got a lot of data on our clients that we use to their advantage to actually present really relevant offers, promotions, and we work really closely with our hotel partners to make sure that we’re armed with the relevant information to present to our clients. Being able to really hold relevant information on our members and information from our hotel partners and work really closely with the hotels to make sure that we’re selling them in the right way.
I think that is what people are looking for nowadays, that element of personalisation to the customer’s needs and desires.
It leads to a very interesting conversation about personalisation. I think in luxury, we’ve always associated personalisation with the human touch. And we’ve been very much pro personalisation through technology. And it’s quite controversial to say that sometimes, because of course, when it comes to itinerary building, and tailor made experiences, you need humans behind that. But really, the personalization that we’re able to actually do with technology is phenomenal, because you don’t actually need humans to be at the end of that engagement. And I think, with tech, the data that come through each member profile, really allowing us to have so much good information on clients, allows for our system to really be personalised to that person without having to call up and ask someone you don’t know about a hotel restaurant recommendation in a city that maybe they don’t know. So we really get that all through our technology, and much faster as well.
What was it like starting your own business and leaving that corporate finance world to fully invest yourself in Little Emperors? And then having to face a year like the one we just had..
I mean, it was definitely an interesting journey for me because I was so consumed by work at the time, the hours are long and you get used to going into the city every morning sitting in a team. And then suddenly to be on my own, with a friend of the time, and hiring people and having to interview people, getting an accountant – it’s all quite scary! Then this year turned out to be the scariest of all, as we’ve got a really big team behind us now and making sure that we’re all staying together.
We were quite fortunate in the sense that our model works with membership fees, okay, so we’ve managed to keep our head well above water. And similarly with our booking volumes, they were not as impacted as we thought they would be because with school closed, people who are away have just stayed away. So our length of stay has really increased. But it’s definitely a scary time but also so rewarding. Our team is the backbone and the heartbeat of our business. And I say that to them regularly. They’ve been with us from the beginning, and while we are growing as a team, it’s the same people predominantly over and over again. And we just love working as a team and actually this period, it’s shown how we are all like a big family – cheesy but true! We are all women in our London office while our tech office is mostly men, and although that could be a difficult dynamic, for us it really works.
Do you have any tips for women trying to start their own business?
There are so many tips I could give here. Ultimately, it’s about being brave, working hard – overnight millionaire mentality doesn’t happen!. Believe in what you’re doing. Little Emperors was something we created for ourselves, It was something we wanted to use which is always quite nice because then you’re the user too. Sell it before you build it, I think that is also really relevant. Talk about it. Find out if someone wants to put money towards it.
Back to your question on women I don’t like to differentiate ideally, I don’t really like to say that women today should be doing things differently to men, I feel like empowering women should be about allowing women to be women and not making women try to be men in the business world. Women in business and their approach should be as relevant and equivalent to men in business. And I think the differentiation sometimes, is the problem.
How has this last year impacted your business and the businesses you work with? What trends have you seen grow from the pandemic?
There are so many things that have come out in the last year. A lot of these things were probably already around in the background. I think certain trends that have been born as a result of the pandemic, the obvious one being services and hotel sanitization, etc. But I think we’re all pretty bored of hearing about hotel products and how often housekeeping comes to the room and that they’re going to sanitise your suitcase and that you have to wear a mask. I think that conversation, it’s just been exhausted by everyone at this point.
I think the point is travelling and the luxury of travelling in general, you can assume a level of sanization and you can also assume that level of hygiene increased since Corona. Things like F&B in a hotel and minibars, buffet breakfast – are they going to change? How long are they changing for? And then comparing the situation in London vs Miami for example, adjustments differ globally according to how a nation is dealing with Corona too.
I think buyer behaviour is also really relevant to the change. This starts at office closures, and will this potentially prompt travel?. I mean, if my office was closed for the next year, I’d like to perhaps experience a different country. And that’s really given birth to the immersive traveller, for example someone who says – I’ve never been to Portugal before, I’d like to go for a month, and understand the land, the culture, the food, everything, and I can work from there. So with offices closed, you get a lot of longer stays.
At the moment, of course, the short lead times of bookings are a big change as people are so uncertain about what might happen, so that comes hand in hand with the need for flexibility in cancellations. We were trying to push bookings for after May when we can probably travel that have a really flexible cancellation policy. But people were still reluctant, especially if deposits are required to actually make any commitments, with a longer lead time.
But certainly, as I mentioned, I think this concept of slow travel will really prevail. Everyone’s life has been stuck at home for the last year and everything’s on a slower pace with working from home. I think when this all calms down, a traveller will want to travel to places for longer, not rushing around – the idea of travelling less, but better – longer, more immersive trips and more time spent in the destination to explore your surroundings.
Single flight destinations will obviously become more popular, where people do not want to transfer or transfer as little as possible, because what if that or that border closes. Similarly, yet sadly, people will consider – does this destination have good hospitals? This may not be something pleasant we like to think about but it is actually a question that is coming up quite a lot when people book trips. Are there ventilators? How far will the hospital be from the hotel? That sadly has to become a reality when travel is booked nowadays.
As an overall trend, we are expecting the leisure side to come back next year in full force. I think a lot of these will be delayed occasions, like, oh, I was supposed to go on my honeymoon and I pushed it back, I was supposed to get married, but I pushed back, I promised my mom a 50th birthday trip, that sort of thing will all happen next year. I foresee when people are comfortable with the vaccine and all the rest of it, we expect travel in 2022 really, really increased. Corporate travel, for us, we don’t really expect a quick return sadly, but you never know.
We are seeing multi generational trips becoming more requested. I think people may have spent long periods away from their family, family that are in different areas of the world. And it’s been a really challenging part of Corona for people to be away from their immediate family. So perhaps multi generational trips will become more popular, with people renting villas, also for the privacy of being in a villa versus the fear of maybe catching germs in a hotel.
Also, this whole thing of isolated travel and isolated escapes, like going somewhere that’s really private, going to big open spaces. I think a lot of our members have been cooped up in cities for a while. I’ve been in London for the last few months and I just really want to get my car and drive along the mountains, you know? Lastly, of course, the biggest one is wellness. I think wellness is something that has always been a trend for our clients. And similarly has increased in the last year, with health being at the forefront of everyone’s mind. And hotels have really defined wellness programs, which is great, because when I first started, I thought wellness was like a hotel with a sauna. And actually, today, you know, it’s such a crowded but varying space – from going to like an ashram in India or am I going to have some Botox?
That definition with well being just being at the core of wellness and anything that comes off it with tailored therapies and treatments with expert instruction at any level.
Is the reaction to the pandemic and the possibility of travelling again, different for different generations? Has the pandemic scared an older generation off travelling simply in fear of their health? Or will the vaccine, in your opinion, bring everything back to normal?
It’s an interesting point. I would have agreed with you up until about three weeks ago, when I felt a shift, because the older generation have actually been vaccinated. Like my parents, for example, have been vaccinated. And whilst they would absolutely not get on a plane before, now can’t wait to get on it. Because they suddenly feel safe, because they’ve had this vaccination. I was speaking to someone who runs art events and her buyers are mainly the older generation, and they’re actually doing an event in the States in May, an actual event with humans. And I was how are you doing that? And she said, we only really want the older generation there and they have all been vaccinated. I would be nervous to go through an event with hundreds of people until I’m vaccinated. At Little Emperors, we don’t have many older generation clients. Most of our members are young. The older generation, the few we do have, have actually made bookings with us and we haven’t heard from them in a year. And now they’re confident because they have been vaccinated.
What are you most looking forward to post pandemic or post vaccination?
It might be an odd one, but quite frankly, it’s just to be back in a buzzing city with art, theatre, restaurants, pubs. In normal life, I would’ve said, I just want to go sit on an island. But I miss the city! I miss being in a buzzing hub! Versus.. Home alone…
When it comes to travel I would 100% go to Tel Aviv. I miss it so much, I have a lot of friends and family there, and I am so used to going there regularly. New York is definitely another one. So definitely cities. We have been isolated for so long, so whereas the dream destination would otherwise always be something like the Maldives, we need that life around us, people we miss and love.
What can we expect from Little Emperors and from you in the next few years?
Alot of very cool technology that we’re working on and a lot of content. We are very content driven on our website to really enhance that user experience from the UI UX, from when they log in to the content, we are developing very cool features on the app, which really adds to the content and the user journey. So that’s what we’ve been busy with in the background.
Some of it has already launched – one of them is actually the calendar view. So you can actually see rates for any hotel in a six month spread. So if I wanted to go to a specific hotel in Hampshire, and I didn’t have a specific date in mind I can, in one click, open the calendar, and it will show me a six month spread. And it ties into what we were talking about earlier, with offices being closed people have more flexibility, they’re not stuck to Christmas and Easter to actually experience something. And then we’ve also got loads of other features coming out in the next few months, which we’re really excited about.