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thehotelco to make hotels more 'affordable' - according to co-founder.
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Varun Chopra is confident his new business venture, thehotelco has the potential to ‘disrupt’ conventional ways of booking hotels.
The former Warwickshire, Essex and England Lions batter has co-founded a new online travel company called thehotelco -which provides access to wholesale rates, through a £75 annual membership, and allows you to save up to 40% off your next booking.
The 34-year-old, who featured 425 times in professional cricket has always had a passion for travelling and he believes most people are not aware of the commission they pay to online travel agents when they complete a booking. So he set up his own online company, which went live on April 1, to make hotel rooms more ‘affordable’ and ‘accessible’ for everyone using his membership-based model.
Chopra has spoken to the Association as part of the Professional Players Federation (PPF) Career Transition Week. Throughout the week, the PPF and affiliated associations such as the PCA are showcasing the wide ranging services and resources offered by player associations to help sportspeople prepare for their second career. He discusses his journey away from professional cricket and into the travel industry…
- How have you found the transition away from being a professional athlete?
- I find myself busier now. I have less time than when I was playing – which is good. I haven’t actually missed the game either. I took an extended break after I retired and I didn’t watch much cricket. However, now I am back coaching and doing some media work for the BBC – which I have really enjoyed. It has been a good transition, and this is because I have had lots to focus on.
- What have you enjoyed the most about the early stages of retirement?
- Luckily with Covid, I got to see the family lots during the pandemic but it is all about the kids and family time now. I am home a lot more now. I would have loved my sons to have seen me play in a few games so I am a bit sad that didn’t happen, but it is great to be at home more.
- Can you explain exactly what is your new company, thehotelco?
- It is a commission-free hotel booking website. The normal travel agent or booking website will charge a commission for every booking to cover their overheads and make a profit. We are changing this operating model by charging a membership fee lower than the average commission fee which will make hotel bookings more affordable.
At present, we cover the hotel side of the industry, and we have access to over 500,000 hotels worldwide, including all the major hotel brands. We have something for everyone, from short city breaks in New York to all-inclusive beach resorts in the Maldives.
- Has the travel industry always been a passion of yours?
- The real beauty of playing cricket is the travel. Playing all over the world allows you to experience different cultures. I have always had a real passion for it. When I was only 20, and contracts were seven months rather than the 12 months they are now, I went backpacking around Europe and Asia, in the offseason.
- Where did this idea come from?
- I have always wanted to start a business with my friends – something fun, something we were all passionate about. The lockdown made us all realise how much we missed travelling and we started exploring ways of entering the market.
We did some research to find out more about the way the market currently operates and looked for areas in which we could improve and add value. Research showed that 45% of UK consumers are happy booking their trips online without assistance and that the online bookings were set to grow by 10% per year. This suggested that a significant proportion of people didn’t need the assistance of a travel agent.
Online travel agents make their money through commission, typically 15% but as high as 40%, which the majority of people are not aware they are paying.Our way to enter the market became simple; we wanted to make travel affordable and accessible so we created an online booking website that gave people access to all the best hotels around the world.
- How were the early stages of setting up the business?
- It was new and daunting, and having been a professional cricketer for 17 years and then going into an online business, it was different. A lot of the challenges were the website development and the tech. I have never worked with website developers before so that was interesting! We have a customer service team and so we had to spend some time getting everything in place. We also spent a lot of time making sure the product was ready and then getting it to market was very exciting.
"We know the product works - our average saving per member so far is over £400."
- What have been the biggest challenges you have faced to date?
- We have been live for a month and the biggest challenge is to try and get people away from their preferred way of booking a hotel. Like with any new company, people are always hesitant to try new things at times so we are trying to get members to trust us.
- In order to gain trust and give people comfort, we decided to operate an independent travel trust account, administered by travel law solicitors. When a reservation is made, we don’t ask for a deposit and we only take payment once the free cancellation deadline has passed. This money is held in the trust account and neither we nor the hotel have access to customer funds until the guest has checked in. This provides greater financial protection for the guest.
- Has the company been well received?
- It is early days but we have over 100 members already, which is pretty cool. We have had a decent number of bookings, so we are pleased. We know the product works – our average saving per member so far is over £400. So people are getting good value for their membership which is the main thing. We are trying to improve the site and make it more user friendly as we go.
- What are your aims and aspirations for the company?
- It would be great to get to 1,000 members by the end of our first year – which we think is achievable. Longer-term we are targeting tens of thousands of members. We have seen the popularity of subscription models; we know our product is good and we know it saves people money.
- What support have you received from the PCA throughout the process?
- During Covid-19, I did a travel training course. The Association supported me while I was on the course, where I learnt how to use the systems. The course also helped me understand the travel industry a bit more. The PCA help us with marketing and they make the product available to the PCA members.