HotelsCombined’s CEO Hichame Assi: Find your niche and focus on it 100%
Founded by a team of technology and digital business experts in Sydney Australia, HotelsCombined allows travelers to search for hotels in over 120,000 destinations worldwide. Due to some sources, their annual revenue is more than $100M with a user base more than 200 million users. HotelsCombined is impressive for being a startup with such a scale that has been fully bootstrapped since its founding in 2005. Recently HotelsCombined is transforming into a new phase with a new CEO. And Hichame Assi will be sharing for us some insights from his view.
How is HC growing now?
HA: At HotelsCombined we’re focused on building sustainable and profitable growth. 2016 was a great year for us that exceeded even our own expectations. We facilitated 5.2 million bookings for our users worldwide and achieved more than 50% growth for the year. As a small independent company with under 150 people, we’re quite proud of our achievements.]
You have recently stepped up to become CEO, how is it like?
HA: Yes, I have been acting CEO for a couple of years now, but the title was formalized in mid 2016. We haven’t put much emphasis on the title change – , I remain dedicated to building and growing a team of high-performers who can maximize the potential of our great hotel comparison product.
What is it like one of your typical days at HotelsCombined?
HA: there is no typical day at HotelsCombined! We are in a constant flux of change, but all my activities relate to:
. Keeping HotelsCombined relevant to our users, partners and suppliers
. Keeping the team motivated and aligned to our strategic focuses
. Maximising opportunities for partnerships and brand building
What’s your approach to managing time and getting things done?
I try to be as responsive as possible to my team and ensure that I’m never a bottleneck, so a lot of my time revolves around being available for the team.
I also focus on bringing the team together, I find the better the team knows each other and understands what each person or individual team is working on, the better the collaboration. I put aside a few hours (first thing in the morning and last thing at night) to dedicate to my own stuff.
What do you think about Skyscanner, Kayak, Trivago? Now Agoda/Booking/Expedia, TripAdvisor and even some of the local players like Traveloka from Indonesia, Alitrip are also aggressively competing together in Asia, is it too many heavy-weight players for one cake?
HA: I would normally say no..
Asia is a massive ‘cake’ and each market is different and each travel company has a slightly different positioning and offering.
Even when they are similar I feel there is still enough room in the markets for multiple players. However, there has been some interesting consolidation in the meta-search space over the last few months, and I imagine there will be more consolidation in 2017 and 2018. Asia is still a growing market with a lot of potential…
Online travel is a super competitive field, from your view what are the key things for startups to compete with the giants?
HA: find your niche and focus on it 100%. Don’t try to be too many things to too many people as it’ll distract you from your full potential.
If you manage to own a niche segment or specific market you will be able to build value and compete effectively. The key is to be focused and agile.
How many countries HotelsCombined are operating in ASEAN at the moment? Does the travel meta search model work well in this region?
HA: we have 42 languages globally and cover all the ASEAN markets at the moment. However, we are only proactively marketing in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia – where we are trying to replicate our successes in North Asian markets Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s still early days, and as an independent player we are trying to be smart about how we acquire new users in these markets. We also have a strong affiliate platform that is utilized by many ASEAN partners who leverage our technology to offer their users accommodation options and monetize better.
How would people know about HotelsCombined in Asia, eg which are the popular channels?
HA: we are testing TV and digital marketing (Search, mobile and social channels). However these are big markets, and we are in the very early days… so have not yet reached a big segment of the audience.
Southeast Asia is a growing region with lots of middle classes, it’s also the fastest growing travel region in the world last few years, so do you see any trends and insights from the way Southeast Asians travelling? Where are the top domestic and outbound destinations of ASEAN travelers?
HA: We see an increase in trips by infrequent travellers and this data is backed by a PhocusWright study that we participated in recently.
Southeast Asians travel trends have been going strong for the past few years due to the growth of low cost airlines in the region. We’re also expecting top 10 destinations booked by APAC users to remain the same in 2017, with Thailand as the preferred destination.
However, there has been increased interest in Japan which has been one of our favorite outbound destinations throughout 2016. Taiwan has also increased in its popularity as we can see from the increasing number of bookings of hotels in Taiwan. This could be because of the visa-exemption program that’s now in place for some ASEAN countries.
Mobile commerce is a new wave now, especially in Southeast Asia with Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines usually top the world for mobile usage and Twitter/Facebook/Instagram users. How would HotelsCombined ride this wave? How about the percentage of HotelsCombined mobile users?
HA: our mobile user base is growing tremendously fast and has crossed the tipping point when it comes to traffic. It’s still lagging behind when it comes to conversion and bookings being made, but we’re seeing good progress. We’re trying to leverage social channels on mobile to acquire users that way.
We’re also quite interested in chat applications like LINE which has huge reach in this region… but it will require a lot of testing to work out how to best leverage these channels.
What do you think is the biggest thing that HotelsCombined accomplished in 2016 and what is the biggest challenge ahead?
There is no single big thing…we’ve made progress with a lot of small and iterative accomplishments.
Improvements to our product and user experience, improvements in our understanding and utilization of data, improvements in our brand marketing and improvements in the alignment of our various teams.
What do you see from the travel space in Southeast Asia and Asia in the next five years? What would be the next big things?
HA: It’s pretty clear that the present and future for this region is mobile. With social media and chat applications incorporating ecommerce functionality and artificial intelligence, we believe the travel category will evolve with it and refine the use of these channels for acquisition rather than just PR and marketing.