Moving up to managing luxury villas makes the leap from just flash sales for hotels and resorts

Miss Chai is planning to expand the management business to Japan, Hong Kong and China.
Miss Chai is planning to expand the management business to Japan, Hong Kong and China. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

Many businesses fear change. But for, its penchant for change has fuelled its growth in the past four years.

Launched in 2012, the Singapore-based company found success as an online booking portal that offers flash sales for luxury hotels and resorts.

Last year, it ventured into providing niche luxury-villa bookings. The move paid off, with sales growing by 100 per cent within a year and the business becoming profitable in seasonal months.

It is bringing in more changes, to make further inroads into the massive online travel agency market that saw annual gross bookings worth US$37.7 billion (S$51.3 billion) last year for the Asia-Pacific region, according to research firm Phocuswright. This is projected to grow to US$71.7 billion next year.

Competing against travel booking giants like Priceline and Expedia, saw the need to differentiate its offerings.

With not many travel portals in the region specialising in the luxury segment, the company appeared to have found its niche.

In an interview with The Straits Times, founder and CEO Stephanie Chai said the company's latest move is managing luxury villas.

It started doing so two months ago, and now lists more than 1,200 villas in 12 countries, mainly in the Asia-Pacific region.

"Given our success in pivoting from flash sales to villa bookings, we felt the next natural step was to branch into management as, to us, our greatest asset is the brand we have built," said the 33-year-old model-turned-entreprenuer, who was born in New Zealand and grew up in Malaysia.

In flash sales, huge discounts (up to 70 per cent) for rooms are given to customers when hotels cannot fill their rooms at regular rates.

"While flash sales was great to launch with, as it was a hot trend at the time, we knew the business model didn't have the legs to go the long run," said Miss Chai.

She noticed that the staycation rental market was doing very well and it was a business that often earned higher commissions too.

So she decided to shift the focus to the niche luxury-villa-booking business last year, even though some investors were against it.

But this strategic move was soon vindicated, as its sales suggested.

She felt that the key value of has always been in its branding, which has been built up over the years through celebrities' reviews and the social media. Its curation of hotels and villas has also established trust with its customers.

"Management allows us to build on this trust by ensuring that guests get the same quality and standards, from booking to check-out," she said.

While Miss Chai loves the Airbnb concept of staying in various places at a cheaper rate, she has always wondered about the consistency of key service elements, such as cleanliness, of such places.

"Luxury-villa owners just don't have the time to manage their property," she said.

So, on behalf of the villas' owners, will take care of customer check-in and check-out, daily cleaning and even offer standardised hotel-quality bedsheets and towels for their managed villas.

"We are something in between Airbnb and hotels, so both the property owners and our customers do not have to worry," Miss Chai said.

She is planning to expand the management business to Japan and Hong Kong. And the huge Chinese market is something she wants to tap in the near future.

"We have built our China booking site and are now just closing a funding round before launching in that country," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'Moving up to managing luxury villas'. Subscribe