Middle East’s First High End Travel Club: RihlaPrime

Reem Krisht, Oct 18 2012

Update: RihlaPrime has changed its name to TravelerVIP

Founded by John Fohr, Marc Meunier and Blago Hamamdziev, 3 avid travelers from diverse backgrounds, RihlaPrime is the Middle East’s first high end travel club. The site, whose name was inspired by Arab Explorer Ibn Batūtah's journey, or 'Rihla', offers members-only discounted vacations and destinations offers at up to 70%.

We had the chance to talk to Managing Director Shahdad Jahanbani, who accompanied the founders since the beginning of their journey, to tell us the tale of RihlaPrime from its early days and give us a peak of its plans for the future. Read on for the full interview.

What type of experience do you have in the hospitality industry?

My experience exceeds 20 years in the hospitality industry at world-class hotels in the MENA region and abroad including Radisson Edwardian.

After getting the idea for RihlaPrime, how did you turn it into a reality?

We literally started from a kitchen table in one of the founder’s apartments, working diligently until we were able to bring the concept to life after a lot of hard work! The first couple of months were financed by our founders, after which we attracted a distinctive group of large-scale investors that were impressed with our business model and saw immense promise in the company.

Who is your target market? And if you are looking to expand in the future, where would you consider expanding to?

We are as travel-obsessed as our members. We are happy to welcome anyone who loves traveling and is interested in receiving insider access to members-only prices. With that said, our content and destinations are geared towards the MENA region and the score of avid travelers in the region.

What would you add to the website other than hotels if you were to expand?

We’re currently working to put together packages that include flights so that we can offer our members a well-rounded experience. Some of our packages include tours and spa services that are built-in by the hotels themselves. We do not put together any packages unless they are tied in with a hotel deal to guarantee our members the 5 star luxury experience they've come to expect from RihlaPrime. In the future, we’ll be including Private Chartered Jets as part of our service.

What is the process through which you contact hotels and decide on discounted deals?

We have a dedicated sales team and travel editors that utilizes their many years of experience to target, and form long-lasting relationships with a high standard of hotels. We guarantee all of our hotels and handpick each and every one.

Who are your main competitors? What differentiates you from them?

We are the first luxury hoteldeals club in the region, so as of now we have no regional competitors. Our competitive advantage from other booking sites is our members themselves. Our partner hotels are willing to offer us rates that are much lower than their public rates to market to our closed group of RihlaPrime members. While these private sale prices are attractive, they are only one part of the story. We don’t bother our members with deals, no matter how discounted, on hotels that do not meet our strict criteria. We hand-pick and curate all our offers. And when a member books, we offer concierge-grade customer service to provide the VIP service that our members expect. All these things have helped us create memorable travel experiences for our members each and every time, something that has yet to be done by anyone else.

What do you think the Arabic version of the website will add to RihlaPrime’s growth?

Arabic is an important part of our national identity. We want our members to experience a personalized style of service from the get-go, and making sure that we generate quality Arabic content is a big part of that. Through this approach we hope to break all barriers with our customer base, which will in turn lead to significant growth for the company.

Do the time limits differ for each discount and if so, how do you differentiate between which deal gets what amount of time? How do you address customers who want to book in a destination not featured on a private sale at the time?

The time limits on private sales are set by the hotels, so we work with them to select the applicable timing of the sale.

With regard to the second question, our newest feature is to also offer year-round offers on our collection of partner hotels in select, top destinations. This was done in response to members that wanted to travel to specific destinations where we didn’t have a private sale at the time.

While the hotels that are part of the year-round collection are not featured at our private sale prices, we still offer our members the best publicly available price online. However, unlike the one-size fits all booking websites, we only feature the hotels that we consider to be the best –not the most expensive – in each city, curated by our travel editors. So, if someone is traveling to London, they will know the best 15 hotels to visit based on price, location, service and overall vibe. To sweeten the deal, we will also soon offer members-only perks, such as free breakfast, transportation or upgrades (subject to availability) at these year-round collection hotels.

What are some of the wildest holiday destinations you feature? What countries are routinely featured and why?

We currently have some exciting adventure deals in Kenya and Nepal. In the past, we featured a package in St Mauritz where we included the option to drive an Aston Martin DB9 for 2 days and skydive out of a helicopter. The Middle East region offers our members the opportunity to take small but meaningful trips to close locations, so we feature a great range of those, as well as more exotic destinations like Bali and Kathmandu

Are there any requirements that a hotel must meet in order to be featured on RihlaPrime?

We impose high standards that a hotel must meet before joining our collection. It reaches way beyond the star rating. Unique exemplary service and an excellent reputation among reviewers is an absolute must.

How is RihlaPrime monetized?

We’re very well funded and supported by multiple backers that helped us get off the ground.

How has being part of the Majed Bin Mohamed Innovation Center in5 aided in RihlaPrime’s growth? What other similar companies are part of in5?

We are proud to be the first member of in5, which helps us draw value from leading technology companies and take advantage of their expertise and knowledge.

Majed Al Suwaidi, Director at Dubai Internet City and Dubai Outsource Zone, comments: "in5's ultimate objective is to attract young entrepreneurs and technology innovators from the region in addition to driving the growth of the IT SME sector in the Middle East. We are delighted to welcome RihlaPrime on board and are confident the center will help the venture work within an entrepreneurial environment alongside other technology majors."

What’s in store for RihlaPrime in the future? Where do you see the company in a year or two?

With a pipeline of over 150 of the region and the world’s most exclusive hotels already featured, or waiting to be featured, to our members, we are aiming to be the reference of choice for Middle East travelers looking for uncompromising luxury at prices not available anywhere else, and we have the team to accomplish that.


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