Donna Benton interview: Let me entertain you

Founder and CEO of The Entertainer tells Arabian Business StartUp how her two-for-one offers rose to be the world’s voucher book of choice
By Neil King
Wed 06 Mar 2013 05:01 PM

Since its launch in Dubai in 2001 The Entertainer has been saving customers money with its range of two-for-one offers at a number of different outlets. And now it’s a global success. Founder and CEO Donna Benton told StartUp how it rose from humble beginnings to be the world’s voucher book of choice.

 

Everybody loves value for money. Whether you are earning millions or pennies, the promise of discounts, special offers and bargains is always very welcome.

This widespread thirst is what drove Australian Donna Benton to put together a plan for a two-for-one voucher book, offering Dubai residents great deals on food, activities, and experiences across the emirate.

And so The Entertainer was born. A book full of incentives for consumers, from boutique cafes to grand hotels, all offering two-for-one deals across the board, giving customers a great deal, and allowing participating business to access a new, broader client base.

Starting in Dubai, the brand has grown to become a global success, branching out across the Middle East, and most recently reaching into Singapore, South Africa, Egypt and Lebanon, while enjoying a year on year 30-40 percent profit growth. And there’s no stopping there, with further expansion plans for Europe, Asia, the USA and Africa, on top of the yearly updates in existing books.

Not bad for a woman who arrived in Dubai from Melbourne with just $3,000 to her name.

Clearly industrious and with an eye for a gap in the market, Benton didn’t take long to come up with her idea for The Entertainer and start implementing it immediately.

“It started in 2001, when I came to Dubai,” she says. “I was offered a job which didn’t work out and that’s when I thought of The Entertainer.

“I was driving one day and thought to myself that there are so many restaurants and attractions, but no incentive to go to them. If people have enough incentive to go to these outlets, they could save money as well as drive revenue to all the places in Dubai.

“I did a feasibility study in the internet café next to my house, and then ran to outlets to try to get them on board.”

Knocking on doors and explaining her business model was hard work, but her determination paid off when Marriott became the first outlet to sign up to the enterprise, a moment that Benton simply calls “great”.

As a one-woman business more hard work followed, but as she explains, she didn’t mind putting in the graft.

“It was just me. I basically did everything - going to merchants, stocking books, everything. When you’re starting up you’ve got to save where you can. I didn’t get a salary for the first year. That’s how you build a successful company from scratch – with hard work.

“I never thought it wouldn’t work – I’ve always been totally positive about it. I’ve always had a vision and thought it would succeed. You have to believe in yourself in order to do it.”

After teaming up with an investor, who she bought out four years later, Benton was then able to grow The Entertainer outlet by outlet. But whereas she was initially reliant on her own endeavours to bring businesses on board, she could now count on reputation and word of mouth.

“At the beginning I had to go round to brands to get registrations, but when they came on board, other companies found out and wanted to be involved as well. Big companies introduced us to other companies, and things really grew.

“Where we are now has been twelve years in the making. It’s a proven success – not a one-year wonder. We’ve got great customer loyalty and a lot of the outlets in the most recent book have been with us since day one.

“Our merchant base really is eleven out of ten.”

Signing up big-name brands, however, was not always an easy ride, with several companies trying to dictate what deal they would offer in The Entertainer.

“I really had to hold my ground, and did so from the very beginning,” says Benton.

“I wanted really good brands, but they wanted different deals. I had to hold firm. I had to stick to my business model. I couldn’t deviate otherwise everybody would ask for something different.

“When I started the company I knew it had to be quality. Not a voucher book that people might not want to use. It had to be valid seven days a week. Everything had to be two-for-one.”

Sticking to her guns seems to have paid dividends, as The Entertainer soon flourished, with the launch of books across the UAE and GCC, as well as Dubai books focusing on fine dining, family, body, and travel.

As well as going into other countries, the business also grew its product line to include spas and hotel accommodation, and in early 2012 Abraaj Capital acquired a 50 percent stake in the company. The largest SME investment platform for emerging markets, Benton rates Abraaj’s involvement as one of her professional highlights.

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With the new investment, The Entertainer grew even more, recently launching books for Singapore, Cape Town, Egypt and Lebanon. For the next two years there are plans to operate in the UK, Jordan, Turkey, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand, with even more destinations including Morocco, France, the USA and Macau also scheduled.

Boasting 21 books in fourteen destinations, Benton says there are 500,000 people using the book worldwide, making the most of 352 million vouchers and close to 6,000 merchants, not to mention the company having a strong online presence, with even more benefits and offers.

But growth wasn’t always on Benton’s mind.

She says: “We started in Dubai for the first two years. I’m a big believer in crawling before walking. I definitely thought we needed to establish the brand and get it right, and then expand.

“We first went outside of the UAE because we do a lot of loyalty programmes with banks and they drove us to go to Qatar.

“To go into a new country is hard. We have a skeleton staff, and I would need to go to the country myself to do the feasibility study to be sure it would work there. On the positive side, a lot of merchants in Dubai have outlets in other places, so it came down to a matter of planning really, and working out things such as distribution.

“We have a proven model that works but there are challenges in every country we go to. Competition, different demographs, different spending habits and so on. Asia is very different to the Middle East, for example.

“Everybody is different, but everybody likes value for money. And merchants like to drive business.

“We’ve escalated a lot. What a lot of companies do in seven years, we’ve done in three.”

Growing the business is one thing, but growing the infrastructure of the company is another. From having just one employee in the beginning, and only six in 2005, the company now employs nearly 200 people worldwide, with about 75 in Dubai alone.

“Having a good HR manager is key,” says Benton. “You have to know what you’re looking for when you are employing people. It’s important to me that somebody can be great at what they do.”

As a businesswoman Benton says she has always been hardworking and eager to learn, as well as protective over her company.

“I’ve always been motivated. I’ve worked hard since I was young and have had to teach myself a lot of things along the way. I’ve learnt from a lot of people I’ve worked with, and gathered plenty of knowledge along the way. I’m fortunate that I’ve always been good with figures, so that was a good start for me.

“As a boss I’m fair but firm. My company is like my baby, and I’ve very protective over it. If somebody proves themselves to me, I trust them to do a good job. I try to lead by example, too.”

As a successful entrepreneur, Benton’s advice for other budding businesspeople is clear yet insightful, highlighting the need for creativity, adaptability and people skills.

“Being an entrepreneur doesn’t mean doing things by the book all the time. You’re not a lawyer or a doctor – there’s not one way of doing things, or a particular route you have to take. It’s about being good at a lot of things.

“You also need to be a good people person and you have to be able to manage people well in order to keep the company running. And you have to know which people can do certain jobs better than you can.”

A recent survey about The Entertainer showed that the company seems to be doing its job tremendously well.

An enormous 99 percent of customers said they had recommended the book to their friends and families, with 26 percent recommending the book to at least ten other people, and 95 percent of customers saying they will try a new restaurant or attraction because of the book.

Validation, if ever it were needed, that Benton has got it right.

“Everybody thought it was too good to be true, asking what’s the catch,” she said.

“The key is to get people to use one voucher and then they are hooked.”

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