Donna Benton interview: Let me entertain you

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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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Posted by: HD_dxb

I commend Mrs. Benton for all her hard work and am happy to see that she grew this operation from a 1 person team in day 1 to what it is today. I myself have been a customer for the last 3 years (here in Dubai anyways). I am just a little confused, I cant tell if the author of the article or Mrs. Benton are making it look like this had never been done before and was a new concept. Which is not the case as the "EntertainMENT Book" has been around in the USA since the 1960's and in Canada since the 1980's. The pages of Mrs Benton's "EntertainER Book" in fact look identical to the orignal North American book, so much that I assumed it was the same company all along that I had been purchasing these books from since I was a child in Canada. Until I saw this article of course.

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