Luxury travel in the Middle East

The Travel Attaché is a luxury lifestyle brand making waves in the Gulf. Founder Liam Wholey tells StartUp about his journey and how he managed to establish the business in a niche market
Finding memorable travel experiences for clients is at the top of the agenda for Wholey and The Travel Attaché.
By Neil King
Thu 07 Mar 2013 10:03 AM

Luxurious living is something that has become synonymous with the UAE.

The affluent nation, full of high net worth individuals with disposable incomes and a penchant for the finer things in life, has nurtured the growth of sumptuous spas, distinguished dining establishments, and beautiful boutiques.

But the thirst for luxury does not end there. Residents in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, across the Gulf, Middle East and beyond are now looking to take their high end living to the next level; through travel.

Seeing that this demand for an exclusive, personalised travel service was not being met in the region,   Liam Wholey came up with The Travel Attaché, a luxury travel company which aims to offer unique experiences tailored to each and every customer.

“We are high end, niche, luxury, bespoke travel,” he explains of the company which launched last year. “We work hard to give people experiences that they will remember forever.

“Anything you want, come to us and ask us.”

If anybody should know a thing or two about providing luxury experiences, it is Wholey, with many years’ experience in the high end, exclusive market.

He’s also spent a lot of time around start-up businesses, which eventually drove him to set up his own company.

“I’ve always been involved in start-ups,” he says. “I was the third person to join [restaurant booking website] Toptable, and was there for a few years. But when I had my 30th birthday I realised I wasn’t going to get to where I wanted to be with them.

“I did some freelance work for various companies in the restaurant world, and eventually Aaron Simpson of Quintessentially approached me.”

Quintessentially is a members-only concierge service, covering all lifestyle sectors and offering customers exclusive experiences and VIP treatment in whatever way they ask of the company.

Simpson co-founded it in 2000, and had been keen to recruit Wholey to the team.

“He had tried to poach me for a few jobs, and when he came to me this final time, he explained he wanted to start up a new part to the company. It was Quintessentially Publishing, within Quintessentially, publishing luxury books on hotels, watches, and so on.

“I ran that for four years and we had five titles by the time I left. It was a great business but I felt I had to do something different. So I asked Aaron what else he had in the company, and he said “Dubai”. So here we are.”

Wholey took over Quintessentially Dubai, which he admits “needed a lot of work” to bring it up to the level of other Quintessentially arms, and then moved on to bigger projects.

“After about eight months I was asked to look after Africa, so I grew that part of the business and then they asked me to look after the Middle East, which was huge.

“I gave the brand a lot and enjoyed my time there, but it was the same pattern – I thought I could do more.”

This entrepreneurial spirit drove Wholey to look into business he could start himself, and led him to the offices of some very influential people.

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“I was speaking to Gaurav Sinha who runs Insignia, the company which does branding for Kempinsky, Emaar and others – a really incredibly successful company with very high standards of quality.

“We were speaking about ten different ideas and seeing what each other thought. When he said ‘travel’, I said that’s what I was thinking too. So we talked some more in this direction, and by the end of the conversation he said “how much do you want?” Then he said to go away and formulate a business plan.

“I spoke to Jeremy [Sutton], also from Quintessentially, and said let’s do something together. Let’s put together a travel company. My friend Ahmed came in as well, and we got things moving.”

Having a business idea is one thing, but putting it into practice is quite another. Like so many entrepreneurs before him, Liam had to decide how to set up his company. Businesses in Dubai have a straightforward choice – open in a free zone, or partner with an Emirati – both options with  pros and cons.

The decision, however, was taken out of his hands thanks to another introduction to an influential businessman.

“I was planning to open the business in a free zone, but then Gaurav said he knew Mishal Kanoo, so he set up a meeting.”

The Kanoo Group is the largest family group in Bahrain, involved in diverse markets such as shipping, machinery, oil and gas, industry, and travel. The company started operations in the UAE in 1967, meaning that Mishal Kanoo, born there in 1969, is a UAE national and able to partner with Wholey in his new project.

“We had a conversation with him saying that we know they do fantastic business travel and high volume business travel, and we’ve come with a top end business with all the contacts, so would you like to partner with us in a high end company. Again, he said “how much?”

“So the company became a joint venture with Kanoo.”

As a result the team was made up of Wholey, Sinha, Kanoo, and Wholey’s former colleagues Jeremy Sutton, who took on the role of managing editor, and Ahmed Bahnaswei who looks after sister company The Ticket Attaché, which secures tickets to the hottest events worldwide for their customers.

As a result, Wholey felt like things had fallen into place.

“I love it. I had been talking about myself as an entrepreneur for a long time, but never had any shares until Quintessentially. This is very different.

“We’re all very well connected – especially Jeremy who knows the hotel industry inside out. Whether it’s Mishal introducing me to important people or Gaurav, we are very well connected to high net worth individuals, which is vital for our business.

“I’m not actually a travel expert – Jeremy is. He knows a lot of things about hotels all over the world. He might know whether a certain hotel is right for that client. The hotels we spoke to jumped at it. Every hotel we spoke to said “that’s fantastic”. Across the board we saw the same thing. Jeremy knows them all personally.

“We’ve been looking after high net worths for a very long time. We understand how to look after people in this part of the world. Adding things people don’t expect, being proactive with them. Things that are really hard to do yourself, we can simply put it together. That’s the whole point of us.

“Come to us and we’ll do it for you. All of it.”

There are few places better suited to a high end service than the UAE. A 2010 report from Credit Suisse stated that the average adult in the Emirates was almost three times as wealthy as the average adult in 2000, eclipsing the wealth of several European countries.

Another Credit Suisse report from 2012 said that the number of millionaires in the UAE was set to grow by twelve percent in the five years after the report. The UAE currently has approximately 43,000 millionaires, with 48,000 expected by 2017.

Despite being affected by the global economic crisis, the luxury retail market in the region has been growing steadily in the past three years. In 2012 Dubai Mall’s retail sales were up 24 percent, and there are signs of further growth as BinHendi Enterprises, which owns regional franchise right for top end brands Hugo Boss and Nicole Farhi, expects its business to increase as much as 23 percent in 2013.

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People in the UAE – locals and expats alike – seem to want the very best from every sector. But this doesn’t mean that The Travel Attaché is looking to ask inflated prices for sub-standard service.

“We’re very comfortably funded but we’re also very careful with money and what exactly we spend on,” explains Wholey.

“We don’t want to pass costs on to the clients. A lot of people throw cash at ads and can be disappointed by it, and not only do the adverts not live up to expectations, but the customer has to pay more.”

Taking up the theme of advertising, he explains that there is another reason behind his reticence to undertake an ad campaign.

“We’re not big fans of paying for advertising. There are certain avenues worth looking at that are maybe more credible ways of doing it. We’re talking about clients and customers who are very shrewd people.

“The way we work is through amazing PR, which is very important to us, and also very much word of mouth. It’s about connections, proving one’s self, proving your services. If you’re a new brand, and if somebody tries you, you have to get it right.

“People ask why we haven’t got a Facebook page, but if you’ve got a certain amount of time in the day, and a lot of people to talk to, then it’s more important to keep core jobs going. I don’t honestly think a brand like ours is going to get much kickback from adverts.

“Referrals are a much more important part of our business, and we’ve had brilliant feedback.”

A lack of advertising clearly hasn’t affected the company’s early growth, so much so that Wholey is already looking at when to expand.

“We have a clear vision. In three years we’d like to be in two other countries, probably Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Then Qatar and India. At the moment we have to concentrate on what we’ve got, though.

“There’s nothing worse than growing pains. I’ve seen it before – the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

“We need to make sure our core is absolutely perfect. With Kanoo behind us, it would be easy to expand. But looking after clients comes first and foremost and we have to get things right for them.”

When he launched the company, Wholey also began to notice a surprising trend in demand, which he also plans to react to.

“When we started we thought we’d have 80 percent outbound requests, and 20 percent inbound. But in actual fact the demand for experiences within the UAE and Oman is much bigger than that. We didn’t expect it.

“We shall soon have specific sections for the website for the UAE and Oman, and we’re putting together some absolutely brilliant experiences. Some great tours, and even things like personal shopping, which lends itself so well to the region.”

All in all, the success of The Travel Attaché seems to have come very easily. Indeed, Wholey says they’re hoping to “destroy” their first year figures. But he doesn’t want anybody to think it’s a walk in the park.

“It’s not glamorous, it’s very hard work,” he states. “But you do it so that your very important clients don’t have to do it.

“It’s hard, but there’s nothing more exciting, in my opinion. Hopefully I’ll be able to look back in three or four years and say ‘that was a real adventure’.”

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