A successful idea brought to book
Donna Benton is sitting in her office, while her husband is in the room next door and her one-year-old daughter Chloe is playing down the hall.
It is not a typical Saturday afternoon at Ms Benton's family home in Umm Suqeim, but rather a normal working day at the office for the managing director of The Entertainer, the popular set of discount voucher books now an annual must-buy for residents across the Emirates.
"I'm juggling a work-life balance," explains Ms Benton. "We have a playroom for Chloe at the back of the office, so I can spend time with her as well as work."
Two to three days a week, Ms Benton's daughter is brought into the office for a couple of hours before The Entertainer closes up for the day. Keeping it in the family, Ms Benton has also employed her husband, James Gosling, to coordinate business development at the company, including a new online launch later this year and a drive for increased sales over the web.
"He was too good an asset to work for somebody else, we have different strengths: I enjoy compiling the books and I'm very merchant related," explains Ms Benton. "At the end of the day you're both working for the same thing, you have the same goals, so there are a lot of benefits."
The Entertainer now has 12 types of discount voucher books that include many two-for-one deals on waterparks, fine-dining restaurants, hotels, golf courses and adventures in the desert. The company's deals now go further afield than the Middle East, and cover the Maldives in the Indian Ocean to Cyprus in the Mediterranean. Two new books are also slated to be launched next year in Riyadh and Jeddah.
As sales have grown each year since the company was launched 11 years ago, Ms Benton now expects to sell 100,000 books next year by increasing the brand's online presence and through the usual retailers such as supermarkets and book stores. In the past two years, sales have grown at a rate of about 40 per cent annually.
But it has not always been plain sailing or happy families for Ms Benton. Born in Australia, she came to Dubai for a job that turned out to be totally different to the description, so she left after three months with little idea of what to do next.
"I was driving one day through Dubai, and obviously it was a lot different 11 years ago, there were still lots of restaurants but there wasn't any incentive to get you in," she says. "So I thought I would come up with a concept that would incentivise people through the door."
Ms Benton had seen similar concepts to The Entertainer in Australia and, with just Dh6,000 (US$1,633) in her pocket, she decided to start the business. Because she did not own a computer to start with, she used an internet cafe to put together a feasibility plan and then pleaded for investment from some willing friends.
"There have been many sleepless nights with no money in the bank, I didn't take a salary for two years," Ms Benton says.
Her boyfriend at the time helped pay for her living costs and he also had a percentage in the company. She bought out all four initial investors four years ago, including her ex-boyfriend, making a handsome profit for all her friends.
The Entertainer started with 95 outlets in the first edition, including restaurants and Wild Wadi Waterpark, and sold 990 copies in the first year. None of the books were shrink-wrapped in the first year so the vouchers were often just taken from inside the books without them being bought. "You make mistakes and I've certainly made a lot of those, but you grow and you learn along the way," Ms Benton says.
The Marriott was the first hotel to offer its restaurants, with five fine-dining outlets included. The hotel chain spent Dh12,500 on a double page spread and kick-started the business.
"We laughed a lot in that first meeting," says Jeff Strachan, Marriott's vice president of sales and marketing in the Middle East and Africa, who first met Ms Benton while he was the director of marketing at the JW Marriott Dubai.
"Donna was making her first round of sales calls and was really launching The Entertainer concept. She is blessed with infectious enthusiasm, we were on board with four of the hotels restaurants from day one."
Eleven years on and The Entertainer now has relationships with more than 4,000 merchants across the Middle East.
Over the years, Ms Benton has been able to persuade more outlets to offer two-for-one vouchers in her books. Fine-dining restaurants also pay to be in the book because they can take a two-page advertising spread, with their menus on display.
Ms Benton commissioned an independent survey a couple of years ago to get an idea of the value to merchants of the book and to help during a sales pitch. Of the 35,000 people on The Entertainer's database, 20 per cent took part. The survey found that 95 per cent of those chose a restaurant because they had the vouchers. More importantly, the study found 79 per cent of people with a voucher spent more at an outlet than the average, by about Dh68. So in most cases, retailers are not losing money by offering the vouchers.
"For example, my friends and I went to a restaurant on the weekend for a dinner, there were 14 of us, we saved Dh650 and our bill was Dh9,000," Ms Benton says. "That's the sell, the vouchers incentivised us to go to that restaurant, we saved money but the restaurant's return on investment was massive with a Dh9,000 bill."
With the increasing presence of daily deals websites such as Cobone, GoNabit and Groupon, money-saving services such as Ms Benton's are becoming more common across the Emirates. She says the company's launch of a new online service is not in response to the growing daily deals trend, but the need to improve The Entertainer's online membership.
"[The group-buying] concept is completely different to our concept, you get them on your phone that day and as a consumer you can buy online and that is great," Ms Benton says.
"For us, we're longevity, you can plan and buy books throughout the year, if you have guests coming you can plan your desert safari, waterpark and restaurants, and you do not have to wait for that deal to come up."
Published: August 5, 2011 04:00 AM