Entrepreneur James English was shocked when he heard about how off-duty hospitality staff were often too financially stretched to enjoy the sector in which they work.
Then the Briton had a “lightbulb moment” during his daily swim: a tailored discount scheme rendering socialising more affordable.
“Many friends in the industry kept telling me that staff were struggling to go out due to prices being so high compared to the salaries they were receiving,” says Mr English, who runs a business consultancy, Park Lane Group.
“It meant staff were staying at where they work after their shift, rather than being able to go to other venues.
“It all seemed very unfair, especially when so many work all sorts of crazy hours and are providing discounts to others, when they can’t get the discount themselves.”
The solution was inspired by Mr English’s earlier working life in a ski resort.
“We struggled to afford to go out, but restaurants and nightclubs would give any of us who had a seasonal ski pass a discount – I thought why not build the equivalent here, for all year around.”
The notion of the Liquid Hospitality Card landed two years ago, but with card production and logistics cost-ineffective, Mr English focused on an app instead. That launched in June as the nation’s hospitality industry was awaking from the pandemic-driven restrictions.
“Covid hit at exactly the moment we were about to go live, so we put a hold on launching,” he says.
“As things started to open again, we decided to proceed fairly quickly and have been able to provide free memberships to those unlucky enough to have lost jobs due to Covid.”
With anyone working in the hospitality ecosystem eligible to join – from chefs, venue managers and suppliers to theme park staff – the response has been strong, with 1,000-plus signing up for the app in the first seven weeks since its launch.
The app costs Dh10.99 per month, or Dh89.99 annually, and delivers minimum discounts of 20 per cent on beverages and various other lifestyle discounts, plus members can access industry nights with discounts of up to 50 per cent.
While regular usage can see savings stack up, Liquid’s usage also generates footfall for venues still reeling from the lockdown.
Restaurant worker Junaid Baig has experienced the app’s impact from both sides of the trading fence; it has meant cheaper nights out and fresh faces patronising the venue where he is operations manager.
The 35-year-old made The Viper Room Dubai, an Italian restaurant/lounge in Grand Excelsior Hotel Al Barsha, a Liquid partner in early July after re-opening on May 25.
“Business is getting better day by day and soon will reach the original levels,” he predicts.
Like many in his business, Mr Baig, who is married, felt an impact on his salary during the worst of the pandemic. He says joining Liquid has reduced his social expenditure and is helping improve The Viper Room’s fortunes.
“It really helps us reach guests and aids us in showcasing our outlet, offers and activities,” says Mr Baig.
“It helps us enhance the business and save on marketing costs as we are promoting our events through Liquid Hospitality.”
That’s music to the ears of Mr English, who hopes to have 200 venues on board – alongside major operators such as Nakheel and Gates Hospitality – by the end of August and 3,000 members by early September.
“Even given the current situation, the fact we are still in the early days of launching and it’s the height of summer, we are hearing from many venues that members are starting to come through the doors,” he says.
“If ever there was a time to support the industry, that is now – 2020 and the global issues can only be described as a crippling blow to business and growth. We can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel and we hope our launch mirrors that,” adds Mr English, who says users can recoup the app cost on their first venue purchase itself.
“One thing we can also be pretty sure of is members will be using their discounts during the week when most businesses are at their quietest.”
That includes the likes of Channa M Rodrigo, operations manager of Lotus Retreat Hotel Dubai.
He learned of Liquid on Facebook, joined and has used it “several times”.
“I love that there is now a community for me and my fellow hospitality workers,” says the Sri Lankan, 48.
“Our leisure time is precious and having the app gives access to amazing discounts. It’s easy to use.”
Value-seekers have long enjoyed UAE leisure, dining, retail and activity deals via the likes of The Entertainer, Groupon.ae, VoucherSkout and Let’s DXB. All offer different user models and saving structures.
September 1 will mark the launch of the newest lifestyle platform, designed to access “quality brands” – including venues, experiences and products – with an “added value” thread.
X by OJ Lifestyle is a digital membership programme that offers access to “lifestyle experiences”, including restaurants, resorts, fashion, wellness, nightlife venues and events, alongside special discounts and free access to a dedicated gym. Costing Dh699 annually, early joiners received an extra membership for free and Dh50 donated to a charity aiding people affected by Covid-19.
The brainchild of Dubai entrepreneur Omar Jackson, it was due to launch in March, although he says the pandemic delay allowed time to enhance and “improve the experience”.
The portal will drive further revenue for its 100 signed brands, but the Briton stresses that X by OJ Lifestyle isn’t a “discount app”, rather something of a unique hybrid.
“It’s an evolution of the old discount schemes and concierge systems,” he says.
“We’re not either … you can compare it to taxis and what Uber has done in that world. Every industry is innovating – this is my version of innovation in the lifestyle sector.”
Ultimately, it will fall to partner brands to engineer their special offers, and the membership fee becomes redeemable credit.
“Being only Dh699 per year, [it] is providing people with a lot of value, together with the fact that you can redeem the fee with a few of our partners, essentially making it extremely cost-effective or zero cost.”
Mr Jackson cites research illustrating that increasingly people treasure experiences over materialistic things, while seeking good returns for their spending.
“When you are paying for something of quality, you demand the kind of treatment that comes with it, but you also want value for money.
“We’re in a far more educated and sophisticated marketplace these days, with far more competition. You are able to make comparisons in far more depth; that allows individuals to know where they can experience the best value, together with the best quality.”
Although featuring many high-end brands, X by OJ is open to everyone “no matter what earning bracket you fall under”.
Mr Jackson continues: “We’re not designing this to be a mechanism to draw heavy funds out of an individual. We’re designing it for the masses to gain the opportunity of experiences, packages, added value, special treatments with some of the world’s most well-known brands.
“What I’m more focused on is adding value; providing offers, value for money, making people feel special and working with the brands to go beyond for members.”
There were 3,800 members by early August. “Covid has only enhanced lifestyle [appetite] – people miss and appreciate the lifestyles they had and would like to return to that more than ever, but their earnings have suffered and that’s resulted in less disposable income,” adds Mr Jackson.
“We’re changing the face of the lifestyle game and we’ve big plans for expansion over the next 12 to 18 months to multiple strongholds around the world.”
Mr English also forecasts growth for Liquid beyond the UAE, and is talking to partners in London, Malta, Ibiza, Miami, Las Vegas and the Channel Islands.
“Starting such a programme involves convincing businesses that it will work before you can sign any members. Fortunately, we have had tremendous support, mainly due to hospitality staff wishing to support each other, which, at the end of the day, is what we are all about,” he concludes.