Members only: How the pandemic spurred the rise of lifestyle apps and passes in the UAE

Platforms such as Privilee say they have seen a surge in users, as residents choose to holiday at home

There are many ways in which the pandemic has changed the way we live – and the way we vacation is among them.

With some countries shutting borders and people unable to confidently plan travel for the best part of the past year, trips to distant countries have been replaced by luxury staycations.

However, with one’s bed only being a few hours away, splurging on a room just to use the hotel’s facilities can feel a little unnecessary, especially when done on a weekly basis. Enter the daycation – hotel passes that give residents access to five-star pools and fully equipped gyms at a fraction of the cost of a room.

With a rising demand for such services, lifestyle brands such as Privilee, which offer access to hotels and their facilities in exchange for a monthly membership, have amassed a loyal following.

Jennifer Crowther, who works for the British Mums website, says she signed up for Privilee after hearing positive reviews from other parents in the online community.

“In the summer of 2020, they were having a special three-month offer. Considering the circumstances, we signed up as a family. We found that it was good value for money as it allowed us to explore the UAE more at a time when we weren’t able to travel.”

Crowther says the real benefit of Privilee was that it had something for the whole family. “My husband still uses it for the gym. It also gives complimentary access to a number of kids' clubs, so I could drop them off while I was working instead of having to pay again for that."

It's not just families that are using these platforms, either. The National's Sophie Prideaux has signed up for Privilee twice, both times with three-month deals. "I used it in the summer months because the pools were the only place I could stand the heat. I also took some annual leave and tried a different pool every day; it felt like a little mini holiday," she says.

Given the change in customer behaviour, a number of new platforms have cropped up, with each offering their own unique experiences and benefits.

Here's a closer look at the main players.

The original: Privilee

The platform was launched by Danish national and entrepreneur Lars Johannesen in 2015, after he realised that dinner and drinks by the pool could add up to a significant amount when enjoyed on a regular basis.

"It was only when I spent a weekend with friends who had multiple discounts and free access to resorts that I realised there was a gap in the market to bring this benefit to residents in the wider region," he told The National in 2019.

Lars Johannesen - Privilee Founder_HOT , JBC 5, Office 2209, Cluster W, JLT  , Dubai   (photo by Ajith Narendra) ( ITP Images) ;05-09-2019_Privilee Founder_HOT

The fitness and leisure membership programme started with four staff members and eight hotels. It now has a team of more than 25, with access to 60-plus beach resorts, 70-plus gyms and more than 1,000 fitness classes across the UAE.

Like most businesses affected by Covid-19, Privilee ceased operations in March 2020 when its members weren't able to access venues owing to the pandemic. However, since its relaunch in June, it has seen an uptick in users, says Johannesen.

“This is especially true with family membership sign-ups over the past couple of months, compared to the same months in previous years,” he says.

“Residents were comfortable visiting UAE hotels because of their strong health and safety protocols and, as a digital membership, Privilee is virtually contactless. Residents could make the most of the holidays in the UAE and spend quality time with family,” he says.

While the first priority is customer satisfaction and “helping UAE residents live their best lives”, Johannesen stresses that the platform aims to help their partners – restaurants, hotels, spas and fitness centres – during a difficult time.

“We provide them with a direct revenue stream, and increase the spend at their food and beverage outlets and spas. With the decrease in tourism due to the pandemic, we were able to help drive footfall,” he says.

Price: From Dh529 per month.

The newcomer: Viya Access pass

Other platforms have cropped up during the pandemic to offer UAE residents getaways and unique experiences.

In October 2020, wasl hospitality, which has 17 hotels in the region, introduced Viya – a luxury lifestyle app that is free to download and offers rewards across restaurants, leisure destinations and golf courses in Dubai.

Users collect points as they visit Viya’s partner outlets, which can later be cashed in to claim benefits.

“Viya is backed by a strong loyalty proposition rather than discount culture,” explains Sandra Tinari, head of marketing and communications at Viya.

“We wanted to modernise our approach by using technology to get back to the basics; to bring loyalty and relationships back to customers and the outlets that they frequently visit; and to bring back the times when your local barista knew your name and how you take your coffee.”

Since its launch, the app has achieved a 20 per cent month-on-month increase in new users. Its success also spurred the launch of Viya Access, a luxury leisure and pool access pass which gives users unlimited entry to hotel resorts, beaches, pools, water parks and fitness facilities for a fixed price.

They also get access to entertainment destinations The Green Planet, Laguna Waterpark and the newly launched Topgolf Dubai.

Price: From Dh415 per month.

The experiential player: 'X' by OJ Lifestyle

While these platforms help residents seek out mini vacations at a time when travelling is difficult, "X" by OJ Lifestyle was launched with a broader offering in mind.

As its founder Omar Jackson notes: “We want to give them experiences that goes beyond just dining out.”

True to his word, "X" by OJ Lifestyle has tie-ups with a diverse array of clients. Some of the brands included in the membership are Cove Beach at Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai, Cara Jewellers and bespoke tailoring company Royal Fashion.

The app gives members "X" points when they use a partner's offer or experience. These points can then be redeemed at special OJ Lifestyle activations such as The Box by OJ Lifestyle gym, which is due to open in 2021.

Coca-Cola Arena city walk. courtesy: Coca-Cola Arena.

“We are not about discounts but offering more for less,” says Jackson. “We are actively looking to provide our members with fantastic experiences and a balanced lifestyle – from dentistry to dry cleaning – so there are health and fitness options, as well as fun aspects."

Since its launch, the platform has amassed more than 2,800 paying members, and Jackson has some ambitious plans for the future. The pandemic may have thrown a wrench in the gears, but it is fuelling people’s desire for a premium lifestyle in their home country, he says.

“What people want is value for money so that they can boost their usual lifestyle or maintain their current one for less.”

Price: From Dh699 a year.