The lady making A Small World smaller

The exclusive, invitation-only social networking site is going through a radical rehaul, Sabine Heller tells Selina Denman.

Sabine Heller, president and CEO of A Small World, at the One&Only Royal Mirage in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
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Somewhere along the way, A Small World (ASW) stopped being quite small enough. The exclusive, invitation-only social networking site, one of the first to launch back in 2004, started out as a tight-knit community where the world's movers and shakers could connect with similarly privileged and influential individuals.

"In the beginning it was more of a social register - a who's who list," says Sabine Heller, ASW's president and CEO. If you were looking for investment opportunities in the Far East, a place to stay in Rio or a club in Saint Tropez, this is where you came - a poke- and spam-free "Facebook for the few" where you could have trusted interactions with people you didn't know. You could only join if you were invited to do so by a "valued" member and once you were in, you were in. "It's this idea that you are never alone anywhere and you are at home everywhere. We played with the tagline: 'It's no longer a lonely planet'."

But the site grew exponentially and, somewhere along the line, lost its way. The number of members spiralled to 850,000, with talk of taking that figure up to a million - hardly an intimate, close-knit community. Revenues were driven by advertising and the site became more and more beholden to advertiser demands. "We over-serviced our advertiser. It was a robust business and we made a lot of money, but it wasn't about building member value," says Heller, who has worked with the company since 2006.

So she masterminded a radical rehaul, which culminated in a relaunch of the site during a star-studded party in Marrakech last month. As a result, membership numbers are being culled from 850,000 to a maximum of 250,000 and there has been a shift away from an ad-based business model to a subscription-based one. You still have to be invited by an existing member to join but you also have to pay a nominal fee of US$105 (DH385) to become part of the clan.

In exchange, members receive access to a revamped website; a membership card that provides access to various privileges and ASW events worldwide; an extensive privileges programme that offers deals and discounts on travel, lifestyle and luxury goods; membership to The World's Finest Clubs, a global concierge nightlife service guaranteeing entry to 120 premier nightclubs (a service that would ordinarily cost €2,000 or Dh9,600); a mobile app and trip planner, as well as ASW city guides; complimentary workspaces in New York and Berlin; complimentary airport pickup in Milan, London, New York and Paris; and, best of all, a complimentary one-week stay for two people at Kittitian Hill in the Caribbean. If you were looking for a definition of value for money, this might just be it.

What the site is today is "an international, members-only travel and lifestyle club". The social networking is only one aspect of the ASW experience - there's also a foundation, the 50-plus events that are held around the world each month, the membership card and the rewards programme. "These are all aspects of a members-only club where the website is a kind of a clubhouse in the sky, if you will, more than anything else," says Heller.

"We're not a browsing platform. You have to come in with an agenda and a need. Your need might be that you are going on a trip and you need to meet people, or you need to get a job in New Delhi, or you need to get an intern or an apartment, or you need to raise capital for a film. If you have a need in mind, ASW can cater to it in extraordinary ways," she explains.

Members are now defined less by their double-barrelled surnames and more by the fact that they are "citizens of the world", Heller says. In this way, the UAE, which has traditionally been under-represented on the site, is an ideal source of potential members. "The UAE is truly international, brimming with expats, predominantly English-speaking, very central, style-focused and travel is an important part of the culture," says Heller.

A complicated algorithm, based on a number of variables, is currently working out who gets to stay on the revamped site and who has to go. Those who have been using ASW purely for commercial gain are unlikely to get invited back. So who is making the final cut? "We love our originals. And we love our active users and our interesting users; we love people that have extraordinary lives and are happy to share them."

If you're already a member and haven't heard anything from ASW in a while, do not despair. All is not lost, just yet. "We're inviting in waves," says Heller. "So you may get invited back in the next couple of months."

And for those unfortunates who have never been members? "You can apply for membership online and occasionally we'll have events where we'll have non-members attend where you can meet a member and then get invited in like that. You can take action. You don't have to just sit and wait. If you apply for membership, you'll eventually be invited to something, and if somebody likes you …"


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