Meet the Execs: Jen Lang – Chief Customer Officer

Want to know more about what it’s like to work at Secret Escapes? Have a read of our “Meet the Execs” series to understand more about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles and successes, what it’s like to be a part of their team and to learn about their own career development while getting a little insight into what your future career could have instore for you.

How long have you been at Secret Escapes, and how long in your current role as Chief Customer Officer?

I joined Secret Escapes in February 2012 in the Marketing team. After that, I led the charge on international expansion, before moving into various General Manager roles. I then held a Strategy Director position before starting in the Chief Customer Officer role in 2021, around my 9 year anniversary.

What’s the biggest risk you have taken in your career and has it paid off?

Joining Secret Escapes. I was faced with the choice of some very sensible media agency options or taking an undefined job at an unknown company with huge ambitions. I’d like to think my decision paid off!

What has been the best career development opportunity for you here at SE?

The biggest opportunity is the sheer variety of options for progression. My first big role was becoming General Manager for Scandinavia. It was my first opportunity to take real profit and loss responsibility and it was a crash course in management, with the added complexity of cross-territory teams. I also got to meet some awesome people across the region, as well as enjoying a few crayfish summer parties along the way!

What is most important to you when fostering your team culture?

Fairness and transparency. If people feel they are treated fairly and understand why decisions are made then a great culture will follow, and the team will have created it.

What have been some of your favourite projects or recent successes?

Two of my favourite projects were both ‘firsts’:  One was launching an ambitious TV advertising strategy, despite being seen by many as an upstart brand. The other was launching Secret Escapes into new markets outside of the UK. The success of both of these decisions underpinned where we are as a business today.

More recently, I’ve been awed by the resilience of our teams during the COVID pandemic. Travel has been hugely impacted, but thanks to their energy and determination, we haven’t just survived the crisis, we have emerged even stronger, both as a business and a culture.  I’m incredibly proud to be part of it.

What do you enjoy most about your job and why? What about the challenges?

Our most important corporate value – ‘We’re Good People’ – couldn’t be more true. I love the people I work with. Everyone at Secret Escapes comes to work wanting to solve problems and try new things.

In terms of challenges, there are just too many good ideas. We have to be ruthless in our prioritisation!

What does a typical day look like in the life of a Chief Customer Officer at SE?

It’s pretty diverse… It might start with Marketing campaign reviews, end with a Product roadmap session and have some Group Strategy squeezed in the middle.  The sheer breadth of activity here is a great motivator.

What’s one thing that sets Secret Escapes apart from other companies?

It really is the people. We are so lucky to have hired and to continue to hire talented, hard-working people who can get stuff done and have a great laugh along the way.

What is the one stand-out thing you look for in a candidate?

Problem-solving. If you can make complex things simple, you can find great solutions and make amazing things happen with the right support around you.

What is the best thing about your team?

We all really care about what we do. We’re passionate about results and we know collaboration is key to achieving our goals.

Where’s your next travel destination and why?

I’m really hoping to get to France to see my grandparents this summer, they haven’t been able to see their great-grandchildren since 2019. After that, I feel a few cocktails calling me from a Mediterranean beach (without the kids!). Let’s hope we all get the chance to get some sun by the end of this summer.

Meet the Execs: Dan Evans – Director of Global Contracting

Want to know more about what it’s like to work at Secret Escapes? Have a read of our “Meet the Execs” series to understand more about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles and successes, what it’s like to be a part of their team and to learn about their own career development while getting a little insight into what your future career could have instore for you.

How long have you been at Secret Escapes, and how long in your current role as Director of Global Contracting

I was the first employee of Secret Escapes – I’m coming up to 11 years in the business!

What’s the biggest risk you have taken in your career and has it paid off?

The biggest risk I’ve taken in my career was joining Secret Escapes! When I joined, there was no company, no website, nothing! I spent my first morning in the job building my desk! I think it’s pretty safe to say that it paid off!

What has been the best career development opportunity for you here at SE?

I’ve been able to develop from a contracts manager into someone who leads large teams so that is the biggest development opportunity. The scale of my role has developed in line with the scale of the business. 

What is most important to you when fostering your team culture?

Most important for me is transparency – people need to be able to speak their minds and feel comfortable sharing their issues and problems. That’s the only way we can improve. In return, the leaders need to be able to explain decisions and reasoning honestly. Then, even if someone disagrees they at least understand. 

What have been some of your favourite projects or recent successes? 

I particularly enjoyed taking Secret Escapes into new territories, whether that was by opening new points of sale or sourcing hotels in a certain destination for the first time. I was lucky enough to be heavily involved with this work in the early days. More recently, I’m really proud of the way we’ve bounced back from Covid with a new model and ways of working. 

What do you enjoy most about your job and why? What about the challenges?

I’m a hotel and travel geek so I absolutely love that side of it but I also love working with people all over the world, both internally and externally. That diversity also brings lots of complexity though – it’s not easy staying on top of all the different teams, projects and plans! 

What does a typical day look like in the life of a Director of Global Contracting at SE? 

If you find out please let me know! I love the fact that almost every day is different depending on the team or the project that’s the current focus. The one constant is ensuring that we’re on track to hit our targets, or working on solutions if we’re not. 

What’s one thing that sets SE apart from other companies?

I think the trust that we put in every employee is quite unique – everyone has the power to control their own part of the business and make it grow. 

What is the one stand-out thing you look for in a candidate?

The ability to learn. Experience is great but as long as someone is open to learning new things there’s not much that can’t be taught. 

What is the best thing about your team?

The diversity. I love working with lots of people from different countries and backgrounds with different skills and unique outlooks on things. 

What is one piece of advice you would give to other professionals?

Take a risk if you think there’s a chance of big success further down the line – those steady jobs at big established companies will still be there if it doesn’t work out. 

Where’s your next travel destination and why?

Anywhere would be nice right now but I’m lucky enough to have a trip to Cornwall planned for the Summer! Covid cost me several holidays last year so I want to organise those again – Corfu is the first on the list.

Meet the Execs: Jean-Charles Lacoste – Chief Operating Officer

Want to know more about what it’s like to work at Secret Escapes? Have a read of our “Meet the Execs” series to understand more about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles and successes, what it’s like to be a part of their team and to learn about their own career development while getting a little insight into what your future career could have instore for you.

How long have you been at Secret Escapes, and how long in your current role as Chief Operating Officer?

I joined Secret Escapes in January 2018 as UK MD. When the company went through a reorganization last year, I took over the responsibility of COO for SE Brands.

 

What’s the biggest risk you have taken in your career and has it paid off?

I think I have taken many, but the one that caused me the most sleepless nights was the decision to leave TripAdvisor to run a small start-up back in 2014.  At that stage, my whole career had been in online travel and I had spent 8, very successful years at TripAdvisor: but I wanted to prove to myself and the world that I could thrive in a different sector in a CEO role. Thankfully this was a success but it was risky and very challenging. 

 

What has been the best career development opportunity for you here at SE?

Without hesitation, I can say it is the move to COO. Most of my roles before this move have been revenue-generating and, for the first time, the biggest challenge in my role is to optimise cost while improving the quality of what our teams do. This has been enlightening and a lot easier than I had expected, as I was lucky enough to inherit great teams with very strong leaders who have been instrumental in making this transition a success.

 

What is most important to you when fostering your team culture?

Very early on, the COO leadership team and I developed a vision for the department:  “We are here to do more for less, so that our customers are more satisfied and our profitability grows by continually improving accuracy, optimising processes and leveraging technology.” From this vision, we developed strategic pillars and from these strategic pillars, we developed OKRs for our various teams. I think this approach has helped develop a culture for the COO group which was originally three very different unconnected teams before we brought them together to achieve this vision.

 

What have been some of your favourite projects or recent successes?

Since Q3 last year, the team has relentlessly been trying to deflect contact from users. This means improving the way the Editorial team writes deals, or the way the operations team loads offers, or the information that’s available to customers in FAQs etc… It has been a coordinated effort from all COO teams (Editorial, CS and Ops with the support of the Project team) and the results are easy to quantify. Before that initiative took place, we had a continuous backlog in CS (over 900 cases waiting to be worked on in the queue).  This backlog started in 2019. We were continuously overwhelmed by customer contacts and struggled to reply in a timely manner. Since we eliminated the backlog last summer, it was never an issue again. The team is really proud of this accomplishment.

 

What do you enjoy most about your job and why? What about the challenges?

Never a dull day! Always a new challenge pushing us to find creative solutions to get BAU done and also improved. But to make this work, we need a strategic approach for running the department, to improve our processes and tools throughout the year to continuously optimise our BAU and provide better support without wasting resources.  With that said, our department is very BAU focused. We support the CRO org but also deal with our customers before they purchase, after they purchase, while they travel and after they return. This is a huge responsibility and if we drop the ball we can make customers really unhappy or cost the company money. I think it is this need to keep all our balls in the air without dropping any of them, all while constantly improving processes that makes my role so enjoyable day to day.

 

What does a typical day look like in the life of a Chief Operating Officer at SE?

I don’t think there is such a thing! The common thread throughout the day is usually problem-solving. Like most of us, I spend a lot of time in meetings where issues are raised and the flip side of that is finding the departments or people we can help to solve these issues, either within the COO org or within the rest of Secret Escapes and sometimes through vendors and partners. It is a very hectic role, but very rewarding for someone like me who gets bored by predictability and repetition!

 

What’s one thing that sets SE apart from other companies?

Our people and our approach to people management. I think there is a lot of respect between colleagues here at SE and that is felt throughout the day. In lots of companies, there is tension between departments and lots of politics. I think we manage to avoid that at SE. This is very important and makes working here a lot more enjoyable than most other companies.

 

What is the one stand-out thing you look for in a candidate?

Oddly enough, I think it is enthusiasm and resilience. Our work can often be technical and require lots of stamina as there are lots of challenges to overcome at all levels of the COO organisation throughout the day. So, often, having a positive attitude is more important than technical skills. Technical skills can be taught, a positive attitude, not so much. 

 

What is the best thing about your team?

Their positive attitude, enthusiasm and resilience in adversity!

 

What is one piece of advice you would give to other professionals?

If you want to keep growing in your career I would suggest venturing outside your comfort zone at every opportunity. Keep challenging yourself to do things you don’t believe you can do. We can be our own worst enemy and our worst critic which in turn stops us from trying new things, which ultimately is what allows you to progress. 

 

Where’s your next travel destination and why?

Interesting question in these interesting times!  Pre-COVID this was a fun question to ask me. I have been known to answer “North Korea” or “Kazakhstan” but today, it’s a lot closer to home: France. I have not been able to go back to France for a year because of the travel restrictions that are in place and this is the longest period I have not been able to see my family and friends there. Really looking forward to crossing the channel. That feels very exotic at the moment. Strange how this pandemic has recalibrated a lot of our expectations!

Meet the Execs: Eirik Pettersen – Chief Technology Officer

Want to know more about what it’s like to work at Secret Escapes? Have a read of our “Meet the Execs” series to understand more about the day-to-day challenges, hurdles and successes, what it’s like to be a part of their team and to learn about their own career development while getting a little insight into what your future career could have instore for you.

How long have you been at Secret Escapes, and how long in your current role as Chief Technology Officer

I joined SE in September 2017, when I took over from the previous CTO. 

What’s the biggest risk you have taken in your career and has it paid off?

In 1999 I resigned from my consulting job to start a company with some of my university friends.  I went 6 months without being paid, but 15 years later we sold the company to Yell so, yes it did pay off quite well in the end!

What has been the best career development opportunity for you here at SE?

What’s been so exciting about working at SE is being part of a company that’s in multiple countries with multiple business units.  I went from leading a platform with one product and one(ish) country to keeping on top of multiple platforms with different business models and that has been quite the learning curve!

What is most important to you when fostering your team culture?

The tech team has built on top of the core values of SE to capture the tech-specific values and behaviours and what’s important to us is that we really do live by them.  One of our practises for instance is a monthly ‘Stars and Fails’ session.  We give ‘stars’ to our colleagues for their “good deeds”, and we put ourselves forwards for the ‘fails’ to shout about our mistakes.  This is to reinforce a sense of ‘psychological safety’ in the team, which is shown to be a good predictor of team performance.

What have been some of your favourite projects or recent successes?

There have been so many step changes over the years that have advanced the platform that it’s hard to pick a favourite!  A real significant project ongoing at the moment is the re-platforming of Travelist, one of the group companies, on to our ‘Tracy’ platform.  That’s exciting as it’s an important step towards consolidating a portfolio of group-wide applications.  This project also impacts Horizon, which is our move to a decoupled frontend architecture, which in layperson’s terms means we should be able to innovate more quickly on our user experience and again be able to share our work across the group.

What do you enjoy most about your job and why? What about the challenges?

There are two things that stand out.  Firstly, my colleagues – it is a pleasure to work with such intelligent and thoughtful people.  They keep me on my toes all while having a good laugh along the way.  And secondly it’s what we do.  We make it possible for people to have experiences and create memories beyond what they would have normally expected to be able to afford.

In terms of challenge, I guess the perennial issue is building up and retaining the team.  The employment market for engineers is frothy and you are competing with a lot of companies over the same resources, but I am confident we have a lot to offer which is evidenced by a whole bunch of veteran team members who’ve stayed with us way beyond industry averages!

What does a typical day look like in the life of a Chief Technology Officer at SE? 

My role is quite a mix of operational and strategic.  I could be thinking through our 5-year plan one minute, and dealing with a website outage the next – it’s certainly never boring!  I don’t unfortunately get much time to get into some coding anymore, which I do miss.  But we have a collaborative architecture and system design process via workshops and design documents so I still get to make technical contributions.

What’s one thing that sets SE apart from other companies?

I really enjoy the conviviality at SE, we like to work hard and play hard and that works because we have such a friendly and inclusive atmosphere.

What is the one stand-out thing you look for in a candidate?

We always look to see our company values reflected in our candidates – and that will generally trump pure knowledge or skill.

What is the best thing about your team?

Two things that really impress me about the team is their resilience and ingenuity; they don’t give up easily, no matter the challenge, pulling from their creative reserves.

What is one piece of advice you would give to other professionals?

We spend so much time at work, it’s important to make sure you are doing something that you love so you can enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Where’s your next travel destination and why?

My next trip will be to visit family in Florida and South Carolina – haven’t seen my mum, brother or my sister and her family for coming up to 2 years!