By Paul J. Pickett
Many Americans dream of starting their own business and being their own boss. For Tom Meyers, his American dream began in Europe. And truth be told, it didn’t begin with a "business plan" for Tom, it began with a love for travel and a desire to spend his life doing it.
So in 1998, recently graduated from Columbia University, he was brainstorming how he could leave his job in NYC and start a business that would "force" him to travel. He didn’t want the typical "9 to 5" desk job, he wanted a business that would get him traveling to Europe. And he wanted to do it often.
Fast forward to 2008 – mission accomplished. Tom is the founder and
editor of www.EuroCheapo.com, a free Internet guide to budget travel in
Europe, led by a team of travel experts who show up unannounced at
inexpensive hotels in 23 cities in Europe (and New York), check out the
rooms, and get a feel for each place. If they think its “The DIFF”
(they like it), they write a review and list the hotel on the site,
providing full, up-to-date information, so that users can book a room
immediately. I say that’s pretty DIFFtastic.
But I’m not the only one who’s been spreadin’ the news. EuroCheapo has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Budget Travel magazine, among others. In addition, EuroCheapo was recently named one of PC Magazine’s "Top 100 Undiscovered Web Sites." I have a feeling it won’t be referred to as "undiscovered" much longer.
Recently Tom was kind enough to give me the real deal on EuroCheapo, from its humble beginnings (he launched the site from his apartment in Berlin) to its current fame as one of the premier travel resources for the savvy European traveler.
Paul: So Tom, where did you get the idea?
Tom: I was honestly looking for a way to achieve a certain lifestyle. I wanted to be "forced" to travel. Originally, in 1998, I thought that I would write a guidebook about youth hostels in Europe. My brother Pete told me that I shouldn’t write a book, but should instead create a website. Websites, after all, were all the rage. So I thought, hmmm, all of those travel guidebook publishers are forcing their readers to pay for the book. I could list the names of cool youth hostels in Europe on a website and not charge anything for it. People will just come to the site because they will be able to get the information for free! (The big guidebook companies at the time weren’t publishing their information online for free. Their websites were more like big advertisements for their books.)
I had a vague idea about how to make money with it. I thought that if enough people came to the site, I could make money from advertisers. Online booking, which makes the majority of our revenue today, wasn’t even an option back then. I guess I just proceeded with the blind faith that if I created something helpful, people would find it, and a proper business model would emerge. This isn’t necessarily a business strategy that I’d recommend, but that’s how I proceeded!
Paul: I love the name – EuroCheapo – how’d you come up with that?
Tom: I chose the name "EuroCheapo" because I thought it was funny (and the whole family helped me pick the name). First, however, I registered the name "AntsyPants" – and then sold the name for some start-up cash, when another major corporation wanted badly to buy the name. (And that’s another story!)
Paul: So how did you go from just doing what you loved, to actually turning a profit with the site?
Tom: Even after launching I wasn’t completely sure how we were going to make any real money on the site. We ran banner advertisements and set up links for partnership deals we had with Amazon.com. But these types of arrangements would make only a few dollars a day in revenue. It wasn’t until the fall of 2001 when reservation agencies began to contact me about offering online reservations for hotels we were recommending. We partnered up, and since then, have been working with European reservation agencies to offer online booking. This is still our main revenue stream.
Paul: You offer more than just EuroCheapo to your audience, talk a little bit about what you’ve recently added and what’s on the way.
Tom: Last year, we launched a hotel search engine on the site called "CheapoSearch"
which searches hotels throughout Europe for availability, and compares rates from multiple booking websites, so that you can easily find the cheapest rate on the web.
In the next two weeks, we’ll be launching a guide to budget airlines in Europe. Many American tourists don’t realize that you can fly between European cities for less than the train – and sometimes less than a bus!
Paul: Technology has advanced so much in the last 10 years, talk a little bit about how you’ve managed to stay relevant and position your company to grow with the evolving marketplace.
Tom: Today we have a small office in New York in SoHo. From the office we update the site daily (our daily blog posts give a travel tip of the day, we feature different articles and hotels on the front page every day, etc.), manage our 1200 + hotel reviews, and work with developers on each new innovation we bring to the site. For years I focused only on editorial – which was great, as it massively expanded our listings and build our credibility, but readers today expect a certain level of technology and design. If you go to a site that looks old and ugly, after all, it doesn’t matter how good the writing is inside, you’ll just click away.
The other big change is that I’ve teamed up with my brother Pete and his wife Meredith. Running a business by yourself is pretty tough. I needed a business partner to bounce ideas off of and to hear new ideas that I would never come up with on my own. It was also important to find a partner who cared about the business as much as I did – which is hard to find when you started a company and are protective of it. However, with Pete and Mere, I feel very fortunate. Pete was a marketing executive for a major advertising agency in New York and London and so he brings a lot of industry knowledge and a business savvy that I didn’t have. Meredith is a novelist and magazine editor, so she brings another talented voice to the site – and can write articles faster than I can!
Paul: So what’s next?
Tom: We just keep our eyes on the next "rev" of the site and on our "dream list" of improvements we can make to the site. We still believe in the original mission, which is to recommend great, independent hotels in the center of cities that are a good value. And it needs to be fun. And I guess, at the end of the day, I still believe that if we build something helpful and unique, we will find our audience and our market.
I agree with you, Tom. And when I plan my next trip to Europe, I’m going to use EuroCheapo.com. It has a great story behind it, and I don’t believe there is a better one-stop-shop to prepare me for my adventure (I love shopping when it’s free). EuroCheapo is The DIFF.