Wild Geese: Conor O’Connor, chief executive, Hot Hotels, Málaga

The smart way to book a hotel room

"The economic crisis probably improved customer service in Spain, " says Conor O'Connor. "Businesses live on repeat custom. When there's a huge amount of footfall and things are going great, you don't have to pay so much attention."

He could be right, although as he tries in vain to flag down an indifferent waiter in a bar on central Madrid’s Gran Vía, you would be forgiven for wondering.

But O’Connor (37) has been living and working in Spain long enough not just to learn the language and adapt to the lifestyle, but also to gain a firm grasp of its business world and the opportunities therein.

O’Connor is founder and chief executive of Hot Hotels, a same-day-only hotel reservation app. Launched in March 2013, Hot.es (also available as Hot.ie) has partnerships with about 800 hotels in Spain and is a global business, offering rooms in 30 countries around the world.

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He is based in the southern city of Málaga and has known the surrounding Costa del Sol since he was a child. His parents, who moved from Dublin to London in the 1960s, had an apartment in Marbella and he spent Christmases and summers there.

Ireland and Spain have always been entwined for this businessman – an apartment his grandmother owned in Marbella was in a building occupied solely by Irish families.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurship was deeply rooted in the family. O'Connor's grandmother set up a successful employment agency in the 1930s and his father was a theatrical agent and finance director. Not surprisingly, O'Connor soon realised he would go it alone, working out at a young age that he was, as he puts it, "a really bad employee".

Exciting period

After studying at the London School of Economics, he found himself back on the Costa del Sol in the late

1990s, working on a consultancy project for Spantel, the country’s first switchless reseller. The company also spawned Spansurf, Spain’s first free internet provider, and O’Connor was appointed technical director. With Spain’s telecoms deregulation gathering pace, it was an exciting, if chaotic, period.

“It was a time of creation. Literally, deregulation had just happened and land-grab stuff was going on,” he says.

“Everything takes a little bit longer and is harder to do in Spain – or it certainly was then,” he adds. “It’s still not the easiest country to do business in,” he says, pointing to the red tape and laxness with deadlines. “But the good thing is, if you can make it in Spain, you can make it anywhere!”

As the Spanish economy continued to boom, O’Connor moved into the tourism sector, co-founding hotel reservation site Hoteles.es. It was a success but, by 2009, he was ready for a new challenge and sold the company to a Norwegian conglomerate. By then Spain’s economy had hit the buffers, but there were still opportunities, especially with the mobile phone market booming.

When O'Connor's non-compete agreement expired, he co-founded Hot Hotels as part of a four-person Spanish-Irish partnership, which included his girlfriend, who is a local. Fellow Irishman Joe Haslam is chairman.

“Spain has been pretty much the epicentre of European tourism for the last 50 years, since the first chartered flights landed with the first holiday makers heading for the costas,” O’Connor says.

"We understand how the hotel industry here and in Europe works and are offering hotels what they want and a great deal to consumers and letting them do it all last-minute on their mobile. I really think we are pushing an open door here. Our challenge is to make the customer experience a great one and educate the market while we are at it."

Last-minute guests

In 2010, fewer than 3 per cent of EU hotel reservations were made via smartphones; last year that figure had risen to a

bout a quarter. A country like Spain has a relatively low occupancy rate – just over 50 per cent – meaning hotels are hungry for last-minute guests. With European smartphone penetration still rising, the mobile booking market is ripe for an app like Hot.es.

“We still think it’s very early in mobile travel,” O’Connor says.

“Many years from now, 2013 or 2014 will be thought of as when mobile travel really got started. We’re enjoying our growth and building what I think is the most interesting and potentially lucrative double-sided market in Europe.”

He spends plenty of time travelling on the high-speed train to Spain’s business hubs, Barcelona and Madrid, and he has a flat in the capital. But Málaga, where he has a Maltese terrier, a boat and 350 days of sun a year, is definitely home.

“I like to be able to see the sea,” he says. “And I also like skiing – I’m only two hours away from the Sierra Nevada.

“The thought of leaving Spain has never entered my head. I’ll probably stay here for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”