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A View from the Top: the Dutch entrepreneur and CEO of shaking up the world of travel

'If you're afraid of failure or getting it wrong, you'll never truly innovate or disrupt the market'

Maggie Pagano
Friday 23 June 2017 18:55 BST
Ms Tans is one of her industry's highest-paid entrepreneurs
Ms Tans is one of her industry's highest-paid entrepreneurs (

Gillian Tans is wearing a black top, black trousers, white sneakers and carries an eight-year old blue rucksack. She is gentle and quiet in manner, speaking English fluently with only an echo of her native Dutch.

If you were pushed to describe Tans, you might say the 46-year-old is in London on a sightseeing trip, perhaps visiting a gallery or museum.

How appearances can mislead. Tans is no casual tourist but the boss of, the world’s biggest accommodation online booking site, and one of the world’s most successful female entrepreneurs. She’s certainly most well-travelled, taking four to five flights a month and visiting about 20 countries a year.

She is also one of the industry’s highest paid CEOs. Last year the 46-year-old earned a cool $17.1m (£13.5m) – more than her own boss at the US Priceline Group, the Nasdaq-quoted travel company which owns as well as Kayak,, and Open Table. Priceline is worth a whopping $90bn.

Tans has flown into London from New York – via Orlando, and before that Tokyo – on her first visit to meet staff in their new office on the seventh floor of the Monument Building. There are spectacular views of the city looking east, and the rooms are decorated with a London underground theme – the other office in Canary Wharf has airports.

She’s due to hold a Q&A with staff, something she does regularly when visiting the 15,000 employees around 188 offices. So laid back is Tans, that she is known to sit on the office floor while working, which shows, she says, that you have ‘nothing to hide’ and is a great way to hear what’s going on.

Her style may be down earth but her nature is disruptive. “From the early days, has been disruptive. Our aim is to create the best product for our customers, and we do that through constant innovation and testing.”

To achieve that, Tans runs what the company calls AB testing. Using the mobile app, they do up to 1,000 tests a day asking people what they like and don’t like on holiday as well as their view on the website – even down to a line or a colour.

“We have an entrepreneurial culture here. If you’re afraid of failure or getting it wrong, you’ll never truly innovate or disrupt the market. The testing gives us the data to be able analyse what travellers want.”

“What do people like to do? What sort of properties do they like, what other services could we be providing?”

Customers seem to like what they get: about 1.2m nights in all kinds of rooms – from hotels to igloos – are booked every 24 hours across more than 109,000 destinations in 220 countries around the world. The website operates is in 43 languages, and features over 112m verified reviews written by guests after their stays.

Priceline is coy about breaking down the financial figures – gross bookings last year were $68bn – but is by far the biggest brand, hence Tans earning such a big bonus. Indeed, is credited with Priceline’s current success – turning profits of $10m when it was bought in 2003 to $10bn gross profit last year. Now Priceline books almost twice as many rooms per night as its nearest rival, Expedia.

Yet didn't start out as a beautiful product, she says: “In fact, it was rather basic. We have learned to make it beautiful by acquiring information, intuition and constant testing. Many people think we are a technology company but we are totally customer-led.”

Having said that, she has more than 2,000 technology specialists working on product development, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to mine the data to help devise sophisticated services for travellers: “I hope that we will soon have a travel system which means people won’t have to think anymore: we will know you so well that when you put into the website that you want to go to Paris, we will give you the best selection of everything you would want to see and do. People trust us to help them, particularly the millennials.”

Right now, business is growing everywhere in the world and is expanding by moving into new revenue streams such as booking attractions and transport for visitors. “Not everyone knows what to do when they get to a city but we can help them book tickets ahead. “

The latest terrorism attacks have yet to put visitors off coming to the UK: “Usually after such attacks, people prefer to holiday at home, or visit for shorter stays. So far the UK does not seem to have been too affected. People still travel, that is a fact.”

Has Brexit had an impact on the UK business? employs 1,400 people in its British offices. “The lower pound has attracted more visitors.What is important is that we have a strong single digital economy in Europe for us to compete with the US and the Chinese. I would rather Europe came together than apart. It’s also important that we have a strong single market in banking and finance, particularly for startups.”

Taking risk is in her DNA. She gave up a great job in 2002 as head of marketing for the Golden Tulip Worldwide hotel group to join the young team at in Amsterdam. It’s still the HQ, home to 4,000 employees of 85 nationalities. She put some of her money in and, with seven others, built up the business so well that Priceline came along with a generous offer. “It was a difficult time, just after the crash and the banks were not lending.”

Her mother is behind her love of risk. “My mother was from an entrepreneurial family and very creative. She always pushed me to take risks, to do things I wouldn’t have thought of.”

“She taught me to build something out of nothing. When I was young, she sent me off to France and Germany and put me out of my comfort zone, which was not always nice,” she says with a little laugh.

But she got the bug. After studying hotel management in Middelburg in the Netherlands, she found a job in US – by phoning a contact of her father’s – with Hershey Entertainment and Resorts in Pennsylvania. She opened a restaurant – the Fountain Cafe – for Hershey when she was 20.

When not flying around the globe, she can be found at home with her three young children and husband in Amsterdam: “He’s an entrepreneur so he understands my life, that helps so much and was particularly helpful in the early days when we were starting out. They were tough days.”

Choosing holidays is not easy though: “Now the children are older they don’t want to sit by a pool anymore. So now it's sailing in Italy.”

And how does she spend that fabulous pay package? For the first time, Tans is a touch uncomfortable. “ I am not a very good spender, myself, and it’s not something I focus on. I make investments in startups. I always like to make sure that you help others in business.”

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