By Tom Meyers—
Ten years ago this week, we launched EuroCheapo from my apartment in Berlin with a guide to 25 budget hotels in Paris. On June 14, 2001, with three friends huddled around my desk, I clicked “upload,” refreshed the browser, and watched www.eurocheapo.com come to life.
True to “cheapo form,” we clinked glasses of inexpensive sparkling wine and went off for a Vietnamese dinner in Prenzlauer Berg.
2001: A Web Odyssey
Remember early 2001? George Bush was sworn into his first term in January. The US economy was rolling along and airline security less restrictive. European travel was different: You shopped with francs in France, Deutsche Marks in Germany and (lots and lots) of lira in Italy.
I had been dreaming of writing a guide that would promote the idea that European travel could be affordable for everyone. As I’m particularly fond of small, interesting hotels, I decided to focus on them. Guidebooks covered some of these, it was true. But I thought we could find an audience by only writing about cheap hotels, showing photos, and putting it all on the Web for free.
To start the site, I flew to London in January 2001 and tried to sleuth out cheap sleeps in the Bloomsbury neighborhood. That first day I knocked on the doors of B&B’s along Gower Street.
But there was a problem: The city was flooded with B&B’s. There were dozens of them lining Gower Street alone, and they all looked about the same from the outside. How was this ever going to work?
Saved, by Cheapo standards
I panicked… and headed to Rome, where my friend Gianni Bettucci helped me get my–and the site’s–act together. At the tourist information office by Termini Station they handed over a thick directory of every hotel and alberghi in the city.
On the back of a place mat at a nearby Chinese restaurant we listed out what we called our “EuroCheapo Standards.” To even be visited and “inspected,” the hotels had to be centrally located and cheap. To be chosen as an editor’s pick, they had to be clean and, ideally, smaller, non-chain properties. Bonus points would be awarded for personality.
We got to work inspecting bedrooms, taking notes, and snapping photos of beds, showers and breakfast rooms. All the while we were explaining a site that didn’t exist to somewhat skeptical proprietors. In a few cases, we even had to explain the concept of the Internet. (“Is it like the fax?” asked one B&B owner in Rome. “Kind of.”)
Throughout the spring of 2001, we also visited hotels in Amsterdam, Florence, Paris and Prague. And yes, I revisited and re-tackled London.
Finally, we set up our apartment (with office) in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhood. I spent a couple of months composing the hotel reviews and designing the site at the Staatsbibliothek near Potsdamer Platz.
How was the site going to make any money? Easy–banner ads! I proudly coded one into the top of the home page. There were also some ads to Amazon.com that could pay a small commission if somebody bought a guidebook. These would pay the rent, right?
Finally, on that balmy June night, we clinked our glasses and celebrated the launch of our new guide. And then we waited for Yahoo! to notice. We’d be waiting for a while. (As for that other, newer search engine with the stripped-down design–we didn’t pay it much attention.)
Growth was slow for the first couple of years. I moved back to New York in 2002, although I headed back to Europe many times a year to add new cities and revisit the old ones. The site started to take off in 2004, which allowed me to hire Kari Hoerchler, followed by Alex Robertson Textor and Vivien Kim Thorp the following year.
At about this time we lost the lease on our sublet office space in SoHo, and the office memorably moved into my apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There the expanded crew (plus interns!) sweat out the summer of 2005. We moved back into New York’s historic Cable Building at Broadway and Houston several months later, where we remain today.
In 2006, my brother Pete and sister-in-law Meredith became my business partners, and helped take the site to another level professionally. Pete’s business and marketing skills immediately served us well, as did Mere’s editorial experiences. During the following two years we invested heavily in the site’s technology, building a hotel and flights search engine.
Ten years after launching, we’re still hunting down cheap sleeps and taking photos of bathrooms. The “EuroCheapo family” has grown with new hires, correspondents, tech wizards and interns. Like any Web site, we’ve gone through redesigns, logo antics, bug testing (and more bug testing), site crashes, and incredible new launches that leave us proud.
The site has expanded from reviews of 25 hotels in Paris to include hotel recommendations in 28 European cities, a guide to New York, and a blog that publishes dispatches from correspondents around Europe. And we’ve got some new cities ready to launch this summer. (Stay tuned!)
Cheapos I have known…
The site would not exist today without the contributions of the many talented people who have joined the team along the way. We feel fortunate to have found so many others who have agreed with our site’s mission to “help make European travel affordable to everyone.”
Presenting some Very Important Cheapos:
Pete Meyers and Meredith Franco Meyers: Pete and I are brothers, born 15 months apart. We’ve worked summer jobs together and run businesses together (including a wildly–some might say “weirdly”–popular shaved ice stand in Lakeside, Ohio). Therefore, it wasn’t a big surprise to those who know us when Pete and his wife Meredith joined the company in 2006 and became my business partners.
It’s hard to imagine what the site would be today without them. The Web site with a funny name suddenly became a “family business,” and I had partners who were deeply invested in and passionate about the business. Pete came from a strong interactive advertising background and took over the business and marketing efforts. Meredith had spent years writing and editing for women’s magazines and gave those skills a “Cheapo” twist.
Kari Hoerchler: Back in New York in 2004, Kari was EuroCheapo’s first hire. During our initial meeting (at the “Big Cup” coffee shop on 8th Avenue in Chelsea), we filled a legal pad with the projects that she’d be tackling during her two days a week. Clearly, she needed to work more days–and I needed to learn how to prioritize projects.
Since then, Kari has visited hundreds of hotels in Europe (this year, in Seville)–and she currently serves as the listings manager for our hotel search engine. The site would be skimpier without Kari–and the office much less fun.
Suzanne Russo: A master of all editorial trades, Suzanne first interned for EuroCheapo in 2007. We assigned her to fact-check our city guide articles during the day, while she worked on her Masters of English at New York University at night. Sure, she could understand Joyce, but could she make heads or tails of Venice’s vaporetto pass? (Yes, she could.) Suzanne now serves as our listings editor, editing hotel reviews from our correspondents around Europe.
Michael Cargian and James Ellis: Since 2007, Mike and James have been writing and bug-testing the code that makes EuroCheapo work. Mike is on the line daily from San Francisco, and James works his magic from Sydney, Australia. Together, the duo have created a hotel price-comparison search engine, a budget flights search, built a blog, and dealt with many other “Cheapo-” prefixed projects. Without them, the site would be… well, it wouldn’t be.
Our correspondents: As the site expanded, we needed to find hotel reviewers who could add new cities and revisit the existing listings. Finding the right reviewers can be tricky, as you need someone who shares a sense of value and keeps an eye out for charming touches, quirky details and that certain “je ne sais quoi.”
Additionally, the site sprung to life in 2007 with the launch of the EuroCheapo blog. Suddenly we were publishing daily dispatches about cheap and free things to do in a couple dozen cities. The blog continues to be an extremely important part of the site.
Thus, many, many thanks to the fine writers who have hunted down hotels and penned blog dispatches over the years. And many thanks to our current group of Europe-based writers: Audrey, Bryan, Chaney, Cynthia, Jacy, Jessica, Joann, Laura, Marc, Monica, Nicky, Nicole, Nina, Regina, Susanne and Theadora.
Alex Robertson Textor: Alex joined EuroCheapo in 2005, and quickly attacked our city guides and transportation sections with a sharp eye and budget sensibility. Alex has reviewed hundreds of hotels for us all over Europe, this year in Dublin and London. Alex also served as the EuroCheapo blog editor for its first two years. Today, he also writes for Gadling.com, maintains his own blog, Spendthrift Shoestring, and contributes to numerous publications. Importantly, Alex also introduced our office to the magic of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Vivien Kim Thorp: As Vivien assumed her position as hotel listings editor in 2005, armed with a red pen, she asked, “Which style guide do you follow? AP or Chicago?” I had no idea what she was talking about, no doubt clarifying the scope of the project before her. During her three years at EuroCheapo, Vivien reviewed hotels in several cities, cracked an editorial whip, and greatly elevated the quality of the writing on the site. Today she lives in San Francisco, where she’s finishing off a Masters in journalism.
Sarah Silbert: Originally brought on as a summer intern, Sarah “graduated” into an editorial position at EuroCheapo, where she fact-checked, copy-edited and blogged from 2008-2010. She was also in the cheap hotel trenches, inspecting hotels in Copenhagen and Helsinki for the site. Today Sarah is an associate editor at Laptop Magazine in New York.
Annie Shapero: For several years, Annie served as our Italy-based correspondent. From her home in Rome, she reviewed hotels in the Eternal City, as well as Florence, Venice and Milan. When Vivien and I first interviewed Annie for the job at a cafe in Rome in 2006 (see photo, below), we immediately knew that we had found a Cheapo-in-spirit (which is evidently why I felt compelled to photograph the event). Today Annie lives in New York where she runs DiVino Wine Events, and she still reviews hotels for us in Italy (this summer updating our Milan guide).
Gianni Bettucci: After helping me out that first year, Gianni launched a career stage managing and producing theater in Berlin. He now runs the incredible Familie Flõz troupe of masked performers and still lives in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg.
Finally, my family has been involved in the business from the very beginning. Of special mention:
“Grandma Miller,” over the course of a Fourth of July family game in 2000, came up with the site’s original name, AntsyPants.com. I registered it the next week and was approached immediately by another company to buy it. (Those were the days…) I sold it, and this provided much of the site’s start-up capital. (“EuroCheapo” was a back-up name. Read more about this on Budget Travel’s Web site.)
Aunt Jeanie and Uncle Mel made an additional family investment (along with cousins Drew and Dave) that funded much of that first year in Berlin. We still hold annual meetings.
My mother and father: My dad, a lawyer, incorporated the business in 2001 and tended to the banking when I was traveling those first years, while my mother has been a constant source of support and encouragement through every entrepreneurial endeavor. Traveling with them in Europe is always a blast.
Eileen Detlefsen, a.k.a. “Grandma Det,” a newspaper woman since the 1930′s, continues to serve as a source of inspiration and occasional columnist, as “Travel Gram.” Eileen founded and operated her own newspaper in the 1950′s and 1960′s with my grandfather, and my mother and aunts were teen columnists. She still has the best copy-editing skills I know. (Read more about “Travel Gram.”)
Ben and Elizabeth: My two other siblings, both of whom have worked as editors, have offered thoughtful advice, editing help, and introduced us to interns. I ran the site for six months from my sister and (now) brother-in-law Matt’s home in upstate New York after returning from Berlin in 2002.
Guillaume: My partner and sounding board for business (and non-business) matters. During the past five years, he’s participated in thousands of hours of business discussions–and changed my mind about many things.
The Web is constantly evolving and user expectations have shifted dramatically since we launched the site ten years ago. This can be a daunting challenge.
I believe, however, that there will always be a demand for expert budget travel advice. I look forward to the next ten years, and am hopeful that, blessed with the talents of this group and the Cheapos yet to come, we will continue to provide a service that is helpful and relevant.
A meaningful travel experience in Europe doesn’t need to be expensive. We’ll do our best to promote ways to keep it affordable–and accessible–for as many readers as possible. We hope you’ll join us.