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Atilay Uslu: “The future is ours”

The success story of Atilay Uslu is special and inspiring: from shawarma shop to a major player in the travel industry. With its own airline, leading tour operator Corendon currently flies to 23 different destinations, from airports in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Corendon also owns hotels and resorts. MASTERS spoke to the CEO about his entrepreneurial journey.
Karoly Effenberger

She once competed in the Miss Universe pageants, now she uses her charms to seduce exciting men into an interview for MASTERS. This time Irene van de Laar is targeting Corendon CEO Atilay Uslu. She meets Atilay in The College Hotel Amsterdam.

Entrepreneurship is in your blood. You started as an independent entrepreneur at a young age. What triggered you?

“I had difficulty applying for jobs. You then have to talk about yourself how good you are, and I don't like that. I can tell everything about a company and a product, I can sell everything, except myself. I also never got hired after an interview. So let's become an entrepreneur and employer yourself. That was the basis. One of the other things was that I wanted to have one million guilders before I was thirty. That was a lot of money back then. I worked at PTT and asked my boss what he earned. His answer: 2.500 guilders, after 25 years of work. So I didn't see that millionaire dream coming true anytime soon. I then resigned and took over my uncle's shawarma business. That's how I am at 22e started."

Corendon was founded in 2000. How did you want to distinguish yourself?

“In addition to my shawarma business, I also started a small travel agency. After a year I saw that this had no future, so I had to do something different. I started as a tour operator, a new business model where you could put together and sell products. I had to be unique and was the first to start skiing in Turkey. Later I sold that company again. I really started with Corendon in 2000 as a tour operator and as a Turkey specialist who sold ready-made products and which were booked by the customer via the internet.”

What exactly was that product?

“Flies, transfers and a hotel. It sounds simple, but we had a bookable website. In the morning we saw that two to three hundred people had booked at once. All our competitors still booked through travel agencies. This was 22 years ago. We invested very quickly in the Internet, which made online booking possible.”

You are now a successful player in the travel industry. You apparently understand your customer well. What does your customer want?

“The customer has changed over the past 22 years and we are changing with it. 22 years ago, we mainly rented out apartment complexes. A few years later, around 2003, we were selling mainly four or five star hotels with all-inclusive. That was a gap in the market. Back then there were thousands, now there are millions of people who have booked those types of trips with us. Now we see everyone going back to that apartment, but a bit more luxurious. Rent a villa, cook yourself. We're going back, it will be kind of retro.”

How does your company anticipate customer needs?

"We have diehard Corendon customers who always book with us. And we have customers who have gone from one family to one empty nest to go; they no longer want to leave during the regular holiday periods. We must have products for everyone. What do people want next year? What do people want in five years? We spend a lot of time on that. For next year we see that our travelers want to free up a decent budget to go on holiday. More expensive holidays are being booked. Five star ultra inclusive, or villas and hotels with swimming pools. Five-star grand-deluxe hotels are also popular. These are hotels where each room has its own swimming pool. Nowadays that is a USP. If you don't go along with this, you will miss the customers and have to build again. You have to have a good sense of the customer and hold on to that, otherwise it would be better to close the shop.”

In 2019, the takeover of part of Corendon was completed. How did this affect policy?

“We were going to merge with Sunweb in 2019, but due to the collapse of Thomas Cook, the wait for ACM and the corona pandemic, the deal did not go through. We were going to conquer the world together, but the buyer walked away. It was done. In retrospect it is a great pity that it did not go ahead, it would have been a very nice deal. We have become a closer team during the pandemic. We are ready for the future and we stand like a rock. The future is ours, we don't need Sunweb for that at all.”

You quickly recover. Where does that resilience come from?

“We are a team at Corendon. I am an enterprising person and the people who work for me have to be the same, otherwise they don't fit here. We are in an industry where many crises can occur. A pandemic, war, a coup, always unrest somewhere. I have to be flexible, as does the company.”

Do you adapt your business model as the world continuously changes?

“No, the business model will not change. Our behavior and flexibility are tested again and again. So far we have overcome all that. At some point you become immune to crises, no matter how big they are. Ultimately everyone goes on holiday, people need that, otherwise they cannot function. We can offer that holiday. It is like eating and drinking, a basic necessity of life.”

Corendon now also flies from various German cities, Brussels and Maastricht. What benefits do you see in expanding to these airports?

“The government has made flying more expensive in the Netherlands, but this is not the case in Belgium and Germany. Moreover, there are no personnel problems in Brussels, so we will invest a lot in departures from there next year. Maybe Brussels will become bigger than Amsterdam. The Belgian government wants Zaventem Airport to become larger, as holiday behavior is stimulated more strongly there than in the Netherlands. We are also doing the expansion to give consumers freedom of choice. We assume that Schiphol will have the problems under control next year. Because we now have a broader offering, we can serve many more customers throughout the Netherlands.”

How do you see the future now that purchasing power is declining? Can someone with a small budget still go on holiday?

“It could well be that flying will soon become unattainable for some people. But it should absolutely not be the case that holidays become an elite sport. We see that the target group for cheaper holidays is becoming smaller. We are also focusing more on the more luxurious segment now. It will also be more expensive for these customers, but they can ultimately afford it.”

On Curaçao, Corendon owns resorts such as the Livingstone Jan Thiel Resort, the Mangrove Beach Resort and next year Corendon Playa will open its doors. What kind of concepts are these?

“Livingstone consists of hotel rooms and villas. The villas are ideal for families who want space without being all-inclusive. Corendon Mangrove Beach Resort is ultra all-inclusive. You can eat and drink there 24/7. There are four à la carte restaurants, a pastry shop and six bars. From fitness to spa: everything is there. Complete relief, more or less.”

What does Mangrove phase 2 entail?

“Corendon Playa Premium All Inclusive, a hotel with 388 rooms, of which 12 are suites, is being built next to the Mangrove Beach Resort. A few rooms have a swim-up or private pool. There are three à la carte restaurants with Mexican, Turkish and international cuisine. The resort has a pool bar, swimming pool and its own beach club: Beach Club Mondi. The brand new hotel offers space for three hundred employees, which is very good for the local economy.”



Curious about the rest of the interview with Atilay Uslu? The winter issue of MASTERS was created in collaboration with Jordi van den Bussche. Many will know him as YouTuber Kwebbelkop, but he has been working hard as an entrepreneur for some time, as he explains in the Great Interview. What is new is that his company JVDB Studios offers to do social media marketing and short format content marketing for other companies. “They can also figure it out themselves, but we cracked the code.” Jordi gives a platform to like-minded entrepreneurs such as Jay-Jay Boske, Demy de Zeeuw, Chahid Charrak and Marcella de Bie, and discusses developments surrounding games, crypto and NFT: “Just as bitcoin turned the financial system upside down, will that also happen with gaming.” This extra thick winter issue also focuses on Lengers' first own ship, an interview with Corendon CEO Atilay Uslu, specials about the new BMW 7 Series and Samsung foldables, and - exclusively for MASTERS! – an interview with Max Verstappen.

MASTERS #52 with guest editor Jordi van den Bussche