Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

How Privilee founder Lars Johannesen went from handing out flyers to high-flying CEO

The digital entrepreneur gives his first-ever media interview since he launched the lifestyle brand four years ago

Lars Johannesen is the founder of lifestyle app Privilee. Courtesy Privilee 
Lars Johannesen is the founder of lifestyle app Privilee. Courtesy Privilee 

Since Privilee launched four years ago, it’s helped thousands of people across the UAE get a taste of the five-star lifestyle for a fraction of the cost. All because the man behind it was once part of the group of Dubai residents who spend far too much money on single-day passes at hotel beach resorts.

Danish national and entrepreneur Lars Johannesen moved to Dubai from Denmark in 2009, having visited the region frequently for several years. One of his favourite activities was spending weekends at resorts with his wife and friends.

“Back then, we would regularly try out different properties. I never thought about buying a resort membership and would simply pay the day-pass rates required, as we loved the flexibility and freedom of trying out various places,” he says.

It was important for me to create something that my family could enjoy too

“Along with buying lunch, drinks by the pool, a massage and dinner, it would equate to a huge sum of money for a simple weekend in the sun.

“It was only when I spent a weekend with friends who had multiple discounts and free access to resorts that I realised there was a gap in the market to bring this benefit to residents in the wider region,” he adds. “It was important for me to create something that my family could enjoy too, so we could spend endless weekends or even weekdays experiencing ‘daycations’ without having to spend a fortune and still being able to sleep in our own bed.”

And so, Johannesen founded lifestyle brand Privilee in 2015. Today, the membership service offers access to 50 pools and beach clubs across the UAE, more than 56 five-star gyms and discounts at ­hundreds of affiliated restaurants ­everywhere from Atlantis, The Palm to the Address ­Montgomerie in Dubai, and Saadiyat Beach Club to the Park Hyatt in Abu Dhabi.

But fret not if you’re in Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah or Ajman, there are hotels and gyms to access there, too. Most recently, it expanded its reach to more than 1,000 free fitness classes, and includes sports such as tennis and squash, and outdoor activities ­including water sports and golf. ­Membership packages start at Dh529 per month if you sign up for a year, which includes two free guest cards for one-time use. Guest cards offer the same deals and discounts, and are valid for five working days. The most expensive option, a one-month membership, costs Dh1,199.

Privilee launched to little fanfare with just eight listed hotels and four members of staff. Rapid expansion meant the company went from taking to the streets to hand out flyers and brochures about its offers, to going fully digital later this month. It now employs 22 people and has thousands of active members. The company also proved dynamic – listening to customer suggestions and being quick to take on new offers – from discounts across spas to restaurants.

It’s an impressive trajectory, but Johannesen isn’t one to laud Privilee’s success in ­public. Until now, he’s remained very much behind the scenes; in fact, after four years at the helm of the company, this is his first media interview.

These days, hotels and resorts wanting to partner approach Privilee, and not the other way around. The key it seems is to keep evolving. By the end of this month, Privilee has pledged to go card-free, with everything being available on an app. It’s also taken on a new focus on fitness, introducing 1,000 classes into its repertoire this month. This includes access to independent and boutique gyms, not just the large chains and in-­hotel facilities. Some standout offerings include Smart Fitness, TribeFit and FitRepublik in Dubai, and Let’s Go Gym in Abu Dhabi. Personal training is also offered at many of Privilee’s partners at a discounted rate. Think of it almost like an Entertainer and ClassPass membership in one.

“Interest in fitness and well-being has dramatically increased over the last couple of years in the region. We realised there was a demand for classes and independent gym access,” Johannesen says.

Families are also catered for. One membership also allows access for two to three kids, so it’s a good option if you’re a parent – you can safely head off to the Fairmont for a gym session and leave the children at the kid’s club for free. The whole family can then spend the rest of the day at the pool or beach club, with a discounted meal to round it all off.

In the coming months, the app will add leisure and entertainment venues to its array of offerings. “Fitness classes are just the start,” Johannesen says. “In future, we are going to be expanding our portfolio of resort partners and extending into other areas of the leisure market. I would love to see Privilee as the only membership you need.”

Updated: August 31, 2019 03:51 PM

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