LivingSocial's Head of New Business Initiatives Dishes on What's Next for Daily Deals

On a recent vacation, Doug Miller hiked in the dark to the top of a volcano on Hawaii’s Oahu island to see the sunrise.

For his full-time job, Miller is the vice president of new business initiatives at LivingSocial, where he’s all about trying to replicate those kinds of experiences for others.

Under his close watch, he’s helped to expand the daily-deals company into two new niches, broadening its scope from restaurants and spas into vacations and activities.

LivingSocial Escapes offers weekly discounts on vacations in the U.S. and around the world. And then there’s LivingSocial Adventures, which came about from the company’s acquisition of Urban Escapes.

Recent offers range from a bed and breakfast in New York to a Vancouver Island retreat–complete with a seven-course dinner–to a five-night tour in Panama that takes you to two different resorts. LivingSocial Adventures, which has launched in 30 markets, offers deals on such activities as a mixology class, where you learn how to whip up various cocktails, to an experience called Shootin’ and Drinkin’, which features a trip to the shooting range followed by drinks (and not in the reverse order).

To be sure, LivingSocial is not the only one trying to sell vacations at a discount. Other group-sales sites have rolled out ambitious plans.

Gilt Groupe has its high-end travel site called JetSetter, which offers very high-end offers for affluent young professionals. More recently, Exclusively.In, a site focused on selling India-inspired clothing, has branched into selling exotic trips to Asia. On the lower end, Overstock has launched a travel site, which offers discounted hotel rooms to a couple dozen locations.

Miller has an ideal background for the job. He most recently spent eight years as a VP at Expedia and had earlier stints at both Ticketmaster.com and Citysearch.

I sat down with Miller, who joined the company in August and commutes between his home in Seattle and the company’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to discuss how LivingSocial is changing travel and what he might be investing in next. A big part of his job will be to explore new areas that fit in well, and help maintain the company’s crazy growth rates.

Miller also discussed the importance of social media and how he believes it is important for us all to unplug once in awhile (after, presumably, buying an $1,800 trip to Panama).

I caught up with him at LivingSocial’s Seattle offices, coincidentally on the same day that the Justice Department approved the merger between Google and ITA Software.

Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

On the subject of whether social networking is making us less social:

“What I love about LivingSocial is that it harnesses social media and encourages us to get out and travel and experience life in some new way, including dinner, spas, or go-karting. We sold 5,000 vouchers for sky-diving.”

What they are doing is true social commerce because they help people get out into the world and experience new things. It’s not about Facebook all of the time. ”I’m optimistic that Millennials will take control of the tool and won’t let themselves be controlled by the machine. We need to wrestle back control from devices and not the opposite.”

“I am therefore I update,” vs. “I update therefore I am.”

On being a tour operator:

There’s a natural intersection between daily deals and travel, or what he calls “near-cations,” which are trips within two to three hours away.

“There’s not a great platform on the Web today. LivingSocial Escapes is a weekly collection of offers across the country and world. In the first five months, we booked 200,000 room nights for 200 properties, or roughly 1,000 room nights per property. In some cases that equaled to 25 percent of a destination’s annual occupancy.”

On offering a point of view:

Miller says their approach is “approachable sophistication.” They don’t just offer a discounted room. They are packages and experiences he calls “weekend in a box.” That means a hotel room plus cooking classes, or a hotel room and tickets to a water park for the whole family.

On whether it competes with his previous employer, Expedia:

“That would be very egotistical for me to think I will disrupt a $20 billion business. We are in very different spaces. We are trying to inspire and speak to you about something you didn’t know you wanted. Expedia reacts to demand with dates and an origin and destination. I’m upstream. You see a deal to Mendocino, and all of the sudden I say, ‘I want to go to Mendocino, but I didn’t know I wanted to go’.”

On storytelling:

Miller said he’s in the storytelling business.

Expedia and Ticketmaster were revolutionary because they gave consumers access to information that had never before been transparent (it used to be you went to a ticket vendor or a travel agent). What he thinks LivingSocial is doing is turning a very logical and rational experience you find online into a very emotional experience, full of rich imagery and well-crafted explanations that sell a destination.

“Google is responding to a query, whereas I’m pitching something to you that you didn’t know you wanted. That’s different from the OTAs and Google’s of the world.”

On lessons learned in local commerce between his days at Citysearch and now:

He said CitySearch represented the first platform that aggregated local commerce information, which had been very fragmented. “But the market wasn’t ready and our model was wrong. I also think the rise of social media is important.”

First came Escapes, second came Adventures, what’s next?

Miller declined to say, but hinted that “there’s an opportunity in live entertainment,” which would leverage his time spent at TicketMaster. “You can only imagine what we can do when we are the producer, and we have a massive marketing channel of 26 million people.”


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