Wizme CEO Nour Mouakke talks to BBT editor Paul Revel about life as a tech start-up entrepreneur and Syrian exile
Nour Mouakke’s career in hospitality started in his hometown of Aleppo in Syria, which he says was a great place to grow up in and live.
“Before the war, Aleppo was a buzzing, thriving metropolis,” he says. “And despite lack of political freedom, we enjoyed a cohesive social fabric – it was a real melting pot.”
Mouakke started up an events management firm while still at university, organising rock gigs and festivals, before working at the Sheraton Aleppo hotel.
He later got a role as account manager for IHG in London, and says these experiences in the industry led him to develop Wizme, his “next generation” booking platform for corporate meetings.
“At IHG we had hotels from all over the world visiting our office to give us local insight on our accounts. Most hotels would ask for more meetings business, because it was always a struggle for them. Meanwhile, the general message from our corporate clients was ‘we don’t have visibility or control on M&E [meetings & events]’.
“I spotted a problem to be solved – the hotels don’t have that efficient channel to receive bookings and automate selling their spaces, so their team can focus on delivering a great experience. They wasted a lot of time on unqualified leads and low conversion rates. We didn’t have visibility on our M&E business – nor did our corporate clients on their spend.”
Cool for corporates
Mouakke says Wizme is bringing the “coolness of consumer products to the corporate world”, with a highly configurable but clear and simple, user-friendly dashboard making it a good experience for bookers. He says some smaller venues and hotel meeting spaces will be available for instant booking, while the RFP booking route – with quick response deadline options – enables buyers to select areas of spend they want to negotiate.
Meanwhile, corporates can set bespoke policies, approval rules and rate and spend caps, and the tool can integrate with Conferma for seamless, virtual payment payment processing. “They have full flexibility on governance and what content they want displayed.”
He predicts Wizme will bring “advanced, proactive sales and revenue management tools” to hotels and venues, while “dynamic matching” capability will be a win-win for buyers and suppliers. Mouakke also insists he’s keeping fees low for both sides. “We don’t want to get into the OTA [online travel agent] game, we’re a software company,” he says. “I have some empathy for hoteliers and how much OTAs charge them.”
Wizme’s launch customer is the TMC Inntel. The plan is to start beta trials by the end of October, followed by a soft launch with more customers by the end of the year.
Mouakke is excited about how things are progressing and what the future holds. But launching a tech start-up aside, life has its challenges when you’re an exile and refugee, cut off from family.
Worry of the unknown
Mouakke came to the UK in 2009 to do an MA in marketing at Durham University, before starting work at IHG. He last saw his family on a visit to Aleppo in 2010, not realising they were about to be separated by civil war. “I haven’t seen my family for seven years now,” he says.
“There’ve been periods with no means of communication for a month at time, when I didn’t know whether my family were alive or dead,” says Mouakke. “It was sleepless nights, wondering what to do – phoning friends to see if anyone knows anything. Facebook goes crazy – all our friends from Aleppo who live abroad, trying to find if anyone’s got any news.”
And when there was a phone signal it wasn’t much better – he says his sisters would call him crying, with the nightly sounds of fighting and bombing raids mere blocks away. Now one brother and sister live in Egypt – but he can’t visit them as a Syrian living in the UK with refugee papers. Thankfully, he says, things are getting better in Aleppo now, “but still we are going into the unknown.”
Being an entrepreneur CEO, going to meetings and targeting key industry events to network and gather interest and funding, is challenge enough without travelling on a Convention refugee’s travel document. “It gives flexibility to travel to a few countries, but I go only to Europe with it – the US would be a struggle.
“It is a challenge – even in Europe, I travel so many times and I’m still stopped at the borders, especially in the UK – sometimes it’s absurd; I think: ‘you have the technology, you see me every other month, why are you asking me the same questions?’ I understand and appreciate the efforts to take care of our security – but surely the technology can be better than this.”
Working with Unicef
But he maintains a healthy sense of perspective. He’s working with Unicef’s Next Generation scheme, which encourages young entrepreneurs to support the world’s most vulnerable children. “An Iranian-American friend of mine started the UK chapter in 2014.
She raised £1 million in less than three years; the money goes to Syrian kids in refugee camps for food, education, health… We’ve agreed to partner and donate a percentage of transaction fees. It’s very close to my heart. I know I’m very fortunate, and I want to pay something back.”