Burge's death leaves a void for those who worked with him in online travel and at startups he invested in. His more recent support of artists and other creators left a cultural legacy in the UK.
Hugo Burge, a British entrepreneur, startup investor, and arts supporter perhaps best known as the former CEO of both Cheapflights and then the Momondo Group, died at his home on Wednesday.
“A terrible and unexpected loss,” said David Soskin, who worked as a co-investor with Burge across two decades. “He was much too modest about his talents, not only as a successful technology CEO and investor but also as a creator of an arts and crafts center at Marchmont House, his magnificent Palladian residence in Scotland.”
In 2000, Burge co-founded Howzat Media, a firm investing in digital businesses. An early investment was in UK-headquartered online travel deals company Cheapflights, when it was a three-person operation.
Burge advised and became CEO of Cheapflights, helping it grow to the point that in 2011 it acquired Denmark-based travel-price comparison site Momondo. Burge became CEO of the combined Momondo Group and used bank debt, serviced out of cash flow, to create an organization with more than 350 employees. In 2014, private equity investment injected $130 million.
In 2017, the Priceline Group (now Booking Holdings) acquired Momondo Group for $550 million.
“It quickly became clear to all of us that Hugo was a businessman from the top shelf, intelligent, empathetic, calm, analytical, mathematical, and very hardworking,” said Martin Lumbye. who met Burge in 2009 when Burge was CEO and main shareholder of Cheapflights Media, and he was then a partner and part of the team that negotiated the merger and sale of Momondo to Cheapflights. “Hugo’s background as an incarnate English gentleman was not only a style but also an honest part of his personality.”
Along the way, Burge played an early-stage investor in startups, primarily travel ones, through another firm, Howzat Ventures. One early investment was in Trivago. By 2012, when the firm exited Triavgo, the startup had a $1 billion valuation.
After the Momondo Group deal and the Trivago payout, Burge stepped down as CEO and left online travel.
In 2018, The Times of London, in typical British cheek, said at the time that Burge “might be the nation’s most eligible bachelor.” The quote seemed to mortify him.
Supporter of Culture
The Momondo sale led Burge to create a new fund, Marchmont Ventures, that supported activities with the ultimate purpose of building “sustainable creativity.”
Burge and Alan Martin, formerly chief financial officer at Momondo Group, ran the fund. Investments have included supporting the re-launch of an art fair in southern Scotland.
Burge dreamt of transforming Marchmont House — a mansion in Greenlaw, Scotland — into a home for creators.
In 1988, Burge’s father Oliver, as a director of Marchmont Farms Ltd., bought part of the Marchmont estate. Then father and son bought the house together in 2007. Since 2011, Hugo Burge jointly led a restoration of the house and, since, late 2020, encouraged the hosting of artists, artisans, and other creators. Burge was one of the UK’s highest-profile champions of the Arts and Crafts movement.
News spread on Thursday of Burge’s death, startling friends and former colleagues.
“We’re all still in shock at the passing of our beloved Hugo,” said Alan Martin, who worked alongside Burge as a chief financial officer at Cheapflights and Momondo and subsequently at Marchmont Ventures.
Sarah Hanan, chief commercial officer at DoHop, had previously worked with Burge at Momondo Group. She said: “Hugo was a true gentleman, a wonderful leader, and a friend. His tenacity and vision drove the global success of Cheapfights, and later Momondo. He created a wonderful work culture that all ex-Cheapflighters still talk about today. We will miss him terribly.”
Another person saddened by Burge’s passing was Kate Irwin, managing director EMEA for Skift, who once worked at Momondo Group.
“He was an inspirational leader in business and a smart, kind-hearted, and thoughtful man that I will miss,” Irwin said. “Sending my thoughts and prayers to his friends and family.”
“Hugo was a very special man and changed the lives of those lucky enough to know him,” said Phil Bloomfield, who led communications at Cheapflights and now does so at dNata Travel Group.
If you were a business journalist and on your way to meet or talk on the phone with Hugo Burge, regardless of the circumstances you knew you would be talking and joking around with a guy who always had a ready quip and wry comment, and was ever an insightful entrepreneur.
Here’s an audio clip of Burge in 2016, as part of Skift’s Definitive Oral History of Online Travel, describing Priceline’s years-earlier failed launch in the UK.
Online travel veteran Krista Pappas got to know Burge in the early 2000s and came to appreciate him as a “flame thrower,” meaning a problem solver.
“Hugo never lost his sense of humor,” Pappas said. “We had a running joke that he was training to be the world’s first flame-throwing Olympian. Meanwhile, his beach volleyball skills were just as good as his swimming.”
Pappas recalled Burge as “a wonderful human being, not only for all his kindness and accomplishments but also for his great wit, infectious energy, and spirit. He brought joy and laughter to everyone and his love for adventure inspired countless others to explore the world around them. Very sad indeed.”
An Instagram post on Thursday from his arts organization Marchmont House said that Burge’s family asked for privacy. Arrangements for a memorial service have yet to be announced.
Skift’s Dennis Schaal contributed to this story.
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Photo credit: Hugo Burge, Marchmont Ventures Ltd director, shown September 2020. Photo by Colin Hattersley. Source: Marchmont House Ventures.