The first indication outside of Germany that something was terribly wrong with the Leipzig-based Unister Group was the shutdown of its online travel agency Travel24 in France. The announcement by Unister, which has 40 sites covering a range of businesses including travel—its portfolio also included Ab-in-den-urlaub.de, Fluege.de, Hotelreservierung.de, Reisen.de, U-deals and Urlaubs Tours—may have closed out a short but controversial history for the company, which was founded in by 24-year-old internet entrepreneur and CEO Thomas Wagner in 2002 and seems to have ended with, some believe, the strangely coincidental death of Wagner in the July 14th crash of a small plane carrying him and three others in western Slovenia.
In between, the news coverage of the Unister collapse appears to have had as much to do with the company’s edgy financial activities as it did with its dramatic growth. At the time of Wagner’s death, it had 1,100 employees—down from a high of 1,670 employees in 2010. The Inbound Report has sketched together the following timeline of the demise of Wagner and Unister from various accounts.
—In 2010 and 2011, there is “the suspicion” that the company used automated feigned contact requests and so customers may have been lured into subscriptions Partnersuche.de with fictitious profiles.
—In 2011, Unister begins negotiations with contractors to build a new high-rise headquarters for the company in Leipzig.
—In 2012, Thomas Wagner is suspected of tax evasion as a result of the illegal insurance sales.
—In a December 21, 2012 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Wagner, in response to a question that asked about the company’s reputation for not being on time, said “In the past, many projects (were) set up in parallel. Of course, there is the possibility of errors. We learn from it and improve ourselves constantly.”
—Since 2014, Unister begins seeking a buyer.
—In July 2015, the company announces a restructuring which leads to the elimination of some 200 jobs.
—As Unister’s financial situation worsened this year, Wagner began to look for investors to help him save it. Then, according to a sourced account in Wikipedia, “Before his death … he went to a so-called Rip Deal with 1.2 million euros whose origin remains unexplained or is assumed to have access to employee accounts. He met in Venice with Levi Vass, an alleged diamond dealers from Israel, from which he got converted 12 million euros in a suitcase. According to media information, he noticed only on the return trip to the airport that only the top notes were genuine.” Wagner wanted to stay in Venice and report the matter to law enforcement officials. Then, on that morning, July 14th, on the way to Leipzig, his plane crashed.
—On July 18, Unister declares its insolvency. Within days, three of its websites had shut down.
In the words of the German travel trade publication FVW, “The rapid and dramatic events at the Leipzig-based company have shocked the German tourism industry and raised questions about the future of its larger tourism portals, which sell holidays, flights and other travel products on a commission basis. … Unister’s finances have frequently been the subject of speculation and the company publishes very few official figures. The holding company was apparently unprofitable, mostly due to losses at non-travel businesses, but the core travel business makes a small profit.”