May 18, 2024

Andrea Caulfield-Smith

As the Advantage Travel Partnership gears up for its annual conference in Mexico next week, we check in with Andrea Caulfield-Smith, its new Managing Director Global Business Travel

So, you’re now three weeks in to your new role. What have you been up to?

So, I’ve been busy getting up to speed, learning all about Advantage and its TMC members. Obviously I partnered with Advantage from a supplier relationship perspective when I was at American Express and EasyJet, so I know many of the members, but in the last few weeks I’ve been getting under the inner workings of Advantage and meeting everyone, networking, and connecting – and absolutely loving it.

You mentioned your previous supplier roles, but you’ve also worked for TMCs and on the buyer side?

Yes, I’ve worked at American Express, both card and travel, and as an external travel buyer at Cisco, then I went to CWT, and back to Amex, before my time at easyJet and Visa. Being a travel buyer was a role that I loved and, as I said to Julia (Lo Bue-Said, Advantage CEO), the beauty of this role at Advantage is that it’s like being a travel buyer on speed! I’m working with everyone – the suppliers and the TMC members, who are themselves like corporate clients in that we’re here to make sure they have the right tools, technologies and capabilities to be successful in their businesses.

You left the industry for a short while during the Covid pandemic. What brought you back?

Yes, unfortunately I got made redundant in the pandemic and moved into higher education, helping a university to commercialise. It was an interesting step out and there are lots of transferable skills you can take to that sector, but travel is what I love. My husband always jokes that if you cut me in half I’d have travel written all the way through. It’s where my heart is, and I absolutely love the Advantage brand, its vision and what it stands for. I’ve always worked closely with Julia, Sonia (Michaels, Head of Business Travel Services and Events) and the rest of the team, so when the opportunity presented itself to step in, I jumped at it. It’s an organisation that really cares, and even though we’ve got the size and the scale, we take the time to listen to our members, and that’s really important.

What are the main challenges and opportunities for your members right now?

I think they fall into a number of different categories. Technology is a big focus and is moving at such a rapid pace. We’ve got a great footprint of technology already and our established working group, led by one of my team, is leaning really heavily into technology to help our agents compete in that space. Some members have got their own tools and platforms, and by having open forums and discussions, we can enable the ones who don’t have the tech and help enhance those that do. I’ve been on a couple of these sessions in this past week and the great thing is that the member community is really willing to collaborate and share.

What about the transition to modern retailing?

Obviously the move to NDC is a hot topic. There is an inconsistency in approach and in order for travellers to have that leisure-like experience, the agents need to do something different – maybe on a website or through a different portal – and once you start punching out to different systems, that impacts the ability to get visibility of spend and emissions and, potentially, to provide duty of care – all key priorities for travel buyers. Buyers are already feeling the pinch because the cost of travel is higher, so when you start to layer in complexities around booking and high-touch transactions, that pushes the cost up and then you’ve got the whole issue duty of care. One of the things we’re doing is bringing together the community to talk about those pain points and then working with our airline partners to find ways to solve them. It’s something we have to do continually because NDC isn’t going anywhere and we need to know what that looks like in the short, medium and long term.

There is major sector consolidation taking place in the TMC sector, particularly the news of Amex GBT buying CWT. What does that mean for your members?

I think it presents an opportunity for our members, Bev, if I’m entirely honest. I started my career with an independent TMC and what customers want is bespoke, tailored solutions that really meet the needs of their travellers, through a consultative approach with their TMC. There are more than 5 million SME companies in the UK and they’ve got 16 million employees, most of whom are going to travel, so there is a  huge opportunity ahead for our members.

Sustainability is another key issue. What are the challenges there?

ESG is an interesting one because most people lean into the ‘S’ and not the ‘E’ or the ‘G’, but certainly when it comes to the sustainability angle, I think the intensity on reporting, and potential policies coming into play in regards to switching from air to rail, will start to magnify over the next 12 months. Advantage already works with sustainability partners, such as Trees4Travel, Greengage and Thrust Carbon, all thinking about how they can help organisations report, reduce and offset, which is a key priority for buyers and also for their travellers, particular the younger generation. But, as we know, the most sustainable options aren’t always the most cost effective, so we’re back to the issue of cost control. It’s a double-edged sword of how to control spend but be sustainable at the same time, and there can be conflict.

You mentioned modal shift from air to rail. How is Advantage supporting that?

We’re connecting with the main rail operators, and that’s actually been part of my course of action last week. Meetings are also in the diary for the next few weeks to connect with our rail partners to understand how we can help members and clients and travellers really think about the rail versus air option. On short-haul European routes there will increasingly be a requirement to switch to rail so it’s something we are focusing on.

How are you feeling about the conference later this month in Cancun, Mexico? What opportunities will that bring?

I’m super excited and really looking forward to just being in a room with like-minded people who are really focused on our industry. I already know more than half of the TMC membership, and probably more than 80% of the suppliers, and  I am looking forward to catching up with them all and spending time with those who I haven’t met before, sitting down and really having conversations around how we can help future-proof their businesses. I will be asking them about their ambitions to help me develop a vision and strategy for global business travel and how we can help them meet their goals. I’ll be looking at how we continually evolve and move with the industry.

With all the changes happening, do you think you’re joining at a crucial time?

Yes, 100%. I think we’re now out the other side and this is the opportunity for us to think differently. A quote that I really like is that if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning. There will be moments of discomfort that we’ll all go through, but that’s part of the pain of learning and I think that’s really important. Rather than saying ‘that’s OK, let’s continue to do it that way’, it’s better to pressure test that hypothesis to make sure that it’s still relevant and it’s still right, or if there’s a way we can do it better. I’m really excited. Since accepting the role, I’ve had some amazing messages of support and everyone has made me feel so welcome. This is an industry that I love and I truly feel like I’ve come home.