Julia Lo Bue–Said
The CEO of Advantage Travel Centres outlines how the consortium is working to ensure its members come out of the pandemic crisis stronger than ever
How are you and your members tackling current industry challenges?
The travel industry is renowned for tackling issues and if I look back at the number of seismic challenges the industry has had to face our members have always handled these head on. Be it the challenges of adapting commercial models from commission earned to management fees, to 9/11 or technological shifts, our members have been able to adapt to a changing environment by sheer nature of being agile in their approach. Our business owners are hands on; they keep their finger on the pulse; they contribute to our steering groups and they use every challenge as an opportunity. Challenges prior to the pandemic almost seem trivial in nature in comparison to what they have faced in the past year but our members continue to look ahead and are using the opportunity to rethink their business models, so that they ultimately come out the other side stronger.
How are your members faring at the moment? What is their focus?
Right now, with a ban on any form of travel, our members have had to batten down the hatches. They continue to engage with their corporates and are using the opportunity to talk to them about future travel policies, providing education for the return to travel and how they can help shape future travel plans.
Our members are not expecting business travel to resume in any great quantity until the last quarter of the year and in a new post-covid travel era, the squeeze on travel budgets will mean more emphasis is likely to be placed on travel wellbeing, duty of care and costs. It is worth noting that a number of our members hold contracts for essential travel and this continues to present a challenge through lockdown 3.
The government support made available to the sector is less than sufficient and, quite frankly, inadequate. The government fails to understand travel, full stop. As we know, not all travel businesses operate in a retail environment with a high street front door, resulting in at least 85% of our business travel members being unable to claim local authority grants. The furlough scheme has been widely used by our members and has been vital thus far in avoiding further redundancies.
What’s been happening at Advantage during the pandemic?
We relaunched our Global Accommodation Programme as part of our Global Business Travel proposition; simplifying the process, providing choice and flex as well as injecting many new features, including assurances for duty of care (or duty to care), focuses on the guest and their wellbeing and mental health. We also considered diversity, equality and inclusion aspects, helping our members to design programmes to mirror corporates’ cultures, to ensure guests feel safe and valued, when staying away from home.
Collaboration has continued to be key for us through this pandemic (and beyond) and this has been reflected by strategic partnership announcements, including HBAA – the trade association for the Association for the Meetings, Events and Accommodation Industry and also a partnership with the Association of Serviced Apartment Providers (ASAP), enabling our members to easily identify accredited, compliant serviced apartment providers. Additionally, in the hospitality sector we announced a partnership between WIN members and HotelPlanner, an advanced, robust technology platform that aggregates accommodation from different sources, giving WIN partners live availability, displayed choice and a wide variety of property types and book now functionality.
We partnered with AirGateway GmbH to provide members with a New Distribution Capability (NDC) solution to further enhance our existing Airline Programme, and we also partnered with Traxo, the global leader in travel data capture and itinerary intelligence.
We know sustainability is high on our members’ agenda and we entered into a partnership with Thrust Carbon, a smart tech solution supporting travel sustainability
What is your main focus at the moment in terms of lobbying the Government?
Over the past 11 months Advantage has maintained a high profile within the sector as part of its media campaign. Working as part of the Save Future Travel Coalition we have been instrumental as a leading voice for business travel and our continued activity is focused on a number of key areas, recognising the challenges the sector faces. With the Budget looming, our budget submission to the Treasurer placed specific emphasis on an extension to furlough beyond April – a critical requirement for members – as well as VAT deferrals, business rates relief, loan re-payment terms, into the next financial year
What positives, if any, has Advantage been able to take from the pandemic crisis?
Without question it has been industry collaboration, and not just in the UK. The industry for the first time, I believe, has truly stepped up in a united fashion and across our coalition partners, such as ABTA and BTA, we have been a united force. We have also forged much stronger partnerships with IATA, BAR UK, GBTA, and more. Our global partners have been instrumental in sharing knowledge and activity and we continue to build our global presence, delivering weekly global updates from all corners of the world. It has truly shown that we are stronger together and working together we can achieve so much more, in the face of adversity.
It has also given myself and my team an opportunity to take a step back and reshape our global business travel proposition, focusing on core activity. Our member steering groups have been crucial in helping us to pave the way forward for Advantage Global Business Travel.
What positives, if any, have you personally been able to take from the pandemic crisis?
Personally, the crisis has taught me the importance of leading from the front, of being visible, with a very clear communications strategy, encompassing all your stakeholders. This, for me, remains my single most important priority. When emotions are heightened, it’s important as leaders to remain level headed and ensure you have a critical friend you can call on. For me, it’s been my PR & Comms team whom I have ‘met’ nearly every day for the past 11 months. The pandemic has also shown me that our members are exceptionally resilient and agile. Most importantly I have learnt my team are my biggest asset and they continue to rise to the challenge over and over again.
How do you think the role of your members will be different as we come out of the pandemic?
I believe the role of the TMC, as we exit the crisis, will become an intrinsically-linked strategic component for all corporates and travel buyers. The independent TMC has a greater opportunity, now more than ever before, to guide and support travellers and businesses as they reshape their travel programmes. Traveller wellbeing will no longer be just about comfy airplane seats and mental wellbeing but it will incorporate navigating a world whilst co-existing with Covid and all the safety protocols, destination measures and restrictions travellers will need to apply in the future.
What’s next for Advantage once we’re through all this?
Advantage will continue growing. Our proactivity and robust championing for the travel sector has not gone unnoticed. During the pandemic we repositioned Advantage Business Travel to incorporate our global arm and combined with the many advantages of membership. In addition, we’ve introduced a number of new commercial partnerships and continued to invest in products and services, including an overhauled global accommodation programme. And with over 200 Advantage Business Travel member locations in the UK and our global network continuing to grow, it will enable our members to leverage their trading positions both in the UK and globally.
Advantage Travel Partnership has around 700 members, including over 200 UK corporate travel management company locations, servicing corporate clients, predominantly within the SME market. The TMC members are each independently owned, and as a collective they produce over £3bn of business travel sales each year, making members experts in every aspect of the travel industry. In addition, Advantage is the majority shareholder in the WIN Global Travel Network – an international network of corporate travel experts with an annual collective spend of US$15 billion. WIN Partners are present in more than 75 countries.