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Impressive Leaders at ABTA 2015

What would you do if you had a really challenging member of staff? Promote them appears to be the answer based on some of the impressive leaders who gave presentations at this year’s annual ABTA Travel Convention in Greece. 

Andy Freeth managing director of Travel 2 and Gold Medal revealingly described how he “went to Ibiza for a quiet summer” and ended up with a job as a travel rep. After one season he wasn’t offered another job because his boss told him: “no one else should have to manage you”. Now he’s in charge of a two major travel brands and talked passionately at a Travel Weekly business breakfast about getting younger people into our industry. Alistair Rowland group general manager travel services of Midcounties Cooperative also called for travel and hospitality to be: “a course people want to go on rather than end up in.”

I thought the most impressive speaker at the Convention was Andrew Swaffield, Monarch CEO. He told the audience of a Travel Weekly business breakfast that he began his career in hospitality when he decided not to take A-levels and started a youth training scheme (YTS) in travel and tourism instead. As a Thomas Cook trainee he “nagged for a better job until they gave me one to shut me up”.  Later in the conference from the main stage he described how he was offered the job of CEO of Monarch and joined believing it to be a well-run family business. What he found wasn’t pretty. “I’m not a masochist” he said “I probably wouldn’t have joined if I’d known the scale of the problem”. But the pragmatic determination of that early Thomas Cook trainee obviously remains. In the space of a year he simplified the business. He took £200 million worth of costs out of the £800 million business, took out 10 aircrafts, stopped charter operations and long haul flights and reduced the 3,500 workforce by 700 people. The Monarch brand now means short haul holidays for both the airline and tour operator. What was even more impressive was the calm way he explained that many of the staff took job cuts of up to 30 per cent to help the business survive. That can only be done by someone with calm determination and clarity to everyone involved. Monarch lost £94 million pounds in 2014. This year it will make a profit. “Adapt quickly and there is no reason to be afraid,” said Andrew.

Speed of change was also an obvious concern of Nick Longman who became the managing director of TUI UK and Ireland earlier this year. “There’s no point in having an idea if it takes three years to deliver it” he said and went on to describe how TUI was focusing on differentiation with seven hotel brands, new long-haul destinations such as Sri Lanka and Costa Rica and listening harder to customer feedback. New destinations under review include Vietnam and Caribbean islands. Nick explained that Paris, New York and Las Vegas are among the top searches on TUI’s website but the tour operator doesn’t sell them yet, though the retail shops do.  TUI will be a very interesting business to watch over the next year. Expect more and faster change if Nick’s determination was anything to go by.

Speed of change, taking calculated risks, following business instinct were themes of Dominic Paul’s speech to conference. As senior vice president international at Royal Caribbean Dominic was responsible for introducing the brand into China. “I asked four economists what the forecast was for Asia and got four entirely different answers” he said. But despite the fears about Chinese growth he challenged the audience to go any new market and get a feel for it. “My instinct was China will continue to grow” he said. “In the five years it’s taken the UK to discuss a new runway, China has built 45 new airports”. The new rail link between Hong Kong and mainland China will be a total potential audience of 60 million people within one hour train ride of Hong Kong, where they could join a ship. Shanghai alone has a population of 24 million, bigger than the population of Australia. Chinese guests are hungry for new experiences but this is what Dominic described as a “complicated market”. He listened to local staff and they took the decision to introduce the new top of the range ships to China rather than to mature markets. In 2010 Royal Caribbean had 40,000 guests. By 2016 they will have 700,000 Chinese guests and have become a market leader in China.

My final speaker highlight of ABTA 2015 was the passionately committed and articulate Debbie Marshall managing director of Silver Traveller who revealed  impressive stats about travel plans amongst 50+ Brits,  but read out a warning comment from one of her readers for the travel industry to sit up and take note of: “Just  provide excellent service. Don’t remind us we are aging. Treat us as intelligent human beings.”

So thoughtful, open and insightful views from business leaders. A great Travel Convention. I’m looking forward to more in 2016.

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