In a year beset by challenges, during which Gold Medal and Travel 2 “have had to fight for every single booking”, the bosses of two of the UK’s largest B2B operators remain “bullish” ahead of a pivotal peaks.
John Bevan, chief executive dnata Travel Europe, and Lisa McAuley, managing director tour operations B2B, are in good spirits as they sit down with TTG at the operators’ annual Agent Recognition Awards on 14 November with turnover for both brands up about 5% on 2018.
“That’s a good result in any year, but in a 12 months like we’ve seen, I think it’s phenomenal,” says McAuley in spite of a slew of industry hurdles – most notably the demise of Thomas Cook.
She describes the fallout from Cook’s failure during the early hours of 23 September as “the most difficult week” of her 32-year travel career. Days earlier, the Gold Medal and Travel 2 boss had been at the airport waiting to jet off to the Singapore Grand Prix. But her gut feeling took over and she decided to turn back.
Hours later, McAuley was at home repacking her suitcase ready to “live in the office”. As her worst fears became reality, she joined her team battling to help agents. “We opened the phone lines at 8am that Monday [23 September] to 800 calls waiting, and it didn’t let up."
Dnata itself took an £18 million hit from the collapse of Cook, a significant partner and distribution channel, parent Emirates Group said earlier this month. But the impact is going far beyond balance sheets.
For Gold Medal and Travel 2, Cook’s failure led to a swathe of customer confusion. Bevan and McAuley predict duplicate bookings will come back to bite, plus those clients yet to rebook for 2020 assuming they’re still covered.
For Bevan, his “biggest gripe” was the “debacle” around sharing customer data, making sorting through tens of thousands of bookings more difficult. “It’s the biggest issue we’ve had to deal with and we’re working our way through it well,” assesses Bevan. “The group has been hit, but B2B has battled well and will be fine.”
The Cook-sized hole left in the market, though, was an immediate benefit especially to both of dnata’s B2B brands. “We’ve had a strong aftermath in terms of rebookings with good volumes from the trade,” says Bevan, while McAuley describes how both brands’ contact centres have seen an 18% rise in daily enquiries since Cook’s failure.
Bevan is also in “discussions at senior level” to bring ex-Cook figures into the fold. “Not necessarily in a managerial capacity, but in areas that perhaps get less exposure,” he teases.
As the industry picks up the pieces and begins a post-Cook era, McAuley predicts a “six to 12-month” period for retail travel’s distribution landscape to rebalance, with Hays Travel now holding Cook’s 555-store estate and Barrhead Travel embarking on its own 100-store expansion.
Gold Medal and Travel 2 have already seen an increase in Hays business, says Bevan, while sign-ups to Gold Medal’s Farebank Rewards scheme have surged – with Cook agents, previously unable to receive rewards, now cashing in.
“They’ve been brought up on the Gold Medal brand [dnata acquired the group from Cook in 2014] and we hope it resonates with them,” says McAuley.
Dnata-owned Travelbag, meanwhile, repositioned itself in August to focus on its multi-centre roots and has more stores on the way – could some be Hays’ newly acquired ex-Cook branches?
Bevan says he is not prepared to wait around. “Where we’re looking to expand, there is already plenty of space so we wouldn’t need to [do a deal with Hays].”
More widely, retail has been “put back on the map” after the Hays deal hit the headlines in October. “I hope more people will say, ‘I’ll pop in for a chat and meet an agent who’s been to where I want to go’, instead of just trying to hunt it down online and evaluate reviews,” says Bevan.
There seems to be no better time then for Gold Medal and Travel 2 to capitalise, with the brands revealing a new homeworking-focused sales team, more out-of-hours staff and a new CRM system designed to boost peaks performance.
McAuley, though, is tight-lipped on the brands’ campaigns ahead of what she describes as their “biggest ever” turn-of-year sales drive. “We’re market leaders,” she says. “If we take an initiative, others follow and attempt to copy. If I say anything, then it gives the competition a chance to follow.”
Despite the secrecy, where headlines have been made recently across the trade press is dnata’s charter programme focusing on regional airports, with flights to short- and mid-haul destination set to go on sale before Christmas.
“The biggest challenge for the trade right now is flying into areas where Cook was dominant, like Tunisia and Turkey; it’s left a big gap,” says Bevan. “I’m going to chat to some of the agents here [at the Recognition Awards] and that might help us decide how much we do. In year one, it’s not going to be a lot – just a handful – but if that goes well then there could be expansion.”
McAuley says short-haul sales currently make up “less than 5%” of B2B business so the charters are an opportunity to tap into these markets.
A destination that could see expansion post-Cook is Sharm el Sheikh, which has returned as an option for UK travellers after the Foreign Office lifted its direct flight ban last month.
Travel 2 has already restarted its Sharm programme, with packages back on sale with Turkish Airlines the week the advice changed, although when we speak no sales have yet been secured.
“I guess it’s about telling agents they can book it via us, but with our market position, I would have expected some [bookings],” admits McAuley. “It’ll be interesting to see how consumer demand tracks as there’s no point expanding it and getting agents excited if the public demand isn’t there. We’ll see what happens in January.”
Away from Sharm, McAuley estimates Gold Medal and Travel 2 will have “10,000 price points” to talk about to agents during the crucial turn-of- year period.
“It would be foolish to look at the next few months with rose-tinted spectacles, but I am bullish for peaks,” said McAuley. “Our current trading endorses that. Things could change with the general election and what comes after that, but we are looking forward to January.”
Bevan is equally upbeat: “There’s a real feel-good factor around retail and speaking to a professional. I hope we can all have great pick-up next year because our partners work so damn hard.”