Running a tour operator is nothing new for Lisa Smith, but steering one through a pandemic from day one in a new job is an obvious challenge, yet one she seems to be facing calmly whilst reinforcing trade relationships and keeping one eye on the future for ITC Travel Group, she tells TTG in her first interview
Starting a new job is never easy, but starting one on 18 March this year must have been like looking into the eye of the storm for ITC Travel Group’s new chief operating officer, Lisa Smith, and disruption for the industry is certainly far from over.
Smith’s previous experience with Key Travel, Gold Medal, Travel 2 and Thomas Cook Scheduled Business seem to have been standing her in good stead in the past six months, and she had been looking forward to getting some of the team back into the company’s Chester offices, until the government urged those who could do, to remain, or return to, working from home.
“We were going to open the office a couple of days a week from October, and more widely in November in our original planning, especially with people coming back from furlough as we wanted to wrap our arms around those who had been away,” Smith says. “But it’s all changed now of course; we will still open in November though, as some people just can’t work from home. Plus, we have so much transformational work we want to do, so we need to be together for planning around that so we can come out so much stronger from this.
“Coming into my role, I was always going to have a focus on change, that was always going to be the remit. Change can be quite a challenge, to get people on the journey with you, but actually the crisis gives no option; we absolutely have to change,” she says.
Smith describes ITC Travel Group as “being quite complex as a business,” including as it does the Regent Holidays and Rainbow brands, as well as luxury operator Inspiring Travel Company, Elite Travel Concierge, and Spectate, the high-end sports travel brand.
“We’ve got that great stretch of products, but they’ve all got their own operating models and unique brands and that creates complexity and probably great costs and inefficiencies as well. So the transformation project is about really looking at our whole business model, and then we’re looking department by department, and area by area,” she says.
Whilst chancellor Rishi Sunak’s most recent financial support plans were not as long a lifeline as many had hoped for, Smith said some elements were welcome, but agrees the government has so far failed to consider the travel industry specifically.
“Travel has been really severely impacted and there’s just no special measures there, unlike the support for hospitality and restaurants,” she says. “Quarantine rules are just changing on a week-on-week basis; the government has just remained completely silent on all of it [sector support]. So probably yes, we do feel neglected actually as an industry. It feels like we just have to forge ahead now as if we’re not going to get any other serious help from the government.”
Smith adds however that the crisis creates opportunities too – especially for operators and agents to offer travellers advice: “this situation is going to around for at least another six months, so we have to be get really good at this; let’s be the experts in what recommendations we can provide around Covid and let’s be good at the information that we get to customers” she says.
She also wants to win hearts and minds of agents - reinforcing existing relationships and gaining new ones and has taken the step of taking on a new trade partnership director.
“We’ve brought Diane Selby on board to come and take the lead with the trade, and she’s helping us develop the strategy; I don’t think I’ve ever known a better relationship manager than Di,” says Smith, who had a strong partnership with Selby when she was at Dnata and Selby at Virgin Atlantic, her role previous to joining ITC.
“I think that trade is such a big opportunity for us now. There are people who will have been disengaged a little bit from the suppliers and partners they had,” Smith believes. “Every organisation will always have to stop and try and take control, and admit what they can learn from. I wouldn’t say we got it right from day one. But I think quite quickly, within six to eight weeks, we started to refund customers and really have a grip on things.”
Long-time member of the team Bev Townend is still in place with ITC as agency sales manager, and has been working two days a week, while trade relations managers Chris Redfern and Gary Bates return from furlough in October three days a week each initially to support Selby.
“I just want to grab our arms around the market. I think we’ve got agents that have left us in the past, and we need to try and get those people back and try and win back over again, and identify who we want to come and work with us. We’ve got brands to shout about and be proud of and I love working with the trade so much,” Smith says.
The old enticement of fam trips will still be on the cards – despite being up in the air as a concept for many at the moment. But ITC did run a fam trip very soon after travel restrictions started to be lifted out of the UK to show how things were on the ground.
“We we were talking about the fact that we needed to know first hand, and we could see the agents – and consumers – were crying out for something like that,” Smith says, “so what we showed in the end was just invaluable insight. We’ve definitely still got fam trips on our radar, as we do think that tangible experiences are the way to go with that. There’s no substitute for actually going through that experience yourself. Plus that gave us great presence on social media too.”
Smith doesn’t rule out also helping agents to organise a trip of their own with ITC support either. “Now’s the time to start getting back out there with some activity. I know Di’s going to have lots of innovative creative ideas as well about how we can create value for our agent partners, and we would be really open to doing that kind of thing. I think if we can get people to the places so they’ve got the first-hand knowledge and build the relationships with them, that’s so important. At the heart of all the plans we will be making are around the customer experience.”
Smith said ITC also had to make some tough decisions over the summer, proactively deciding not to operate any holidays in July.
“We couldn’t guarantee what the experience was going to be like for people,” she explains. “We’ve got financial liabilities and we don’t want that to be hit from the customer side. So we’ve been very, very careful about what we have allowed to go out – some of the same approach happened in August and September; we’ve kept a very close eye on things. Of course it was hard, as we almost had to retrain the sales team to almost say ‘stop selling’ and tell people not to go away!”
There was a brighter moment for the company over the summer when the BBC re-ran the 2016 programme about the company, The Millionaires’ Holiday Club, over August bank holiday weekend, “which put us back to the front of mind of any consumer” says Smith.
Forward bookings are looking good, and there’s interest in the Caribbean and the Maldives, thanks to its number of secluded and isolated options, Smith believes, adding there is more interest generally in private villa complexes.
“We have some really big bookings over Christmas, so we have to try and make sure things are going to be functioning in those destinations.”
She adds that because people have missed out on a holiday this year, “next year they want to go bigger on the places they’re staying and they want even richer experiences”.
“Somebody who had a £280,000 super yacht this year wants an even bigger one next year,” she says. “Some of our high net worth clients have already travelled two or three times since the pandemic started, as they just want to get away. But of course there are others who are just delaying because they are unsure.”
Like many in the industry, Smith feels customers will want ever more flexibility around plans and changes in terms and conditions. “You also have to be able to explain everything in great detail and have great insight into what’s happening in the hotels and destinations. It’s also about working with all our suppliers to get the right hooks and deals.
“We continue to be optimistic – we have got some people that say, ’I don’t care about the quarantine, I’ll go anyway, because it makes no difference to my life when I get back’, but we’re still seeing more people who are just delaying because they are unsure,” says Smith. “People are booking very far out, or are waiting until just days away from departure. Things [with customers] just keep changing every time the rules change, which means there has to be some kind of adaptability.”
“These days, you just have to be brilliant at being a font of current relevant knowledge that changes on a daily basis!” concludes Smith.