John Bevan, dnata Travel Group chief executive, speaks to TTG Media CEO Dan Pearce in the sixth of our weekly Get Travel Leaders Talking video series – looking at the business and mental health strategies some of travel’s most senior leaders have used to get them through the Covid crisis.
How have you been looking after your mental health and physical wellbeing over the past few months?
“It’s been a long crisis and when I look back at the beginning we were in such unchartered territories, and it hit us so hard, that in my first few months I didn’t really come up for air. I just stormed through it. It was only really after we got into the summer that I realised just how tired I was. In May or June I started realising just how much weight I had put on, because I was literally going nowhere. I’d be at my desk at the crack of dawn until very late, and I was doing only about 1,500 steps a day. It was ridiculous. So I started going for walks. Every morning I would take myself off at 6.30 and do a 3km walk. That allowed me time to think about my day ahead.
“I had to get some fresh air, because when you’re 12 hours in a study, you’re not doing yourself any help while you’re sat down all day. So I started doing that and eventually got a bit healthier, and started doing a bit of running too. And then I decided to buy a Peloton bike. When I lived out in Miami, I joined a fabulous gym and they used to have incredible spin classes with instructors that completely motivated you. And you’d go in there for 45 minutes, you’d lose yourself in the music and they’d thrash the hell out of you. And I found that with the Peloton, the classes are phenomenal and I’ve really got into it. I’m very pleased to say that I’ve lost about seven kilos since the summer and I’m feeling a lot better for it. And I’ve also been using that time NOT to think, because when you’re on the bike, trying to push yourself, can’t think about work.
“So I’ve taken more time for myself and use the fitness to try and get my wellbeing back in. Before I came back into travel, I spent five years in the wellness industry and I was a lot fitter than I am now! I just remember getting on the scales back in May and thinking, what have I done?! Once you start exercising and, and feeling a bit more healthy, you feel more energetic. And I think that gives you that extra energy you need during the day.”
What strategies have you been using to strengthen your personal resilience?
“It’s not always an easy one to talk about, but I’ve actually been through quite a lot before. So when it comes to tough moments, I think I’m naturally quite resilient. I lost my wife in a car accident when I was just 30, when we were supposedly in the prime of our lives – and the industry then was amazing. I was already in the industry working for company based in France. I remember going to World Travel Market and how amazing the industry was. And I learned a lot in the following five to 10 years on how to deal with, with real tough moments in your head. And now I think that through a lot when I have moments of crisis, and I kind of really calm down.
“Also, I am able to sleep quite well. If you don’t sleep well, you can be in a lot of trouble. Overall I just really focus on the task in hand and I’ll break down things, quite literally. So I know what I have to get through each day, each week, and just process it one step at a time. We have obviously had to make some very tough decisions, but somehow I just process them in a very kind of methodical, pragmatic way. I just process it through – I have a job to do, I’ve got to get through it and we were in a crisis situation. We had people to bring back from all over the world. We had bookings to deal with, customers screaming at us to sort of things out. You could get into a panic, but you need to break it all down, structure it and then just take it step by step and try to solve every problem that’s coming up. And they were non-stop!
“My wife was amazing, she kept me watered and fed through the day, and just gave me that support in the evening, and allowed me to vent – she realised what we were going through and just gave me the space. But she allowed me to talk to her if I needed to about some of the pressures. I think I was lucky with her because I know some of my colleagues live alone, and then I suppose you you’ve got no one to go and vent to, or at least you’re going to have to find someone you can talk to on the phone or on Zoom.”
What’s been your most challenging moment of the crisis?
“The darkest time was November - when we went back into that lockdown and there was no news about vaccines yet. I really felt, and I used this expression with a few of my colleagues – I thought I was just staring down. This tunnel has absolutely no light. And I just did not see how we were going to come out with this. Fortunately that didn’t last too long because then they opened up a couple of destinations – Dubai and the Maldives.
“So of course when you start seeing bookings coming through and you just get the buzz and excitement of people, the sales team getting busy and everything and then you feel better. And then of course the vaccination program came out. Since then I’ve been okay, but there was a good couple of weeks where I really started to think, gosh ‘Have we just done all of this for nothing? We’re not going to be able make it out of here’.
“I genuinely did have a few of those moments, when it just looked like there was no way out. The lockdown was terrible and this last one has been horrific – but at least there was that light. I always look at the positive side of things in life. For me there’s always a way out, but when at that moment in November there was no solution that anyone could provide. That was the toughest time.”
How have you been looking after your team? What steps have you put in place to look after their own wellbeing in this period?
“It was incredible how quickly the words mental health were on the agenda. It wasn’t long into this when we realised how many people were struggling. The ones who were working, who weren’t furloughed, were struggling with the sheer volume of work, and all the clients we were having to deal with. It didn’t matter who you were in the business, you were suffering in one way or other. So we upped the communication. There was a lot more written communication, a lot more video conference call communication, especially with the wider leadership team. And they were able to cascade things that they’d heard, rather than read.
“I was worried about dilution of the information. Phil, our brilliant comms guy, came up with the idea of creating a keep-in-touch newsletter. So we launched that quite early on, it was about tips on how to work from home, how to look after yourself at home, how to exercise, meal plans… people were sharing all sorts of ideas that they had. And then we brought in the mental health support, we teamed up with Mind. We had someone come and present to the wider leadership team around mental health. That was one of the most active sessions we had actually, with lots of questions about how we could help the team.”
“We communicated a lot on the subject and we were very open about it. I would quite openly say on calls that I’d not had a great week. I think trying to put a veneer on it doesn’t really help anyone because otherwise you’re saying that you’re different to them and that you’re able to cope with it better than they can. To be honest, I’ve always been a bit of an open book anyway!
“It wasn’t really to justify decisions, it was just to show that this was exceptionally difficult and among the hardest times any of us had worked at worked through. Generally speaking, everyone upped the communication. I know the managing directors at their level, each brand in each shared service, also did lots of things with their teams. Zoom calls, tasting sessions, quizzes, all sorts of stuff, because of course we hadn’t worked from home like that before. It was amazing really, within a few days we had 1,300 people set up at home, and we hadn’t tested those systems before. So there are a few areas that are a bit, bit creaking to start with, but it was literally days before everything was up and running and as if nothing had happened and of course, then we have to try and keep people connected.
"Each team had different methods of communicating, they could either Skype or use some form of communication where they could message the team leader to get some help. We modified the way of working quite quickly and the out of work stuff was great. I was a bit jealous because there was a sunflower growing competition going on that I didn’t take part in!”
What positive lessons have you discovered about yourself, or the company, during the crisis? Will they change the way you run the business in future?
“Loads. Bizarrely, this has brought us together. Dnata Travel Group was lots of businesses in the UK and we tended to work a bit in silos, but because of the size of the problems with customers, with refunds, with system changes, and to cope with working from home, we’ve had to work together and across brands to simplify the processes. So it broke down an awful lot of silos and I’ve seen a complete change in people, who now think about the other brands as well as their own. Those silos have been brought together. We’ve changed our ways of working.
“Of course we’re now using Teams and Zoom, and I think they will stay to a large extent and allow us to be more flexible. We’ll have a lot more people who can work flexibly from home in future. I’ve also started different types of meetings – such as introductions to people from other parts of the business on our leadership calls. That’s something we’ll carry on because they’re loving it - hearing about the catering side of the business or Dnata cargo operations or other things in Dubai.
“So we’ve increased the dialogue, we’ve opened up a lot more and I think we’ve become one. In Dubai they’ve always had this ‘one Dnata’ approach where all the brands work together, but we were always a bit outside of that being based in the UK. Now it really feels like we’ve, we’ve come together as one. We’ve had this whole theme running right through, of emerging stronger – and we really do feel like we’re going to come out of this as a much stronger business.”
For mental health resources visit TTG’s Mental Health Hub and look out for more Get Travel Leaders Talking videos being released each week.