Back for a second time at China specialist Wendy Wu Tours, new UK managing director Laurence Hicks talks to TTG about his plans for boosting the business and the future for the China market
In an industry as tight-knit as travel it isn’t uncommon to see people return to companies they have worked for before. In Laurence Hicks’ case, this involved going back to Wendy Wu Tours, and to a job he left in 2009.
“It was one of the few companies I actually had a real personal, warm affection for,” explains the operator’s UK managing director.
“As a business, what I liked about running Wendy Wu Tours then, and what I like about it now, is that she [Wu] lets me run it like its my own business.”
Now back in the driving seat, Hicks is keen to make up for lost time. He’s got big plans for this year - including adding product never before seen in the Chinese market - and ambitious long-term targets.
It could have been very different for Hicks, had he stuck with his original career. “I know a lot of people who have started in travel from completely outside the industry and I’m one of them. I actually trained as a teacher and did my degree in education and… rather than going into formal teaching I went into teaching and working with disaffected young people.”
Part of this job involved taking teenagers away on outdoor activity trips and when Hicks became frustrated with teaching he took a job as a resort manager for school winter sports operator Skibound.
Hicks’ travel career break helped him secure various other roles before he was appointed Italian product manager at Inghams.
He may not have the most Mediterranean of names, but Hicks is half Italian and at Inghams he helped set up a specialist tour operating programme in the country. His days contracting hotels in the Alps may be over, but he still maintains links with his mother’s country.
Bottles of Ferrarelle mineral water are stacked on his balcony and after only two days at Wendy Wu he had a Lavazza machine delivered to the London Bridge office.
Hicks is keen to draw parallels between his big break at Inghams and his current responsibilities at Wendy Wu. “It taught me an awful lot about brand and about how strength in a brand can be very relevant in the marketplace,” he says.
“In many ways that is reflected in what happens here at Wendy Wu, because we’ve developed a very strong brand. And what’s happening is that people wanting China holidays are saying ‘I want a Wendy Wu holiday’ because they know the brand values and the brand strength and what we deliver.”
"I would be disappointed if I couldn’t grow the business 15% on last year in passengers and turnover"
When Hicks first interviewed for the job he asked to see copies of customer feedback letters so he could find out what people really thought. What amazed him was the amount of letters addressed directly to “Wendy”. “I knew when I was joining the business that it had a quality product to sell,” he adds.
Hicks describes Wu as a “get-your-hands-dirty” type of person. She set up the business 15 years ago in Australia before expanding it to the UK in 2007.
Australia still represents 50% of the company’s core market, with the UK making up 30% and the US the rest. According to the company’s most recent accounts, operating profit has been steadily increasing. In 2011 it rose 29% to £1.4 million and if Hicks has his way it should continue to increase.
“I would be disappointed if I couldn’t grow the business 15% on last year in passengers and turnover,” he says.
The medium-term goal is even more ambitious: to double the size of the business within four years. Hicks says some of this will come from the explosion in demand for travel to China and the rest made up though innovations within Wendy Wu.
Although statistics on the inbound tourism market are difficult to obtain, the UN World Tourism Organisation’s latest Tourism Highlights publication ranks China as the third most visited country in the world with 57.6 million international arrivals (behind the US and France. In 2006, the number stood at just 49.9 million.
This steady increase over the past few years has been helped by major events including the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which Hicks maintains helped “knock down” some of the government’s resistance to tourism.
“For the first time ever we’re now talking to some of the regions in China about joint marketing campaigns in the UK - which is unheard of,” he says.
Wendy Wu and its competitors will also be boosted by British Airways’ new thrice-weekly flight to Chengdu - home of the giant panda - in September.
"As China starts to relax, opens its doors and welcomes people, it’s going to boom"
Hicks estimates that the escorted touring market to China currently accounts for around 30,000 passengers and although he says Wendy Wu has the largest share he is keen to look beyond this “crowded” area.
“What I’m now doing is turning my sights on new sectors of the market and looking to see where we can find new business and there is a whole sector out there which is untouched and that is with a much younger market - more business executives, families, singles - all of whom are uncatered for.
“As China starts to relax, opens its doors and welcomes people - and with the new 72-hour visas, they make it much easier for people to get in and out quickly - it’s going to boom.”
To facilitate this “boom”, Hicks is planning a host of initiatives in 2013. There will be an increased product offering, with new child-friendly and short-duration holidays and he is also planning to overhaul the company’s data gathering and marketing capabilities.
Wendy Wu’s relationship with the trade is also set to change. Agents account for 70-75% of business and remain hugely important, but Hicks wants to shake things up.
“I have a few issues with the way tour operators work with the trade. A lot are stuck in the old traditional merchandising style of relationship. I think that’s wrong.”
He adds: “I’m not interested in a travel agent now who [is] just going to sit back and wait for the clients to come into their shop door: those days are gone and they will die.”
As well as bringing in his own Italian coffee, it appears that Hicks is as equally keen on importing his own blend of innovation and negotiating skills, ready to help push the Wendy Wu brand even further in the UK market.