Brian Young, G Adventure’s managing director EMEA, speaks to TTG Media CEO Dan Pearce in the fifth 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?
“At the very start of it, not very well. There was just so much work going on and having to work around the clock left me a bit stressed. We were all dealing with something we’ve probably never dealt with before. We had to make some tough decisions about the business, about how we operate and to suspend the tours, which is something we’d never done before. When you make those decisions it’s quite stressful because it’s a major impact to the business, but we knew it was the right decision to make.
“And then you go from making that decision to communicating that to all of our partners around the world. So that was a huge amount of work that we had to do at that time. It wasn’t just the stress it was the amount of work and how quickly everybody wanted answers. So we were getting fogged up left and right. And we had all these people all around the world, with G Adventures we go everywhere. So we had a lot of operational work to do on a global basis to understand what was happening with borders, and we had to deal with the impact on our people on the ground with all of that. And then the flights started to disappear, and everyone’s scrambling to get on flights to get back. So we had some hairy moments – Tunisia was one, I recall spending all of my Sunday into the evening trying to understand how we were going to get literally five passengers out before they shut the border down and all the flights.
“It was running at a hundred miles an hour, as you can imagine, and you get taken over by that situation. And for me, it was a case of coming through that period and then reflecting and going: right, you need to slow down a little bit otherwise you’re going to burn yourself out. It became apparent that it wasn’t a short term thing, that this was going to go on for a period of time. So I realised at that point that if I was working all the hours under the sun I wasn’t going to be fit for anybody. My team relied on me to make decisions, and I had to look after them and give them direction. So I realised that this wasn’t the way to go. You have to put some self discipline into play and realise that you shouldn’t be doing a silly amount of hours. So that was the lesson I learned quickly.”
What strategies have you been using to strengthen your personal resilience?
“Two things. One is around planning and making sure that the time that you are working is effective and it’s not spilling over into your life. At home there’s no separation between home life and work life and technology doesn’t help. You’re constantly on some kind of communication tool, whether you’re working or not. But the key bit for me was finding an avenue of somebody to talk to when you go through it. You can’t necessarily talk to people within the industry, with some of the decision-making that you’re having to do. My dad has been there for me throughout the whole of this crisis, he was a good person for me to go to to get things off my chest, to talk it through with and someone that will just listen in all honesty. And then sometimes he gave me advice, he’s had his own business and been successful in his own career. So he’s been great from that perspective to level me out and sometimes to play the devil’s advocate. I owe him several beers!
“But I have talked to people in the industry too. Clearly we can’t talk about ‘business business’, but I have found it really helpful to talk to people at the same level as me about how they’re coping and what they’re going through. Then you get the perspective of all being in the same boat, to some degree. I’ve learned things from other people, for example one conversation brought me to the idea of actually getting my team out from behind their desks or out of home and doing walking meetings. So on a Friday for example I get out and walk and talking with our national sales manager. And I know it’s done him some good because he was never getting out from behind his desk. I’ve done it with several of the team, but that came from talking to someone else in the industry. Walking has been good, I’m very grateful to have two dogs, they’ve never been walked so much in all our lives - one of them is 12 and now refuses to go anywhere with me because I’ve walked the legs off him!
“I’ve always thought I was quite a strong person. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve clearly been tested through this period of time and there’s a point where there’s a ‘F-it!’ factor where you have to realise that some of these things are outside of your control and you can’t control everything. But what I can do is make the best decisions and lead my team as best as I possibly can and be happy in myself that I’m doing the best that I can.
“And if that’s the case and I can tick those boxes, I’ve learnt I can’t sweat the other stuff. I used to get anxiety over it and worry, overly worry about things. And now I’m in a position where I’m thinking, Brian, you’re doing the best that you can do. My team are doing a brilliant job. You know what that’s as much as I can do and it will be what it will be. I actually never thought about that before, but now I’m a true believer. And I try and tell my team constantly the same thing. I don’t want them worrying about things that they actually can’t control.”
What’s been your most challenging moment of the crisis?
“Putting staff on furlough was very difficult, because they all knew we couldn’t have everybody still working, and we had to make some people redundant before putting them the majority on furlough. It was a really worrying time for every individual. And I can understand how they were very stressed about whether they were being made redundant or going on furlough. I had built that team up over six years. The hardest bit was when we had them all on a video call and it was on a Friday… I found that really difficult and I had to come off the video call. It affected me emotionally. So I had to step off the video call, collect myself and then get back onto the call. I’ve made redundancies in the past and had to make some tough decisions, but these things affect everybody. I don’t think anybody, I don’t care how tough as nails they think they are, enjoys that at all. I’ve have found that bit hard, and it doesn’t get any easier. Those were the points in time that I really felt and affected me personally.”
How have you been looking after your team? What steps have you put in place to look after their own wellbeing in this period?
“The most important thing for me to say to the team is it’s OK not be OK, I’ve stressed it so many times. I’ve even been honest with them about myself and said when I’m not feeling it myself. And it has to be the same for them to know that they’re not the only ones going through that, but we’re all going through it and it’s not a problem. The other aspect is to open. I’ve had an open door policy, or open Zoom policy! And in those one-to-ones I’m not interested about what you’re doing on a day to day basis from a work perspective, I want to know how they are and how are they coping as an individual. And to tell them it’s a safe space and they don’t have to worry that I’m the MD, it will have no impact on their job, that’s been something that I’ve tried to drum home.
“Some people have struggled and, but I wanted to make myself available. But the other bit is about flexibility. I trust my team implicitly. So flexibility is about if you just need to walk away from it and go off, take a dog walk through whatever it is that you need to do. If it means that you don’t start at nine o’clock because you’re just not ready for it, I’m OK with that. That’s been really important, to stress to the team that I don’t need them popping up on Slack at nine o’clock in the morning with ‘Hey how is everybody?’ just so I’m not interested in that. I don’t need any of that.
“We also put in play an employee assistance program and that’s not just for the current staff, but that’s also for the people that have left the business. That offers counselling support, legal, finance and wellbeing support. And this has been there for everybody to access throughout the whole of this pandemic. And we give everybody private medical insurance. So we’ve really pushed all that to make sure that everyone’s aware that if you’re not comfortable coming to your team leader you have these outlets where you can go to.”
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?
“We’ve all learned that we can all work from home. Whether we want to for the future is a very different thing. But I think we’ve learned as a business that we’ve coped in the worst ever situation we’ve had to deal with as a business in the whole 30 years of G and we have gotten through it. So there is a positive in that respect. We know technology brings with it some freedom and flexibility and coming out of this people have the opportunity to come in and out of the office. I think there’ll be times when people need to be in for connection, whether it’s working on a joint thing as a team, but at the same time we brought in a working from home policy pre-pandemic.
“I think people work harder from home because they were worried that everyone thought they were sat around having cups of coffee and watching This Morning or whatever, and not actually working! Coming out of this, what’s important for me is that balance between work and life. And I want to make sure that we maintain that because a lot of what I hear from my team is what they’ve really liked is that ability to just walk straight down the stairs and have a barbecue in the summer, or whatever that allows them to do. And we can’t lose that as it’s been a key ingredient of what’s kept everyone motivated and positive through this.
[Our founder] Bruce Poon-Tip has said many times that we’re the greatest start-up business with years of experience behind us. We’ve learned a lot about what was great in our business, but through the lockdown we’ve also learned what’s not gone well. We’re now in a really strong position – we will see a big upturn because I do think there’ll be pent-up demand. Maybe it won’t happen as soon as we want it to, but there’s no two ways about it. People have realised travel is a special thing has been taken away from us.
“We have to be conscious of the safety aspect, because we don’t want to go backwards. But at the same time when it does open up, our industry will benefit and hopefully we’ll make up for some of what’s happened in the last 12 months.”
For mental health resources visit TTG’s Mental Health Hub and look out for more Get Travel Leaders Talking videos being released each week.