Our CEO, Sam, was recently asked to participate in a Netwest sponsored podcast on ‘Tough Conversations’ hosted by the inimitable Steph McGovern. We felt the conversation highlighted how challenging it has been in the travel game since COVID first become an issue (which for us was way back in February).Sam says that “it was a pleasure to discuss with such a sharp and perceptive interviewer, not only the challenges faced by the travel industry since the COVID outbreak appeared but also the lessons and learnings and strengths that the beleaguered travel sector can offer. I was also delighted to be able to highlight the brilliant service the ETG team gave to our customers in helping them through what was an incredibly difficult time all round.
Sam's Interview with Steph McGovern
I was pleased that Steph asked what lessons the travel sector could teach not only each other but also other industries and sectors. I am obviously biased but our industry is much undervalued in the UK despite being innovative and world-leading, especially within the specialist niche where we sit. In fact, many travel businesses, ourselves included, also export our service and the UK travel sector has a strong reputation in the US in particular. It would be a considerable loss not just to our country but also to ‘brand UK’ if the UK travel sector lost its world-leading edge in the post-COVID fallout.
During the interview, I was also asked whether I thought the travel industry could pass on some lessons to other sectors. I believe we can. For one thing, we are tremendously skilled in dealing with risk and uncertainty. We have to expect unexpected events to happen. It is part of what we offer: the certainty that we will look after you if your travel is disrupted or affected in some way. As an industry, we have to navigate this for our customers amidst the legal, insurance and regulatory quagmire. We are a very resilient sector and one very used to dealing with unpredictable events. That’s why we’ve managed to survive, by and large, – despite an enormous 8-month shaped hole in our revenues.
We can pass on much more though. Those of us in this niche high-service travel sector understand our customers on a very sophisticated level. In a sense, this is the most critical part of our jobs; understanding each individual and matching the services and products we offer to them in a rewarding way. That understanding came in very useful in looking after our customers who faced the cancellation or postponement of that long-anticipated holiday. When you deal, as we do, with once in a lifetime or dream trips, that is a factor which it is incredibly important to consider. We have to help our customers through that, at what was a dreadful time for everyone. A holiday is a luxury, yes, but one which people might have worked all their lives to be able to afford.
In March, as the harsh reality of travel in a COVID world really kicked in, we had many customers mid-holiday – in India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Malaysia. We even had a couple caught up in a quarantine drama in Vietnam. We were by no means unique in going through this. We worked around the clock to get all of our clients home quickly and efficiently and I don’t know of one similar travel company who didn’t do the same. That didn’t happen by accident. We have the systems, the experience, the patience and the understanding of our clients to quickly work out what is best and how to action it and get it done. All of those people you read about in April, stuck abroad at such a difficult time? I will bet that they were by and large ‘book it themselves’ or perhaps customers of impersonal online platforms. Those of us in the specialist travel sector got our clients home, demonstrating the incalculable value of travel companies who understand the uncertainty and risk around travel in 2020.
With all of your support, we’ll be back with a great deal to offer, not only for our many customers, our suppliers the UK and other economies and perhaps many other sectors too, as we all learn to navigate this strange new world.
Transcript: LET’S MAKE THE NEW NOW – EPISODE TWO, TOUGH CONVERSATIONS – NAT WEST
Hello, I’m Steph McGovern. Welcome to another episode of ‘Let’s make the New Now,’ brought to you by NatWest. Now, in this episode, we’re going to talk about the tough conversations that businesses have had to have this year because let’s face it COVID-19 has meant SMEs have had to make really difficult decisions. So we’re going to chat to two business people who have faced these problems head-on.
So with me, Hootan Ahmadi who is Director of Shoe Restoration Service, Shoe Lab, and the founder of Experience Travel Group, Sam Clark. Sam, let me start with you. Do you know, I can’t even begin to imagine the drama you have faced as someone in the travel industry this year. So first off, how are you?
Sam: Well, I’m still here. So that’s got to be counted as a good thing from where I’m sitting.
Yeah, definitely. So just tell me a bit more about your business then and where you operate.
Sam: So Experience Travel Group, we’re a travel company, but we specialise in Asia – and it’s not holidays where you just go and sit on a beach for two weeks although there’s usually a beach element. And it’s not about ticking off the main sites. It’s about really getting under the skin of the country, really smelling the smells and tastes. It entails meeting people and doing what we what we call revealing the fabric of the destination.
Yeah. And then before the pandemic hit, how was business?
Sam: It was good. It was good. I mean, in travel you often get situations. When suddenly we heard the FCO had been scaling up and getting worse and worse and worse through February, we were getting very, very affected by it, and then through March and you realise something’s coming down the line at you. And then I think it was the – I don’t know, 20th of March or something when the FCO advised against all travel to every destination.
And as a travel company, you’re like, “Well, what do we do? Where do we go from there? It’s just a completely unprecedented situation.
Yeah. So I guess that meant pretty much overnight for you having to make some tough decisions.
Sam: It did. We were navigating working from home like everyone else in the country. We started planning for that early March, but at the same time as that was going on, we had to try and get all of our customers home from where they were, and we had airports closing, we had airlines cancelling flights, reinstating flights, we had clients who didn’t want to come home. They said, “We’re on holiday, we’re in a lovely place. There’s no problem, we’re going to stay here.”
But we had to start taking the line that we don’t know if we’ll be able to get you home if you don’t come now. And I think in retrospect we were right to take that because people got stuck for months in countries. And at the same time as all that we’ve got a lot of people booked on holidays in April, particularly over the Easter holidays, and we had to tell them all that they weren’t going to be able to go, also at the same time trying to persuade them to postpone as opposed to cancel. That’s obviously in our favour in the business sense because we don’t get the revenue now but we might get it down the track, but also all of our suppliers who are often small hotels, or guides and freelancers all over Asia – so at least they can get an idea that at one point they will get paid, they will get some of the business.
The thing, when you explain all that Sam, it just really makes you realise all the different stakeholders you’ve got and everyone having different needs and different explanation and information they need. So how did you manage all those different conversations?
Sam: Yeah, that’s quite an astute question. We do. You’ve got three basic kind of stakeholders that you’ve got to manage. There’s the suppliers on one hand. That’s all your partners in-country, and of course airlines and things like that. And there was a big credit crunch because people refused to let go of money. So you had to manage that side of things. Cash was king in that situation and then you’ve got the customers obviously, and the customers need to be looked after. That’s our first priority. They need to be looked after in-country, that’s our primary responsibility.
And also the people about to travel, we’ve got to service their needs. They’ve paid for a service and we need to supply that. But also, of course, our employees. The employees, they were in an unprecedented situation just like everyone else. They were worried about their job, they were worried about their career. They’re seeing that travel’s coming to a standstill, and yet they’ve got to deal every day with clients, with suppliers, etc. So to manage all of that three is quite a balance.
So how did you do it?
Sam: I think I’m lucky so far as we’ve got a really strong team and they’re quite used to dealing with difficult situations for the clients. I guess, their job, the job of all of us in Experience Travel Group, or ETG as we call it, is to really understand people and to empathise with where they’re coming from, what they want from their holiday primarily, and how we can make that happen together, how we can make that magic of travel.
And this situation, you need to go back to basics and really understand where your customers are coming from. You can’t fall back on trying to play the sympathy card because you need to understand that they’re looking forward to a holiday and they’re in a difficult situation, and you’ve got to understand where they come from.
And I think with our employees, it’s just a matter of being really, really clear, and not trying to be overly optimistic, or even overly pessimistic, but just very, very clear-eyed about what the situation is, and what we need of them.
It’s really interesting because I’m interested to know how you managed to motivate your staff to have difficult conversations with customers and suppliers, at the same time as worrying about their own jobs. So how did you keep the morale in your staff?
Sam: Well, we did a daily round table Zoom thing. So every day we got everyone on the screen, and everyone went round and just said one thing about how they were feeling. And one good thing about what happened today and one thing they found difficult. When we were right in the eye of the storm, we found that really, really invaluable, I think it would have been too much if I’d suggested we’re going to do every day for the rest of time, but when we were in the eye of that storm, it was really, really useful. It was useful for me as well as all the team because we were able to connect and just understand that everyone was finding it very, very difficult.
And so do you think then, Sam, from the things that you brought in to help you during clearly a period of crisis, are there things, learnings that will stay in the business now in terms of how you talk to your staff, or how you deal with customers or suppliers?
Sam: Yeah, get out of travel and not get back into it. But no, there definitely are. I think we’ve learnt massively or relearnt the lesson really because I guess it was a lesson we knew already. But just that you can’t communicate enough. You’ve just got to keep communicating, and that goes with all three sides of the of the triangle, as we talked about earlier – the suppliers, the customers and employees, and really just making sure everyone’s in the loop, making sure everyone knows what the situation is, being honest about the situation and talking. And that was so, so clear.
I think our customers really responded well. Our customers were fantastically supportive for us. So many postponing their trip to help us out really. And I think because we were honest and we communicated a lot, they were really open to that. So that’s definitely the most important lesson.
Yeah, and I think that’s key for lots of businesses, whatever industry you’re in. It’s still a sector which has constantly got change in it and uncertainty. The travel rules are changing on a weekly, sometimes daily basis at the moment. So what are your thoughts on the future for your industry? How are you feeling about things?
Sam: It is still really, really difficult. There is no confidence in the market. They’re just too worried to book trips because am I going to be -quarantined? Am I allowed in? What’s going to happen? A lot of our destinations in Asia at the moment are saying, “Look, we don’t want UK visitors, full stop.” So it’s very open ended. It’s not like there’s going to be a time we know when demand is going to come back. And I think we have to be realistic about that. We’re also facing a pretty heavy recession. So the market is going to come back eventually, but it will come back smaller than it was in 2019, and we have to be really realistic about that at the moment.
So then let’s flip this on its head and talk about the positive, Sam. So what are the things you’re looking at and thinking, “Ah, this is going to be good for the industry. We’ve learnt things that will be good, or any positives from all of it?
Sam: Yeah, definitely. I listened to someone speak on one of these online seminars that everyone’s doing recently. They said we really need to focus on the travel industry, on being smarter and smaller, because it is likely to be a smaller market. And if we’re smarter, we can take advantage of the opportunities. That really resonated with me.
So there’s a couple of things that we’re doing. Firstly, the key problem at the moment is confidence in the market. What we want to do is talk about travel, want to book travel, we want to start planning. We also want our suppliers, our contacts out there in Asia to be able to feel that business is going to come back someday. So what we’ve tried to do is come up with a solution where we can de-risk the booking and planning process. So if you were keen to book a holiday, or think about a holiday next year, we’ll say, “Look, come and do that. We’ll plan it with you, we’ll go through all the normal planning, and what you can do is just pay £ 100-pound deposit so you’re not risking anything” – and even that is refundable if the trip wasn’t to go ahead. But you can still do that planning and that has a really positive effect on not just our employees, but also our suppliers in-country, and it makes it that bit more likely we’ll get the business once travel is ready again.
So that’s the first thing we’re doing. The second thing is we’ve looked at our market and thought that people have had a hard time over the last six months. People have struggled and it’s been very difficult. We think that travel is one of the ways that you can work your way through that. I don’t want to say get better, but you can really start enjoying yourself again. So we’ve looked at a new product, which we’re calling ‘Revitalise,’ which is a much simpler holiday than we do normally. It’s probably just one or two stops, but it’s still in places that are really unique to that country or that place. They’re still really immersive. You’ll still feel like you’re in the destination, really in the destination, but there’ll be much more simpler and a bit more of a focus on wellbeing and health.
So we’re looking at that as a product to launch as confidence comes back to the market.
Yeah. So then based on all of that, and what you’ve learnt from everything you’ve been through, what would your advice be to other travel companies?
Sam: If I had any advice, it is that we do need to be aware that it is going to be a smaller sector, I think we need to learn in terms of sustainability. I think there were elements that we’ve seen improved through the lockdown. So things like over-tourism. Things like too many people visiting one place at one time. And I think we need to come back smarter. We need to learn from things like that, and really improve from a sustainability perspective, and I think we’ve got an amazing opportunity to do so.
Yeah. So what do you think other sectors could learn from your sector?
Sam: I think other sectors could learn about planning, could learn in terms of the expectation of a shock to happen, because we are living in a more and more uncertain world. So the only kind of certainty is that there will be more shocks to the system. There will be more problems. We don’t know what they are. Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. We know there’s going to be something happening, and I think that the travel sector is very, very good at preparing for that and making sure that they’re ready for that.
And I think that there’s a very high level of looking after clients, which is not always appreciated I think in the market. Travel has to look after clients from a regulatory perspective, financial perspective, and just a people perspective in a very, very high level way.
Yeah, I think that’s really fascinating. Thank you so much, Sam. Lovely to talk to you.
Sam: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.