September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
ONE OF THE SOBERING FACTS about having sons is that there comes a point when they begin to out-run, out-manoeuvre and generally out-play their fathers. In Ian Sparks' case, it's his tennis prowess that is being called into question. Having dominated the court throughout his three sons' formative years, he now faces the increasingly-frequent humiliation of being roundly beaten - if not actually thrashed - by his own children. Unsurprising, therefore, that he is throwing himself headlong into his new role as chief executive at Expotel where, for the time being at least, the workload and learning curve mean he is shielded from the indignities inflicted by his adversarial offspring. Not that the post is not without its challenges.
For a start, Expotel itself is in a state of transition - a substantial majority of its business still comes from the hotel side, although the balance is steadily shifting towards the full service model. And apart from an early stint with Thomas Cook, Sparks hasn't had much in the way of travel industry experience.
With Cendant, he was primarily involved in employee relocation and housing; at environmental service specialist Casella the main concern was the wider health and safety issues - advising governments on 'clean air' policies, for example - and at FirstAssist, it was a case of providing the service fulfilment for the likes of Bupa.
He remains cheerily unperturbed. "My focus is really business services - I've had 24 years of that. I came up through the sales route into general management, but it has always been client-led because in business services, that's critical. You are not constrained by product, you are only constrained by people's time and attitudes.
"The winner is the person who understands the client best. I have had a career in different segments of business services. It's fascinating for me personally, because you can always come at the sector with a fresh mind and ask yourself: 'If I was the buyer, what would I want?'."
As chief executive of Cendant's European re-housing and real estate division, for example, his close relationship with the company's clients exposed a holidaymakers, to a large degree it's been about rescuing situations. Travel management, in contrast, is predicated on the notion that prevention is better than cure - of course 'disaster recovery' is part of the remit, but the bulk of the business is concerned with 'disaster avoidance'.
To Sparks, the distinction is academic to the point of pedantry.
"There are a lot of development opportunities in the travel management marketplace. What I see is a focus needed all around the client, and the flexibility and innovation to actually put some new services, or revised, developed services, around that client."
The similarities with his previous roles go further than that. "You have two audiences - the client and what they are trying to achieve, and then you have the traveller, who has got another set of requirements." So is that an issue?
"I think it's a balance. There are sometimes two objectives there, but crying need for improved expense management systems. "They had a problem, so we developed a whole range of services around that. It's about providing services. It's about how you add value for that client, and it's about providing assistance."
That word, 'assistance', is key. For much of his career to date, Sparks has been involved with companies dealing with issues which can perhaps best be described as, at the very least, disruptive.
Whether it is uprooting an employee and family from London to Aberdeen as part of a relocation exercise, or advising on the best way to deal with asbestos in the ceilings of a headquarters' office block, or ferrying forgotten medication to absent-minded I don't think it's a huge conflict. You have to manage the policy at the same time as getting to know the traveller very well, to get feedback and get a profile together - that helps the traveller, it helps us, and it helps the client as well."
The mention of 'balance' is particularly apposite in Expotel's case. In 2010, Buying Business Travel ranked the company as the UK's largest hotel booking agency. This year, that accolade went to BSI, while Expotel was shifted into the publication's list of top-ranked travel management companies (TMCs). It came eighth, putting it in a league with the likes of ATPI, Hillgate, and BSI owners Capita. However, despite our best efforts, and those of Expotel chairman Richard Lovell and Sparks' predecessor Ian Burnley, it remains difficult to shake off that 'booking agency' tag.
Sparks doesn't much care.
"If you come back to my point about doing everything around the client, it doesn't really matter whether you are a hotel booking agency or a travel management company as long as you are providing what the client wants," he says. "I think from what I have seen, our clients are wanting that mix. Certainly we see a number of them who are now buying a full service from Expotel."
Even so, hotels still dominate, with transient business making up 60 per cent of Expotel's 1.5 million transactions in 2010, and MICE a further 20 per cent. Air and rail bookings constituted only 10 per cent apiece. "That is changing," says Sparks. "We have some strong air people, and we are taking on a lot more new people. The culture of the organisation is evolving."
And Sparks is quite clear on where the responsibility for that evolution lies. "Organisations develop their cultures through how people act, from top to bottom, and it's a matter of administering that and then developing a customer- and client centric approach," he says. "It's led by the senior guys. My main focus is around organic growth, developing services around existing clients, and we want to be really strong on that.
"The beauty of business services is that if one client wants it that way, you can deliver it that way, but if a client wants it another way, you can deliver that as well.
"I think it [Expotel] is a very strong company with huge opportunity. Two weeks in, I'm getting even more excited than I was when I first joined." Sorry, boys, the ritual tennis court humiliation will have to wait a while.
Ian Sparks group chief executive, Expotel
Expotel's new group chief executive Ian Sparks joined the company in July this year from health services provider FirstAssist Services, where he was managing director.
His managerial career started with Thomas Cook, where he was a general manager, and has encompassed spells as chief executive at Cendant's European corporate housing arm, and as chief executive of the Casella Group.
When he is not running the business or losing to his sons at tennis, his favourite leisure pursuits include socialising and sailing.