Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
BACK IN THE MILLENNIUM YEAR, when the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) was still the Guild of Business Travel Agents, it published a hard-copy brochure listing its member companies and affording them a chance to blow their own particular corporate trumpet.
And on page 27, one reads: “Travel Alliance business travel management is located solely in the City of London. Highly experienced long serving staff provide personal, cost effective service. These we believe are the principal ingredients required by the corporate traveller/travel managers.”
However, a dozen years on and Travel Alliance – along with the likes of Britannic, P&O and Seaforths – is no longer on the GTMC’s roster, and having a single office is no longer seen as a virtue.
Wings Travel Management, which took over Travel Alliance in 2009, retains a place in the City (where it is now headquartered), but it also has regional hubs in Johannesburg (where it was founded), Houston, Dubai and Singapore, and is currently looking to expand further.
It also has a newly-promoted chief operating officer, Paul East, whose job it is – at least in part – to oversee that expansion and put the Wings name on corporate travel management’s world map.
“Two or three years ago,” he admits, “people would go: ‘Who are Wings?’ Certainly, in the next phase of our business plan, we are looking for growth, and we are looking for more acquisitions. We are not going to buy for buying’s sake, but if it’s the right fit for us, we will look to acquire.”
East, who was elevated to his new position late last year, is pretty sure takeover opportunities will arise. “I do have some concerns, from the perspective of travel management companies in general – particularly those in the middle ground.
“You have got some very small agencies who will do very well, and then you have the big ones who will always do well – but those in the middle? I am sure there will have to be further mergers and acquisitions this year.”
OUT OF AFRICA
Confident words, but will expansion help Wings overcome the perception that it is, despite moving to London, essentially a South African company?
“As far as the UK is concerned, we as a company don’t feel foreign any more, and we are trying to get across to new clients, and the trade, that we are very, very firmly based in the UK, which is now our corporate headquarters. I think that is now really beginning to bear fruit.”
Foreign or not, there are advantages to an exotic heritage. “We have our roots in South Africa,” he agrees. “But it should be noted that we cut our teeth on the continent of Africa, and I think – with the greatest respect – if you can manage travel in Africa, you can do it pretty much anywhere else in the world.”
Right now, East’s world is one of opportunity. “We are looking at emerging markets – we used to talk about the BRIC nations [Brazil, Russia, India and China], but that has now broadened out to become emerging market countries with growth of anything from 5 or 6 per cent, to 10 per cent and more.”
Globalisation in itself is nothing new, but the Wings boss claims his company’s approach to it is rather different. “Because of our tenacity and our experience in Africa, we come from a different perspective – it’s one of the things that we do differently,” he says.
“We talk about being a different type of travel management company. We have global reach, but we have local people on the ground where it matters. We don’t just say that we know the Congo – we have people that are there all the time. We have an operation in Angola, so if there’s a question about a hotel in Luanda, for example, we can send someone round. It’s that human intervention that makes all the difference.”
OIL, GAS...and BEYOND?
“We are never going to be in every city in the world,” East concedes, “but we are going to have a presence where it matters to our clients.
“The geography of corporate travel is certainly changing, definitely in the oil and gas sector. You just have to look at where some of these companies are going – we do a lot of work in Iraq, which we manage out of Dubai, and there has been plenty of publicity recently about big reserves off Cyprus, so that’s another area that we are already looking at.”
Destination demand isn’t the only thing that is changing. Wings’ historic focus on the oil and gas, and marine sectors meant that there was little call for accommodation – 85 per cent of the company’s business is air bookings.
However, having made inroads into the financial sector, the patterns are shifting. “With the acquisition of Travel Alliance, our market is definitely changing,” East says. “We do a lot of visas, and more hotel and rail business is coming through now. Clients do want someone to manage their whole programme, so our hotel business is growing rapidly.”
THE HUMAN TOUCH
Changing destinations and travel patterns inevitably require new, or different, skill sets. Is there, as the GTMC has suggested, a shortage of qualified talent in the industry?
East believes that depends on the offer on the table. “It has always been our goal to work with senior travel consultants. We look to employ the best people in the industry, and we want people to have the imagination and flair to help our clients – we don’t want to restrict them to being mere robots. It’s about human intervention backed by state-of-the-art technology.
“We have recruited many people in the past year, and we have been highly delighted with them. We want to give them the opportunity to make a difference for our clients and that, I think, has attracted a lot of our new people. And clients appreciate that class of service and knowledge.
“We have always been a little bit over-staffed, simply because we don’t want to get into the position of having to recruit in an emergency – we would rather bring people into the business so that we always have the capacity when a new client comes on board.”
Back in 2000, Travel Alliance was claiming: “Highly experienced long serving staff provide personal, cost effective service.” It’s been a turbulent few years since then, to say the least, but there are some things that don’t change.