1 November 2022, London Marriott Hotel County Hall
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
November 2022, Virtual
It has been a busy 18 months for Clarity Travel Management. Formerly Co-operative Travel Management and run as a joint venture with Thomas Cook from 2011, it was sold in 2014 to the Middle East-based Mawasem Travel and Tourism.
The TMC then rebranded as Clarity around the time it was named in BBT’s Top 50 UK TMCs for 2015. So we caught up with CEO Pat McDonagh to discuss the past couple of years at the company, booking behaviour, disrupting the industry and the threat of suppliers going direct to travellers...
Can you give an overview of the company over the past couple of years, the takeover, contract wins, name change and any challenges these presented... Also the current financial state of Clarity and future plans?
Three years ago the business had lost its relevance in the marketplace. We had an ageing technology infrastructure including seven different phone systems across our network and most importantly, no credible online proposition. Added to that, we were struggling for serious investment, having recently become a part of the Thomas Cook Co-operative Travel JV as other parts of the JV and Thomas Cook at large required some serious surgery.
We were still profitable, so naturally we weren’t high on the priority list in spite of the business being in decline without the tools to compete for new business. In fact we were losing business as clients lost patience with our lack of a credible online booking tool and often creaking infrastructure.
Throughout that time we focused on improving our online product by slowly introducing Go2Book which is our name for the Micros Oracle Sabs Corporate self-booking tool. Our decision on whether to develop in house or through a third party was largely swayed by the size of the initial investment required, but we knew that Micros had a great track record and we could work with them to enhance an already excellent product. It proved to be the right decision as we now have a market-leading solution and a very successful partnership resulting in rapid development and a robust and scalable product. Just as importantly though, we redeployed resource to support our online booking tool meaning that our helpdesk support was second to none.
We also took every opportunity to stabilise our infrastructure as we migrated away from Co-operative Group systems, choosing instead of joining with the Thomas Cook solution to create something standalone specifically designed for our business. The result was one phone system and server hosting and networking through a robust cloud-based solution. What that means in practice is that our service levels can be maintained and managed consistently, meaning our clients are happy.
The sale of the business to Al Tayyar meant that we were now able to accelerate our plans with the shackles off. This meant the addition of Go2Track, our traveller tracking solution which incorporates UK rail data and Go2Insight, our online, fully configurable, Dashboard based management information system to our online proposition. We also invested in new office premises, relocating our head office to Manchester city centre and creating our training academy, which means we’re now able to attract, train and retain the best people. Our new owners are fantastic investors and see the potential in our business, so the investment is there to grow the business aggressively with no corners cut.
The results are there to see now. We’ve won over £25m of new business so far this year (since January) and there is more than ever in the pipeline. We’re positioned and have the capacity for this expansion and our first class implementation process means that our new clients are consistently delighted by our smooth delivery. Going forward, we intend to continue the rapid growth of the business through new client acquisitions, whilst ensuring we continue to deliver for our existing clients. As we continue to invest in technology, our clients can be sure that we’re setting the pace and of course relevant.
What are the strengths of Clarity compared to other competitive TMCs?
We think we’ve got the mix between service and technology absolutely right. It’s too easy to invest in online tools and believe you can engineer the people out of the process. Others have made that mistake and the help and expertise just isn’t there when you need it. It shouldn’t be like that. Our focus is on driving high online adoption rates with those that want it by ensuring that we’re on hand if needed and our implementation process ensures that training is provided to get you off to the best possible start. Our setup is also extremely flexible which means that whatever your data capture, policy, approval or payment requirements, we can deliver.
When Clarity re-branded you mentioned about having a “disruptive approach” to business travel, can you explain what this means and how Clarity does things differently?
Transparency is a key value for us; we don’t price by stealth or conjure up savings that don’t really exist. Too often we hear of TMCs promising or reporting enormous savings, for example, Airfares booked compared to fully flexible published fares that nobody would ever really book. Our savings are real, measurable and achievable. Strategic account management support is also offered as standard, with no hidden fees, we don’t put you on the clock and dedicate the time and resource needed to make your programme a success.
With the improving economy are you seeing an increase in spending and use of better hotels and business class flights? Is cost control still a major issue for buyers?
We’re not seeing a huge loosening of the purse strings to be honest. Cost, or more accurately, value is the single biggest consideration for 99 per cent of our clients. We support that actively by setting agreed savings targets and tracking and managing performance in partnership with our clients.
What issues are buyers increasingly concerned or focusing on? Are these issues Clarity can advise and help with?
Outside of value for money, traveller security or duty of care is a huge and increasing concern. Recent events in the Middle East, Ebola in West Africa and the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris demonstrate how dangerous the world can be. Go2Track, our new traveller tracking tool puts the travel manager in the picture both domestically and internationally.
With an increase in self-booking and improved technology how do TMCs evolve to stay relevant?
We’ve got to look at direct to consumer businesses and ensure we’re keeping in step with them. If we fail to stay with the pace, the clamour for open booking solutions will grow. We need to continue to add value in the form of strategic account management and programme management, whilst ensuring that end-users want to book with us through choice rather than corporate coercion.
Lufthansa GDS charge – Thoughts on the 16 Euro fee being brought in by the airline for non-direct channel bookings. Do you think other airlines will follow? Do you think buyers will start to move business away from Lufthansa? Does this sort of move concern Clarity? And what can the company do to stop moves like this affecting its bottom line?
We’re surprised by the move and sceptical as to whether or not it will succeed. More importantly though, I think the logic is somewhat flawed. It smacks of the kind of calculation an accountant somewhere has made, looking only at part of the commercial equation.
Third party distribution takes an incredible amount of strain away from the airline in the form customer acquisition, which is particularly important in the SME sector, managing amendments and cancellations and of course, offline booking support. The website solution could work, but it needs a lot of development to do so.
TMC businesses are built around GDSs and our systems and processes support that, automating wherever possible, to ensure we provide a cost-effective service. If Lufthansa had engaged and consulted with the trade earlier, there could have been some discussion around how we adapt to such a change, interfacing our systems with their website.
We’re now reacting to a fete accompli and it will benefit no-one. I think there will be a need to revise the strategy and adapt it, and I think other airlines are waiting to see how it goes. I do expect corporates and TMCs alike to respond unfavourably.
Ultimately, this is an industry continuously affected by change and the strongest will adapt and thrive. I’m sure we’ll be one of them.
Read our May/June issue online featuring the Top 50 UK TMCs