The fashion business is faster, and more global, than ever before – so how does the travel management industry keep up? Nick Easen reports
The stitches are perfect, lavish make-up is immaculately applied, photographers are poised and jostling journalists are agog. Lights, camera, action: the catwalk comes alive with strutting killer heels, snapping camera shutters, the pout of prancing models and rapturous applause from the adoring world of fashion. Lost in the heat and noise are the silent sighs of exhausted travel buyers.
For many, these catwalk parades are seen as the pinnacle of haute couture – the culmination of much blood, sweat and toil and the ultimate showcase for a fashion brand. It also involves a lot of travel. As the images flash across Fashion TV for the autumn/winter collection at Paris Fashion Week, few watchers realise the panic, the logistical nightmares faced and the sheer scale of organisation needed to make it all happen.
There’s the young, inexperienced model who missed her flight from Ekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains. It’s where a lot of the models come from in Russia these days. She got confused with the ten-hour layover in Moscow airport.
Then there’s the top stylist complaining about the service at the front of the plane, and the New York fashion journalist who’s fuming about the absent meet-and-greet at Charles de Gaulle airport on arrival.
“The head of design can change her flight so many bloody times it’s ridiculous,” says a designer from one of the top fashion houses. “It’s always done so last-minute; so many decisions are made about collections at the latest possible stage.”
There’s a lot to get right and lots that can go wrong. Whole studios are packed up and shipped over from London to Paris for Fashion Week (see Case Study 1, below), including most staff, so that a fully functioning office can work flat-out for the length of the show in situ – with all the travel bookings this entails, from masses of hotel rooms to carriages’ worth of Eurostar tickets.
For the industry executives, top models, journalists and buyers it doesn’t stop with just one week. There is a global jet-set schedule to keep: New York kicks off in early February, then London and Milan, and it ends in Paris where the shows wrap up in the second week of March.
The Fashion Weeks themselves are a chaotic crunch – in some cases more than 80 runway shows, in roughly 70 hours, over six days. Not to mention the endless parties and cocktail events. There are also photographic shoots in exotic locales during other times of the year and advertising features for new line launches.
Those travel buyers working with the industry executives and top model agencies, such as Premier Select and IMG, face an extremely pressurised time when it comes to flying people around the world for more than a month at a stretch. But then there is the preparation for months beforehand, involving checking venues, client meetings and nailing down all the travel arrangements, and firming up policies.
Supermodels will be wearing Calvin Klein in New York one week, Dolce & Gabbana in Milan the other and, of course, staying in central, five-star hotels. You’ve also got two four-week cycles for the important collections: spring-summer and then autumn-winter, each with their lead-in times for fixing travel arrangements. The word often used to describe the season’s packed calendar, involving constant travel organising and myriad trade shows and Fashion Weeks, is ‘relentless’.
It’s also a tiered industry in terms of travel policy. Supermodels, influential journalists, top executives, star designers, world-renowned photographers and named stylists turn left when they enter the aircraft cabin; upcoming models and designers make do with economy. “Knowing who’s who, and what their requirements and entitlements are, is essential if we’re not to waste time offering options that are unsuitable for a particular traveller,” says Chris Alty, a specialist in travel for the fashion industry at travel management company Tzell UK.
There is certainly big money at stake in this industry. Rising global demand for luxury goods has driven up the valuations of big fashion brands – think Christian Dior, Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton. Bloomberg recently valued privately-held Dolce & Gabbana at US$5.3 billion. Hugo Boss posted a 45 per cent stock rise in 2012, while Prada’s shares more than doubled in the same year.
It can also be profitable for those travel sectors serving fashion events – for instance, room rates can rise to dizzying heights during Fashion Weeks as demand soars. Morgans Hotel Group cited a strong London Fashion Week last September as a reason for a rise in its profits. “One editor wanted to go over to Milan and what was normally a €400 room at the central Hotel Principe di Savoia was being sold for €4,000 – it’s incredible,” says Alty.
Certainly, a proactive approach to securing the required flights and accommodation is essential in this sector. “If an executive always stays at the same hotel in New York during Fashion Week, it is no good trying to book a week, a month or even six months out,” explains Anthony Rissbrook, managing director of Hillgate Travel. “Accommodation typically needs to be secured 12 months in advance.” However, there are mixed messages on whether business travel purchased in this sector is on the upward trend globally. “In the current economic climate, cost control is a key trend within the fashion sector,” says Rissbrook. “The events may be getting larger and more spectacular; however, counting the pennies is also high on the agenda.”
One UK-based designer with a major fashion house tells Buying Business Travel that they normally book with Easyjet for flights to Milan or Paris. Easy to cancel and book again if need be, and not so costly – hardly front of the plane, champagne-fuelled stuff. The same is true for upcoming models. “Most of them are not high earners and they must travel in the most economical ways possible,” says Alty. “They will happily take the ten-hour layover in Moscow to save money. Moving models around isn’t particularly profitable.”
More collections are also going online. With virtual catwalks, and the Fashion Weeks having a stronger presence on the web and through social media, it reduces the need for industry people to travel and be right there, painstakingly examining each collection. “Yet there’s been massive growth in British fashion and the popularity of British designers, despite the economic challenges of the last few years,” says Jane Watson Wilks, national sales leader at Corporate Traveller. “It’s an industry which has bucked the trend and is doing particularly well overseas in Japan, Asia and the US. So that has had a huge knock-on effect for the travel sector.”
In some cases British fashion industry players have expanded so rapidly that they haven’t had time to get to grips with their travel needs. “Suddenly they’ve had staff travelling all over the world, but no policy in place and no idea how to arrange flights and hotel rooms cost-effectively,” explains Watson Wilks.
Although demand for travel may hit an incredible peak during the fashion shows, at other times there is still a requirement for trips overseas. “I need designers to visit studios where stitching of garments for our collections occurs, either in Italy or France,” says one travel manager. “These facilities are not centrally located.”
In certain mainstream segments of the fashion industry, the garment facilities are often predominantly located in Asia, and outside of key cities. Travel tracking is, therefore, increasingly used in this industry.
Fashion companies are also always working to protect their intellectual property (IP). Again this involves arranging travel, often at the last minute, to far-flung destinations so that the IP team and lawyers can shut down illicit facilities and even, on occasion, unauthorised retail outlets. “The cost of these trips ultimately hits the bottom line. It therefore needs to be well managed,” says Rissbrook.
The fact is, fashion is a very secretive, highly competitive and cut-throat business. Travel buyers and managers in this sector certainly agree with that. Keeping collections, models and designers away from prying eyes is crucial. “If we’re arranging travel for a well-known model we try to ensure that first and foremost their arrangements remain totally confidential,” explains Tzell’s Alty. “We try to make full use of our relationships with airport, airline officials, hotel management and security to ensure their wellbeing throughout an event.”
The only consolation for buyers in this sector is that it shuts down in the summer, allowing fashion folk to mop their brows, take a breath and get ready for the next manic round of Fashion Weeks…
THE FASHION INDUSTRY NORMS
- Fashion houses don’t always plan ahead. Travel can be very much on an ad hoc basis and bookings tend to be last-minute.
- Fashion is an industry full of divas who view it as their prerogative to change their minds, so booking the most flexible tickets is essential.
- Many travel buyers are several people removed from the actual travellers due to multiple representation, and different agencies and production companies. Double bookings can often occur.
- Staff at fashion labels are often young creative people, so they often prefer boutique hotels rather than larger chains.
- There are often no dedicated travel bookers or managers within fashion houses. Different teams nominate people who book travel when needed.
- The ability to efficiently deal with excess baggage is also a requirement. Collections, fabric and equipment have to be moved across borders.
- Travel planning is a hot topic in this sector, which has identified a need to expand travel policies.
CASE STUDY 1
PARIS FASHION WEEK
“The whole studio is packed and boxed up, and shipped to Paris. It’s not just about travelling executives, designers and stylists, but collections, fabric and equipment, too. We’ve used the same courier company for years to get everything over there.
“We take the entire paid staff of 25-30 there and house them in a boutique three-star hotel. The head designers and executives obviously stay in a five-star property. The cost of Fashion Week for this complete decamp is roughly £2 million – that is everything including the rental of an entire four-storey building for the staff to work in. This happens twice a year, with five or so fashion houses from London exhibiting at Paris Fashion Week.
“From the outside the travel arrangements look chaotic, but this is a highly competitive and, at the same time, creative sector. Collections change last minute, so our travel needs are changing, too.”
Anonymous travel buyer for a major fashion house, based in London
CASE STUDY 2
LAUNCH OF A NEW FASHION LINE
“For the line opening of a new season of clothing we launched in Amsterdam, we had to organise travel and accommodation for 700 people, involving hospitality meeters-and-greeters, and transfers to and from Schiphol – it was quite an effort.
“We are talking about dinners for groups of 50 people that needed arranging, as well as dealing with top models, limousines and VIP services, plus all the logistics associated with this. Then there’s the entertainment and venue arrangements.
“A job like this can be worth up to €750,000. Logistically, it can be very complex and everyone thinks they are a VIP – but cost is the ultimate factor.”
Jurrie van den Berg, general manager, client services, at ATP Event Experts, the Netherlands