BBT caught up with Mark Cuschieri, global travel lead at Swiss investment bank UBS and chairman of ITM, to discuss his new role, NDC and Lufthansa’s GDS fee...
Mark Cuschieri officially took up his role as chairman of the Institute of Travel & Meetings (ITM) at the association’s annual conference in St Andrews, in April. As global travel lead at UBS, a firm with offices in over 50 countries, 60,000 employees and assets of more than US$1 trillion, I ask why he’s taken on the added responsibilities of this voluntary role.
“I have a passion for this industry, and I’ve been engaged with ITM for many years,” says Cuschieri. “This is a way of giving back to the industry.” He says he feels fortunate to be chairman when ITM celebrates its 60th anniversary next year, and in the meantime is happy to be tackling the ongoing challenges that members face. “It’s an exciting time to be taking the helm at ITM,” he says. “The industry is in a state of flux, and we need to keep our members informed and educated, and ensure we have the right resources for them to make informed decisions.”
A strong voice
Advocacy is a key part of ITM’s role, says Cuschieri. “We have a responsibility to our members to be critical when we have to, when something’s not in the interests of a managed travel programme. It’s vital that we have a strong voice in the industry – sometimes that’s in partnership, for example with GBTA [Global Business Travel Association], with the TMC [travel management company] community via the GTMC, or with airlines.” He says examples of where advocacy is needed include “being fully engaged” with the debate around New Distribution Capability (NDC), and Lufthansa’s recent announcement of a new global distribution system (GDS) fee – though, he says, the two issues should not be conflated. “They’re completely different: one is a set of standards, the other is an airline’s pricing strategy – which Lufthansa is looking to implement, with zero engagement with its customers. It’s wrong that customers are being used as part of an airline’s negotiations with GDSs.
“Let’s remember what Lufthansa’s strategy here is: to direct bookings to their own website. But what about interlining, what about changing tickets? The core principles of a managed programme are about cost control and duty-of-care – and that requires visibility.”
He does, however, say it’s up to the GDSs to demonstrate their value, “like any service that you’re charging a fee for”. So what does he consider would be a good outcome? “All the players – airlines, agencies, buyers and technology providers – should get round the table and look at ways to deliver the most flexible distribution channels to enable the best available content for its customers. We need distribution channels that provide our travellers with consistency, transparency and choice.”
In contrast, Cuschieri sees NDC as an “enabler” – as long as it’s about “creating enriched dynamic content able to be delivered back to the third-party channels.” But his frustration with NDC lies in the initial lack of collaboration on it. “I think IATA [International Air Transport Association] would agree with that.” He says his role at ITM means he’s “always fighting for a seat at the table”, so that members can understand the impact of these industry developments.
I ask Cuschieri if the changing landscape will have an impact on the relationship between the corporate and the TMC. “The role of the TMC remains critical,” he says, “but I think it is changing. It’s becoming more an extension of the travel programme. I believe more buyers are looking at consultative services – TMCs have valuable knowledge of the industry.” He doesn’t see value in the old transactional relationship, and believes both sides want to move on. “I think the abolition of commissions was a good thing, because it professionalises the TMC community. There are many opportunities for TMCs to increase and generate improved revenues by delivering alternative services.”
There’s a lot of talk about the ‘personalisation’ of travel – rich data on individual travellers’ profiles accessed by bookers and suppliers to tailor content. What are the pros and cons of this? “How it’s used is the key concern,” says Cuschieri. “If it’s used to differentiate content and pricing, that’s wrong; but tools that can look at your calendar and history – these can be good for efficiency, and can be cost-effective in terms of anticipating travel. A system that can recognise you’re regularly travelling to a destination and you can benefit from a lower fare by anticipating travel? That’s a good thing.”
At the top of the ITM agenda, alongside advocacy, is education – Cuschieri cites increased content and CPD (Continuing Professional Development) accreditation, that is “broadening our reach to new buyers”, he says. “At our conference in St Andrews, we had 93 new buyers attend. That’s very heartening.”