Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
The relationship between the UK corporate travel industry and Iceland – the country, as opposed to the frozen-food chain – has not been an altogether happy one. In travel terms, the Nordic nation will forever be associated with the weeks of eruption disruption caused by Eyjafjallajökull.
Not only does Iceland plunge Europe’s aviation industry into utter chaos, it does so by means of a sub-glacial volcano whose lexicologically-challenging name appears designed to induce spell-check seizures the world over. Bardarbunga, the latest pyrotechnic peril, is a comparative doddle.
There is a plus side, though: if it wasn’t for Iceland, there’s a strong chance that Cheshire-based travel management company (TMC) Corporate Travel International (CTI) simply wouldn’t exist. This (admittedly-tenuous) link starts in 1976, when the UK’s Labour government was reluctantly forced to accept that the UK could not win the so-called Cod Wars with Iceland.
In return for permission to land a frankly paltry annual catch, Britain finally recognised the Nordic nation’s 200-mile exclusion zone. Facing a virtually fish free future, Hull’s deep-water trawler fleet looked to have been holed below the water-line.
Except, that is, in the case of one company which, rather than succumb to sinking feelings, kitted out its vessels with the latest technological gizmos and set about searching the Atlantic seabed for mineral deposits, sunken treasure, the Titanic… anything that would keep the boats in business.
Boats need crews, and crews need to travel, so the far-sighted former fisherfolk enlisted the aid of a rookie retailer by the name of Ian White and gave him the job of moving their mariners about. Some 30-plus years later, White is now chief executive officer of CTI, one of the fastest growing TMCs in the business.
CTI is the result of a meeting of minds. White, the former boss of what was then TD Travel, says: “It came about through my relationship with Chris Needham, who was the managing director of [hotel booking agency] Hotelscene. His career had paralleled mine in many ways, and we had always had the idea of bringing the two companies together, because the market wanted a one-stop shop.” In 2012, with the management buy-out backing of Lloyds Bank’s LDC private equity arm, that idea became a reality. Needham now rejoices in the title of CTI’s chief innovation officer.
The transformation has been little short of remarkable. In 2010, TD Travel was ranked equal 25th in Buying BusinessTravel’s 50 Leading TMCs rankings. It made an operating profit of less than £250,000 on UK sales of £36 million.
For the following three years, sales hovered between £40 million and £45 million and TD Travel’s position in the rankings peaked at 26th before slipping back to 29th spot. This year, after re-branding in 2013 as CTI, the company has leapt 11 places to 18th position. Sales have more than doubled to £102 million; staff numbers have gone from 74 to 179.
Equally, if not more impressive is CTI staffers’ loyalty – even with the takeover of Hotelscene, average length of experience is 19 years, a timespan matched by only one other top 50 TMC. “I’ve never really been a fan of the idea that if someone excels at their job, you promote them out of their comfort zone,” says White. “We reward and remunerate our staff well, but I firmly believe that if they enjoy what they’re doing – and they’re doing it well – there is nothing to be gained from taking them away from that, sticking them in an office and giving them a managerial title.”
It’s that belief in his employees’ abilities that underpins CTI’s new technology platform, CTI Sherpa. Flagged as “the world’s first knowledge-based corporate travel solution”, CTI says Sherpa is an online booking tool with a difference.
Corporate clients can use it to book the point-to-point basics, but if they attempt anything more complex, they are automatically patched through to a human being – one with plenty of travel management experience.
“Basically, what we did was to get all our senior people together, locked them in a room, and asked them what made them tick,” White jokes. “We took their combined experience and expertise, and then built that into CTI Sherpa. “In my view, there’s far too much emphasis on technological solutions – online booking works wonders for the simple stuff, but it’s just not advanced enough to handle anything complicated. “We talked to our people and built up a massive knowledge bank. That gave us a clear picture of what technology could and couldn’t do – and shouldn’t do – and we incorporated all that into Sherpa.”
White rattles off the rather precise fact that the first Sherpa booking was made at 4.17pm on September 23, and says the tool has already attracted “a pipeline of new business”. Roadshows in Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, London and Manchester have attracted a number of potential new corporate clients keen to tap into the CTI knowledge-base.
The inclusion in that list of Bristol and London is significant. TD Travel was known as a ‘northern’ TMC – the merger with Hotelscene made headlines in the Wirral Chamber of Commerce’s newsletter, a claim to fame that few others could make.
The northern heritage is indisputable. White, whose travel management career started in Hull, is a member of the Yorkshire Mafia, a business-to-business mutual support group headquartered in Leeds. CTI’s head office is in Wilmslow, with branches in Liverpool, Hull and Leeds.CTI Marine, meanwhile, is based in Bolton However, White says the company’s London “outpost” is growing fast, and the Hotelscene acquisition has brought with it an office in Bristol. And expanding southwards is just the start.
“I’d love to take the CTI model overseas,” White says. “I’m not looking to open offices in 46 countries, but beyond the UK there are four regions where I think, longterm, we could make a difference. Our first objective would be the eurozone, followed by the US.” After that, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific beckon. For the time being, however, White is content to expand the UK business. In October, CTI launched a Sherpa equivalent, called Mariner, for the marine sector.
He’s also got one eye open for further acquisitions. “It’s not something we’re planning, but if the right opportunity came along at the right time, we would certainly look at it,” he says.
Meanwhile, he indulges his passions for squash (“…at 53, people say I’m too old, maybe a little too fat, but I still play a reasonable game”), what he calls “the real Spain” (better known by most of us as the Rioja region) and fishing off the Florida Keys.
There’s a theme emerging here. Fishing off the Keys, a booking tool called Mariner and a travel management career built on the back of Hull’s trawler fleet – a ghastly pun on “net profits” is just waiting to be made.
With CTI’s track record to date, and corporate clients apparently queuing up to open negotiations, future success looks to be on the cards. We’ll just have to wait and see who takes the White bait.