BBT editor Paul Revel talks to Maurice Veronique, joint chairman and CEO of the Appointment Group
I CATCH UP WITH Maurice Veronique in a quiet corner of the San Diego Convention Centre. Well, not so much a corner – we actually have an enormous atrium-style area to ourselves. The place is so vast that it comfortably swallows the 7,000 delegates in town for the GBTA convention, with plenty of room to spare.
Veronique has had a relatively short journey – he’s now based at the company’s Los Angeles office, a mere 120-odd miles north of here. He’s getting set to celebrate a big anniversary: it was 25 years ago this September that he and joint chairman-CEO John Gianquitto founded Travel by Appointment.
I ask him how it all came about. “Back in 1988, I was finance director of a PLC called Audio Fidelity, working with the likes of Simon Cowell,” he says – and he is indeed referring to the now-famous X Factor impresario. “Yes – I met Simon when I was 16, at Windsor College. We started to hang out, and then we lived together in London in the early ’80s." They then worked together for several years.
“We were running a record label, an electronics company, a book publisher...many different enterprises,” he recalls. “It was an exciting business, with celebrities and entertainment people. We were manufacturing in Hong Kong, shipping all over the world. It was a great time, but going pretty bad in terms of the business – I could see it all going a bit pear-shaped.”
So early in 1988, he was chatting to old pal John Gianquitto, who worked in the travel industry. “He was general manager of Trinifold Travel and was doing a lot in the entertainment sector, looking after the likes of Genesis, U2 and Lionel Richie.
“We were having a beer and talking about how we both had good jobs, but were both working crazy hours – for other people. We figured if we were putting this much effort in, we should be doing it for ourselves.”
The pair of them found a small Sheffield-based travel agency for sale that suited their needs. “We went to a bank to ask for a loan, which they gave us – it was a lot easier to get a loan back then.” They bought the business and transferred it to London, hiring three staff. “We opened on September 1, 1988 – a couple of fresh-faced, young, eager guys – and set about conquering the world.”
So at this stage, did he have any experience in the travel industry? He laughs: “No, I’m a boring accountant.”
SHIFT OF EMPHASIS
Today, with its specialist divisions collectively known as the Appointment Group (of which Travel by Appointment is a part), the TMC is a major player in the entertainment and finance sectors. It was listed at number 18 in Buying Business Travel’s annual 50 Leading TMCs guide this year, with UK sales of £80.9 million.
So what’s changed in those 25 years? “The most fundamental change is back then we were travel agents, now we’re a TMC – that says a lot about the shift of emphasis on the whole process of fulfilment,” he says, adding: “It’s funny looking back. One of the first things we had to go and buy was a Telex machine. And we had a mobile phone which we called ‘the brick’ – it weighed a ton and had a battery life of about three minutes.”
He says the archaic technology back then meant the booking process was long-winded and labour-intensive. “It obviously resulted in a lack of efficiencies. I think over the years it’s metamorphosed – for the better. It’s more streamlined and technology-driven – and more relationship-driven now.”
This brings Veronique on to the subject which he believes is at the core of the success of his specialised business: relationships. It’s a word he uses often. “We’ve always had the philosophy that our relationship with our suppliers is as important – if not more important – as our relationship with our clients,” he says. “And that was quite gear-changing, quite radical at the time.
“So we spent an awful lot of time developing very good working relationships with our suppliers, and that stays true today. Our supplier relationships are second to none – I think probably one of the best in the industry.”
STARS OF THE SHOW
With the hotel sector in particular, he says the strength of these relationships is vital, given the demands and logistics managing travel for the big music tours: recent and current clients include Madonna, Guns N’ Roses, Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Jay-Z. “On the touring side, with the clients we’re handling, we may have 100 people going into a hotel,” he explains. “Their itineraries change, schedules change, people drop out or come in – it’s a constantly changing environment.”
That’s when these relationships can get tested to the limit: “So when we book 100 rooms in a hotel three-to-four months out, the hotel, as you can imagine, is a bit nervous. They’re tying up a lot of their inventory, and we don’t sign contracts – so they need to trust us.”
When the date gets closer, the hotels get anxious. “They need the rooming lists, arrival times, and where you want to position the artist in relation to security, their band and management. Every artist has a different set of rules – some want to be on a particular floor, and some want to make sure they don’t see each other when they’re in the hotel because they don’t get on.”
And, occasionally, it gets tricky. “A concert can be cancelled for a number of reasons – with very little notice. All of a sudden the hotel’s sitting there with 100 rooms empty at peak time.” Then there’s the sticky issue of cancellation fees, which – again because of trust and the promise of future business, can be resolved. “I’d say 95 per cent of the time the hotels will work with us,” he says. “They don’t want to alienate us or the client.”
On Madonna’s world tour last year, Veronique says there were upwards of 150 people on the road at any one time. “We split the work between offices, depending where in the world the tour was.” There was usually at least three staff at the nearest office working full-time on the account.
“For those people it’s full-on, 24/7, phones on 100 per cent of the time. It’s an exhausting experience. The Madonna tour was very good. It was demanding and there was a lot of changes, but overall it was great to do.”
SMOOTHING THE WAY
Occasionally, TMC staff – or management, including Veronique – have to join the band on the road. “It depends on the complexities of the tour and the demands of the artistes,” he says. Some require an ‘advance’ – the agent goes to the hotel before the party arrives to check out excruciatingly complex room allocations, as well as specifics, such as the rider. Everything is prepared so when the star rolls up, “they don’t have to faff around at reception – they’re literally just given a key and can go straight to the suite”.
The global nature of these operations is part of the reason why the Appointment Group has expanded, opening an office in Los Angeles in 2010, and another in Melbourne earlier this year, with additional staff in Sydney.
Veronique now oversees operations at the Los Angeles office, having moved there last year. “We’d had a joint venture in New York since 2002. As well as corporate clients there, we were handling a lot of entertainment clients. It became apparent that the east-west coast rivalry was such that an LA-based band wants to be handled by someone on the west coast. Plus there’s the three-hour time difference and a five-hour flight.” He says opening in LA has proved the right thing to do – business has grown to around US$30million a year.
In Australia, he says they’ll concentrate on music tours and festivals. “It was the right time for the next investment,” he says. “Australia was always an area we’ve been keen to get into, and it’s a good window into Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, Australia is significant by virtue of our relationships with the global artists – for example, Rihanna is going back later this year – knowing we have staff on the ground, in the same time-zone, to look after them and deal with any situation.”
IT’S NOT ONLY ROCK ’N’ ROLL
Away from the world of music, another key sector for the company, particularly its London and New York offices, is finance. One of its earliest clients was Barings Bank, infamous for its destruction by a rogue trader. “Yes,” Veronique says wryly, “we did book some of Nick Leeson’s travel.”
He agrees finance is a fiercely competitive sector. His clients demand good – but flexible – corporate air fares, and 24-hour, hands-on personal service. “It’s tough, but we’ve had a lot of success in finance in the last three years. Word of mouth is very good.”
The music touring experience – and those all-important supplier relationships – is actually a great help with his banking and hedge-fund clients. “Although the two sectors are different, there are a lot of similarities,” he says. “Appointments get cancelled, itineraries change at the drop of a hat. Our in-house 24-hour team is there as much for our corporate clients as the music tours.”
Veronique cites David Bowie and U2 tours as among the many highlights of his career so far. Hitting the road with U2 in the firm’s early days was “a really good experience. Those tours were massive – hundreds of people on the road. It taught us a lot in terms of professionalism – it opened our eyes to the touring business.” Here’s to keeping the show on the road for another 25 years...
Maurice Veronique is co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer of the Appointment Group.
Recently relocated to Los Angeles, Maurice is overseeing the US operation, which has enjoyed significant growth in the past few years. The main challenge here is to bring the philosophy of the Appointment Group to the US market, thus ensuring that the customer experience is consistently delivered on a global basis.
In 2008 Maurice was elected as chairman of GTMC and, during his time there, he overhauled the structure and made significant changes, enabling a more open environment with greater communication within the industry.