It seems travel is in Jo Greenfield’s blood. She first joined FCM’s parent company, Flight Centre, as a travel consultant more than 17 years ago. After completing her degree, she had been travelling the world for two years. “I studied languages at Leeds university, Spanish and Portuguese,” she says. “And all I wanted to do was travel – I had no idea what else I was going to do.”
While on the Inca trail, a fellow backpacker advised her she should get a job with Flight Centre. “Back then, Flight Centre had 50 people in the UK. We've now got 2,000,” she says. “I started as travel consultant in Goodge Street, and I opened a new shop a year later in Holborn.” She then became a retail area manager, and set up a new online brand, Round the World Experts.
After her second maternity leave, she decided she wanted to work in the group’s corporate travel division, FCM. “The last five years have been the most challenging but the most exciting, and we have grown, doubled the profits and brought the business into the future. It’s become a real global player.”
I’m talking to Jo at FCM’s UK headquarters in New Malden, a tower commanding views across south-west London. The travel management company ranked at number four in BBT’s annual Leading 50 TMCs guide this year, with UK sales of £643 million in 2015.
Earlier this year the company launched Travel Essentials; an ‘end-to-end’ service that includes visa and passport solutions, health consultancy and travel insurance – with three levels of service offered. “I think we do need to become real partners with our customers, rather than just transacting and giving data, which is what it’s been in the past,” says Jo.
FCM is part of Australian-based travel group Flight Centre, which owns operations in 14 countries and has a presence in 92. The company recently bought a Dutch TMC, and there are more acquisitions in the pipeline, says Jo. While she is highly optimistic about FCM’s position – she says the company saw “double-digit” growth last year – but does admit that TMCs operate in a fiercely competitive field. “It’s a tough market to be in. You’ve got to lead by improving your service delivery above anything. You’ve also got to invest in technology to keep going forward – but on small margins.” This is a conundrum, she says, that will see smaller TMCs struggling – not helped by BSP (Billing and Settlement Plan) payments going fortnightly. “There is consolidation and will be more. Look at airlines and hotels – there’s no reason it’s not the same for TMCs,” she says.
So in this competitive environment, how does a TMC differentiate? “I think for us, we’re a service company that is backed by technology. Tech is fantastic and it’s moving the market, but when you’re dealing with something like travel – which is people’s emotions and affects their day to day lives, you need to have good people doing it.”
“As a big company we go across the retail and corporate markets globally. We are looking at buying DMCs [destination management companies] in Asia, we are looking at buying hotels – it’s a unique product range. It’s having the whole thing; expertise across retail through all the brands, we have more 30 globally. It’s about pulling all that together and giving a proposition that looks after the customer, rather than just being a TMC.
“I think that's where we differentiate. We are valuable to a hotel because we can fill it at the weekend with retail and during week with corporate, so we are valuable customers to them. It means we'll get the good deals and the waivers and favours. Which is where you stand out, and win or lose a client.”
Talking of hotels, how does FCM help buyers with that recurrent pain of hotels targeting travellers directly? She says so far the TMC has been successful in communicating that travellers can get the same benefits, such as free wifi and loyalty points by booking through the TMC channel – as well as using its “brilliant” supplier relationships to extract these benefits from the hotel chains. “It’s part of the reason we are moving to Amadeus, because their capability to pull different sources into the booking tools and into the GDS is amazing. So we can pull APIs and external suppliers in and still give the customer the choice. The minute you don't do that, that's when you start losing people and creating leakage.
Today’s airlines, with their advanced, dynamic yield management algorithms and high load factors, often seem to have the upper hand when it comes to negotiations. So to what extent should buyers be focusing on supplier deals? “The airlines are making money now,” says Jo. “So they are going after market share, pretty aggressively. They are more interested in working with us.”
The example she gives is a corporate whose policy allows business class travel and doesn’t want to change this, but is looking to cut costs. “The obvious way is to move from direct to indirect carriers. Airlines are chomping at the bit to work with them – card matching, deals, free flights. It’s all about market share and new customers.”
But while it seems there’s still plenty of life in supplier deals, Jo does foresee increasing focus on traveller and demand management. I ask her how the TMC model is going to evolve in the next few years. “There there definitely will be changes. It’s about automating the stuff you can't add value to, and really focusing on the account management and the strategic business plan element. A lot of it is about changing behaviour and compliance, as opposed to just booking – actually managing the programme more.”
So does this mean TMCs becoming more like outsourced travel managers? In some cases, yes, she says. “We have clients that spend £30 million a year on travel, that don’t have a dedicated person for travel. We become more of an outsourced travel expert dealing with policy and programme, and helping them communicate things, and working with usually procurement or finance to an extent. It’s part of future of TMCs, and it does happen already.” “There are two parts to this,” she adds. “Firstly, how do you come across to the traveller? you make it a slick booking process so they wouldn’t think not to use you. And then if you drive their programme, and give them good reporting that’s bespoke to their needs, you'll keep the customer forever.”
Jo Greenfield was appointed as general manager of FCM Travel Solutions in 2012. She joined parent company flight centre in 1999 as a travel consultant in the Goodge Street store. She progressed within the FCTG leisure business, running regional teams and setting up the Round the World Experts brand. She moved into FCM in 2011 as London operations leader. As GM, she runs the FCM executive team heading up sales, account management and operations, as well as technology and process improvement, and has ultimate responsibility for clients who trade in the UK.