Catering for ‘very important passengers’ is a specialised business that requires a lot more than personal service
The abbreviation ‘VIP’ has many interpretations. To the police, it stands for ‘victim identification profile’; to the medical fraternity, it’s ‘vasoactive intestinal peptide’; to a very small group of highly specialised nerds, it stands for ‘vortex intermeshing pin’. No, no idea – google it, and you’ll still have no idea.
To the corporate travel industry, however, ‘VIP’ stands for one thing, and one thing alone. As we all know, it stands for ‘someone with a travel budget the size of Jupiter who needs to be handled with the very softest of kid gloves’.
Since ‘SWATBTSOJWNTOBHWTVSOKG’ doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, they’re known as VIPs, or ‘very important passengers’. They differ from CIPs (‘commercially important passengers’) who are people who might do you some sort of contra-deal in return for an upgrade. There is no way to upgrade a VIP, because they’re already upgraded to the hilt.
All VIPs, by definition, are CIPs. They have, or have access to, big budgets. By and large, they fall into two categories – those who are genuinely important, like the heads of a major global corporations, and those who have enough money and ego to think they’re important, like supermodels and ‘celebrity’ television presenters.
The latter are VIPs only as far as suppliers are concerned; the former are VIPs – what one might call CWHs, or ‘clients worth having’ – as far as corporate travel management companies are concerned.
Only 15 or so of BBT’s Top 50 TMCs actually identify top-end travel as one of the additional services they offer, but it’s a fair bet that most of them do so as a matter of course, and therefore don’t consider it to be an ‘additional’ offering.
HRG makes a point of spelling it out, even though global travel services director Ian Windsor openly admits there is no real definition of VIP. “Every organisation has its own version,” he says. “If you are at a certain level within your company, you are deemed to be a VIP, but there are VVIPs and possibly VVVIPs up there as well.
“They’re usually those at main board level, or strategically important people, but the VIP category also includes travellers who make a great many trips – they’re very frequent travellers for a reason. What they all have in common is a need and demand for an absolutely seamless travel experience, at all stages of the journey.”
In short, they don’t queue for shuttle buses, they don’t push their own wobbly-wheeled luggage trolleys, they don’t kill time in Starbucks, and they only turn right on an aircraft if it’s a private jet. Seat 39B is a dim-and-distant memory.
Jay Taylor, Hillgate Travel’s VIP and prestige sales and account manager, is now in his 16th year in the industry, much of which has involved dealing with high net-worth individuals (HNWIs). He says: “There are various different ways of defining them, but I would suggest that a VIP is simply someone of great influence,” he says.
“Celebrities influence the public, while others influence our corporate clients – they’re the company presidents, chief executives and managing directors of this world. They might not necessarily follow a travel policy, they are usually very busy individuals, and they may not differentiate between business and leisure travel – although it’s a business trip, often it’s an opportunity to take the family away.”
Meeting the needs of a VIP
That latter assertion leads to another conundrum, which is where the boundary lies between VIP travel and ‘concierge service’. The company boss needs a chauffeur-driven car to get from one meeting to the next, while his or her partner (and possibly offspring as well) want tickets to local attractions. In the evening, when the parents go to the theatre, the opera or dinner with the ambassador, someone has to find a reputable child minder. In extremis, if His Excellency’s wife spills her digestif into a dinner-suited lap, someone has to find a 24-hour dry-cleaning service, on a Sunday, in Krakow.
Or, indeed, even farther afield. George Galanopoulos, managing director of executive jet company Luxaviation UK, says that while demand for major European financial centres, such as Zurich and Frankfurt, remains strong, corporate high-rollers are – of commercial necessity – moving into comparatively uncharted territory.
“We have experienced significant growth in business aviation activity in developing regions of the world,” he says. “For example, there has been a 20 per cent rise in private flights into and out of Africa over the last three years, as the continent attracts more and more business – particularly in the mining and infrastructure sectors. We have also seen an increase in business flights to Kazakhstan and the surrounding countries.” Anyone know a babysitter in Almaty?
The key, according to HRG’s Windsor, is anticipation. If TMCs know their VIPs’ travel habits and preferences in advance, they can cover a lot of bases. “It has to be a proactive, rather than reactive, service.”
In short, if you know the ambassador’s wife is prone to spilling her drinks, you can source a dry-cleaner in advance. If you know that the VIP’s kids are allergic to sauerkraut (and, let’s face it, who isn’t?), you can instruct the hotel’s executive chef – and the child minder – to stick to chicken nuggets and baked beans. If they don’t, you’ve always got the dry-cleaner as a back-up.
Such knowledge, on the face of it, is hard to come by. But VIPs tend to have executive assistants, or EAs – and they know everything.
The regular visitor to the wisegeek. com website (and, again, who isn’t?) will know that: “Executive assistants typically answer only to their named superior. They act as this person’s confidante and office helper… they may accompany their executive to business meetings, and are in charge of knowing details on other attendees. Depending on the executive’s needs, assistants may also come along on corporate trips. In this capacity, the assistant is usually responsible for managing the executive’s schedule…”
These people are crucial. They know everything, right down to the allergies. As Ian Windsor says: “The vast majority of EAs have been working with these guys for a long time, and they know exactly what they want. The important thing is to have someone there who knows that individual.”
Hillgate’s Taylor adds: “EAs are not just focused on travel, so we endeavour to look after them on all sorts of levels. We try to make the process as easy as possible – they don’t want lots of questions fired at them – they have other things to deal with.”
As for the VIPs, Taylor suggests: “These people expect a high level of detail. They just want a smooth experience – travel is a large part of their working life and they just want it to be as seamless as possible.”
“Some can be very demanding,” Windsor admits. “I try to explain to people that anyone travelling in first class is a VIP in their own mind, and you have got to have that personal touch. It’s about monitoring flight delays, arrival times, making sure the car is there to meet them, checking that the hotel suite is ready, confirming the restaurant reservation, all of that, and more.”
Like the vortex intermeshing pin, it sounds very complicated. However, as Taylor says: “Our role is all about meeting expectations, and then enhancing the entire travel experience. Yes, of course it’s ‘high-touch’, but it’s also very rewarding.”