Wings Travel Management’s founder and chief executive is moving to London – and bringing his company with him… Tony Sofianos talks to Bob Papworth
Visitors to stand B144 at this year’s Business Travel Show were greeted with a profusion of helium-filled balloons – and a glass or three of something chilled and bubbly that clearly wasn’t mineral water – as Wings Travel Management celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Tony Sofianos, the company’s Greek-Cypriot founder, knows how to throw a party, even at 11am.
He also knows how to build a travel management company. In BBT’s 2015 Leading 50 TMC rankings, Wings was placed 41st, with UK sales of £28 million. In the 2016 league table, the company had slipped back to 45th place, with UK gross sales of £26 million.
Then he went and bought Grosvenor Travel Management (joint 27th place, UK gross sales of £50 million) propelling UK turnover to what is now reckoned to be in excess of £100 million, and global turnover to £250 million.
So now Wings Travel Management is on the brink of a top 20 placing – all built on the back, 25 years ago, of a US$3,000 punt on a travel agency selling holidays to South Africa’s minuscule Greek diaspora.
How times change – and the changes don’t stop here. Sofianos plans to move house – and his family – to London later this year, and transfer Wings’ Johannesburg headquarters to the capital “within the next 12 to 18 months”. A eurozone base, almost certainly in Cyprus, will be established within the same time-frame.
Cyprus is significant, not just because it is within the eurozone, and not just because it is Sofianos’ “land of my fathers”, but because it is a hub for the marine industry. Wings’ strength to date has been in the oil and gas sector, and the marine sector is one – but only one – way forward.
“In the past 18 months we have started diversifying beyond oil and gas,” he says. Similarly, Wings is moving beyond its Jo’burg heritage. “We started in South Africa, but only 30 per cent of our revenue originates in Africa at the moment. I think Africa will always remain a strength for us – it’s an important strength, but it is just one of our strengths.”
Significantly, Grosvenor’s client portfolio was centred on the financial, fashion and media and entertainment sectors, which gives Sofianos plenty to play with…
Back to stand B144. Interviewing the Wings boss is a risky business – not that he’s anything but an affable interviewee – but he is almost obsessed, perhaps understandably for someone with an oil’n’gas background, with travel risk management. “Risk” – or risk aversion – is a constant theme. “From day one, our commitment to travel risk management, and to giving clients critical safety support, has been at the core of our operations, due to the nature of our clients’ complex and often hazardous travel needs.”
Quite how that translates to Grosvenor’s fashion clients remains to be seen, but the commitment is unquestionably laudable.
“My vision for Wings from the outset was to adopt a business model where we own and control all of our operations around the globe. This is a distinct point of difference to our competitors, and it would be very difficult – if not impossible – for another travel management company to replicate that in a reasonable timeframe.
“Most other multi-national TMCs do not own their own operations, specifically in high-risk markets such as Angola, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
“”Because we own and manage all of our global operations” – which now encompass the Americas and the entire EMEA region – “our clients benefit from consistent service and a single, global technology platform.
“This is critical in times of emergency as our people can access travel bookings regardless of where or when the reservation was made and provide support immediately.”
Having taken over Grosvenor Travel Management – and, incidentally, Travelnet Stavanger in Norway – and announced plans to open a base in Singapore, from which to service the Asia-Pacific market, where does Sofianos go from here? He says: “I think organic growth is important, as always,” but insists more acquisitions are, for the time being, on hold. Maybe so, but I suspect not for long.
Tony Sofianos’ travel career started back in 1992 when, with just US$3,000 in the bank, he set up a company called Acropolis Travel, a Johannesburg-based leisure-centric operation aimed primarily at the 13,000-strong Greek community in South Africa. Two years later, spotting a gap in the market for niche business travel services, he launched Wings Corporate Services – the precursor to today’s Wings Travel Management – focussed subsequently on the oil and gas sector.
Grosvenor Travel Management apart, recent acquisitions have included Houston-based Scandic World Travel, London’s Travel Alliance, Brazilian company V7 Viagens, one of South Africa’s largest TMCs, Michelle’s Travel, and Travelnet Stavanger in Norway.