Three months on and I’m still chuckling over ‘Nutgate’. As you will recall, the daughter of Korean Air’s CEO forced one of the carrier’s aircraft to return to its gate after a steward committed the outrage of handing her macadamia nuts in a packet instead of on a plate. Cho Hyun-Ah insisted the plane miss its departure slot so the chief steward, along with a female attendant, could be ejected.
This must surely be the most monumental travel-related hissy fit of all time, and Cho was deservedly jailed for a year as a result. But doesn’t your inner two-year-old wish that next time, say, you get served cold coffee on the 7.18 Taunton-Paddington service, you could pull the communication cord, order a First Great Western employee to kneel before you and demand full retraining for the entire crew before the journey may resume?
A great irony is that I find most business people unfussy travellers. There are relatively few prima donnas among corporate travel professionals either. You do get the odd macho purchaser with something to prove, but the essence of travel management is engagement, and you can’t last long in that game without an even temper. I would also hazard that when stakeholders in corporate travel do have their disagreements, they normally work them out pretty amicably and behind closed doors.
Bearing all that in mind, the exceptional nature of another incident around the same time as Nutgate struck me as significant, and points to some major battles ahead. I refer to the Institute of Travel & Meetings (ITM) criticising Marriott very publicly for offering free wifi to loyalty programme members only if they book direct on its website.
ITM denounced Marriott as “anti-corporate” because it believes the offer will tempt travellers to book direct instead of through authorised corporate channels, such as travel management companies (TMCs) or online booking tools, potentially interfering with duty-of-care and compliance.
The problem travel managers face is that, as the CEOs of Ryanair and Emirates both made clear at last November’s GBTA Europe conference, travel suppliers are building up huge banks of data about the people who fly or stay with them. Add the immediacy and customisability of mobile channels, and those suppliers now have excellent technology to sell tailored offers directly to travellers.
Emirates CEO Sir Tim Clark told the conference that “the digital revolution is going to strip out from our business people who are trying to get in the middle of the supplier trying to work with its consumer”. He also declared explicitly that he wishes to “disintermediarise”. In this context, he meant TMCs and global distribution systems, but could travel managers follow? Marriott’s gesture, which was swiftly followed by other hotel chains and a train operating company, suggests that could happen with some suppliers.
I have long felt travel managers might find themselves in competition with suppliers for the business of travellers, and I’m not the only one. Paul Tilstone’s last major project before leaving GBTA Europe was to create the Berlin Charter, which is expected to be launched later this year. Airlines will be asked to commit to continue serving the needs of the corporate as well as the traveller as they develop tools for selling personalised offers to passengers. How many airlines will sign up to, and then honour, those principles?