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Working for change

The Guild of Travel Management Companies' annual conference looked at ways the industry can drive forward together. Sara Turner reports

THE GTMC'S ANNUAL CONFERENCE in Abu Dhabi in May opened in a buoyant mood after the quarterly survey showed near double-digit growth figures for the organisation's members throughout all sectors. The two-day event saw leaders from across the industry sharing knowledge and thoughts on what lies in store for business travel.

The main issues raised were that of changing traveller needs, advancing technology, the challenging economy, the recent events in the Middle East and how working together will bring success.

TECHNOLOGY RULES

Speaking at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Chris Crowley, senior vice president of global client management for BCD and president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) said the focus in the business travel sector is shifting and a fast-changing technological landscape needs to be engaged with fully if travel management companies (TMCs) are to succeed.

Travellers will no longer accept being told they must travel with a particular airline and stay in a particular hotel, said Crowley. "This is very difficult for the corporate buying community," he said, but stressed the industry must engage with the trend. Crowley also touched on social media, saying that the sheer numbers of applications and social media platforms may "scare" the corporate buyer, but that embracing them will be a positive move.

"We need community-based business travel policy design. We need to start thinking about empowering the individual traveller within the community. It may save more money, and make the traveller more effective. It also has more interesting potential for development in the long term."

GROWING PAINS

At the conference, business travel was cited as at the "vanguard" of economic recovery by Mike Hare, chairman of the GTMC and chief executive of Portman Travel, although he explained that while business "looks promising", TMCs could be facing a challenging period.

"The coming two or three years may well be the most testing period for our sector, with technology, infrastructure, regulation and taxation, geopolitical unrest, climate change, and economic developments stepping up the challenge to the status quo," he said, using the recent changes in the Middle East and its consequent effect on the price of oil as an example of such disruption. He also cited the effect of this winter's snow on Heathrow airport: "Our airport infrastructure creaked in a way that defied belief and created not only an industry embarrassment but a national one."

On the subject of airports the future of airports in the UK proved to be a point of concern for keynote speaker Jonathan Bailey, the group external affairs director for Manchester Airports Group, who said: "I can honestly say to you that I don't see a future for the smallest airports in the UK. Plymouth is closing. There's absolutely no doubt that other airports will need to close".

There should be no fears for the future of Middle Eastern airport Abu Dhabi International, however, according to another keynote speaker, Peter Baumgartner.

The chief commercial officer for Etihad explained that by 2020 the airline will have 150 aircraft flying to some 120 destinations (it currently has 57 aircraft flying to 67 destinations). The airline has over 30 bilateral agreements and in February it cemented its partnership with Virgin Australia, allowing the two airlines to codeshare on a combined 27 flights per week between Sydney and Abu Dhabi.

LOBBYING STRENGTH

Anne Godfrey, chief executive of the GTMC, said that the organisation will need to improve partnerships to achieve its goals as a lobbying body. Godfrey outlined some of the political issues the GTMC would be focusing on in the coming year: an integrated travel policy and expansion at Heathrow.

The GTMC has been building its profile as a lobbying organisation, said Godfrey, but to strengthen its voice on issues affecting the travel industry it is necessary to build partnerships: "It can't just be us," she said. "We have to be doing more jointly, with suppliers and other trade bodies. It's never been more important that this industry works together."