Interview: Nigel Turner, CWT

Carlson Wagonlit’s UK & Ireland senior director of programme management is taking early retirement after 43 years in travel – to go travelling. 

For someone of my age, experience, and lack of any meaningful social life, the Business Travel Show is one of the highlights of the calendar year, writes Bob Papworth. I make a host of new contacts, desperately eager to tell me about apps, dashboards, cloud-computing, and a myriad other ‘solutions’.

One also meets a lot of people who one has known for years, if not decades. We peer, myopically, at one another’s badges (at our age, you can never be sure), shake hands, chew the fat for a minute or two, and then move on in search of Stand L403 for another conversation involving the terms ‘next-gen’ and ‘millennials’.

Which is how I came to bump into – almost literally – CWT’s Nigel Turner. After the usual badge-checking pleasantries, he said: “You know I’m retiring?” Quite how he thought I might have known remains a mystery, but it’s a much better conversation topic than ‘big data’ or ‘4G’. Hence this interview…

Nigel’s final day at CWT is on April 28, after just short of 34 years with the same company, and 43 years in the travel industry. “When I started in travel, it was as a reservations person, taking bookings and delivering tickets,” he says. “In those days, the front office was devoted to leisure travel, with business travel at the back. Then, there was no place other than your local travel agency to get travel information – we had huge hard-copy volumes of airline schedules and rail timetables, and everything was conducted by telephone.

“Every airline had its own fares books, and you had to phone them up for every individual booking – you would spend hours on the phone, and could spend an entire day writing maybe three tickets. You’d put those on the van, and the customer thought it was magic that the ticket landed on their desk the following day.”

In those days – youngsters take note – travel agents lived by commission. Airlines, hoteliers and other suppliers had no other cost-effective way of reaching the consumer, so the travel agency was the distribution channel, not just of choice, but of necessity. Agencies were paid by the suppliers.

Then someone went and spoiled it all by inventing the computer and, subsequently, the website. Suddenly, Amstrad-equipped consumers could find their own air fares and room rates. Suppliers saw no reason to pay travel agencies, and business travel agencies – those guys at the back of the office – had to find an alternative source of revenue. The travel management company was born, making its living by charging the end-user, or his or her employer, for doing rather more than writing three tickets a day.

Shifting patterns 
But enough of the past – what of the future? “We are seeing a shift away from online,” says Turner. “Today’s traveller is much more mobile. They’re not working from a desk-based PC. It’s going mobile, it’s going app, it’s going tablet, and it’s going more personalised – they want to see what their colleagues or peers think of such-and-such a hotel. They want to be asked whether they need the taxi – or the Uber – that they booked on their previous trip.

“Corporates are becoming more alert to that shift. If you live in the ‘now’ world, you’re going to lose out – if you haven’t got it on your road-map for the future, you are going to get a huge amount of leakage. It’s absolutely where the future is going – if you’re trying to stick with desk-based things, you are going to get a lot of leakage.

“That’s because, more and more, the traveller is the booker – technology means he or she doesn’t have to ask a secretary, a PA or an administrator to book flights or hotel rooms. They can do that themselves, on their phones, when they are already on the road.

And because of this technology driven evolution, the role of the travel management company has changed, says Turner. “What clients want is someone to manage travel, save them money, service their travellers, and look after them while they are away. Corporates then want post-trip information, and advice on how best to use that information.

He adds: “These days, the TMC’s role is much more consultative, and corporate clients are only going to demand more of that in the future, as technology allows their travellers to do the basics for themselves.”

We’re unlikely to be seeing Nigel at next year’s Business Travel Show. He’s bought a motorhome, and is planning to swan off around Europe for months at a time. After 43 years organising other people’s trips, he is finally organising his own. Using his mobile phone, no doubt.

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