Double Acts: Partnerships in action

How building partnerships can help take your business to a higher peak

The concept of partnerships in business travel goes back a long way; as far back as 1845 when brothers-in-law Francis Hogg and Augustus Robinson formed Hogg Robinson, which became one of the UK’s largest TMCs.

Today, when two companies are doing business, a winning partnership between individuals on either side can help things go more smoothly. What makes a relationship work varies and depends on the individuals involved, but as we explore some of travel’s perfect partnerships, honesty and reliability are two traits that come to the fore.

Faithful friends
Chris Mabbatt,  procurement business partner with the charity Guide Dogs, and Mary Joyce, headof implementation at Click Travel

After starting out in procurement at pharmaceutical giant Bayer and then working in travel procurement at Vodafone, Chris Mabbatt wanted a change from the corporate world and decided to devote his energies and expertise to the not-for-profit sector.

He is now procurement business partner at Guide Dogs, the trading name of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. The Reading-based organisation’s mission statement is direct: “We will not rest until people who are blind or partially sighted can enjoy the same freedom of movement as everyone else.”

The first and biggest challenge that confronted Mabbatt was “freedom of movement” of an altogether different kind. “We did have a travel policy, but people were doing their own thing, booking their own travel, paying for it on their personal credit cards, then claiming it back on expenses – it was all over the place.”

In short, there was too much “freedom of movement” and too little cost control – “and when you’re working for a charitable organisation, every penny counts,” says Mabbatt.

Which is where Mary Joyce, head of implementation at Click Travel, comes in. Starting late last year, she had to mastermind the overhaul of Guide Dogs’ travel activity, engaging Click’s IT brains to devise a travel management programme tailored to the charity’s very specific needs.

Guide Dogs has 1,400 employees and between 30 and 40 have visual impairments. Only around ten of those needed to be able to use the new IT systems, but inclusivity and accessibility were key to the project.

“What’s accessible to one person is not necessarily accessible to another,” says Mabbatt, “so we needed a solution that was accessible to everyone.”

Joyce adds: “From the outset we knew it had to be a partnership, and we had to be honest about what we could and  could not do. They hadn’t had a TMC before, so, of course, there were those who wanted to carry on doing what they had always done. In the end though, it was probably one of the easiest implementations I have ever done.”

Click’s tailored solution (including a bill-back element eliminating the old pay-and-claim expense hassle) went live in January, and 500 of Guide Dogs’ travellers signed up to it within two days. “We didn’t have any negative feedback,” says Joyce.

Tech-focused Click Travel, 14th in BBT’s list of Leading 50 TMCs, does not specialise in the not-for-profit sector, but Joyce sees plenty of potential. “We have some not-for-profits already, and we are looking to grow that. However, it’s all done by recommendation, by word of mouth, so you have to know absolutely that the system will work.”

After just a few months, Mabbatt is already trumpeting Click’s virtues, so this is clearly a double act that will run and run.

Life in the fast lane
Steve Spurgeon, head of Reed & Mackay’s Platinum Club and Liz Harwood, managing director, Reps UK Airline & Passenger Management Services

Liz Harwood and Steve Spurgeon are used to unusual, even outlandish, requests from their VIP clients; such demands are part of their day-to-day professional lives.

The Platinum Club is a VIP management service that caters to the super-rich. Harwood, managing director of RepsUK Airline & Passenger Management Services, helps the Platinum Club’s head Spurgeon achieve the seemingly impossible.

“I should stress that all our clients are VIPs,” says Spurgeon, “but some are VVIPs, and are prepared to pay more for what is, essentially, a concierge service – we’ll get them through the airport, sort out their dry-cleaning, buy flowers, whatever. Basically, we’ll do anything as long as it’s legal.”

To mere mortals, what is “legal” can be surprising. In Jakarta, for the modest outlay of US$30, the local police will provide an SUV – complete with blues-and-twos and motorcycle escort – to whisk clients through the Indonesian capital’s traffic jams – all legit, all above board, and easy to organise.

Other demands are less straightforward. One particularly tall client will only stay in hotels that can provide him with an extra-long bed and there are plenty of weird and wonderful dietary requirements but, for the most part, VVIPs insist on being fast-tracked through airports.

“Most of these people insist ‘time is money’, so if you can get them off the plane, through the airport and into a car as quickly as possible, they are genuinely grateful,” says Harwood. It works both ways. “A lot of us are nervous at airports, and these people don’t want the responsibility or the hassle of working out which queue to get into – they’re too busy looking at their phones.”

It helps to have had a lengthy career in the airline industry, and Harwood’s goes back to the 1970s.

Crucially, it also means she has built up a contacts book to die for. If two people are travelling together but aren’t assigned adjacent seats, all it takes is a quick call to someone senior at the airline concerned, and the problem goes away.

That skillset led to an approach from the co-founders of RepsUK, who subsequently moved to Spain, leaving Harwood to take over the company. Today, all her employees are, like herself, ex-airline staffers with the knowledge – and contacts – to iron out VIP travel’s little wrinkles.

RepsUK’s relationship with Reed & Mackay, and Harwood’s introduction to Spurgeon, began “five or six years ago”. “We get on very well together,” she says. “He knows he can email me, call me, any time day or night, and I just take it from there. It’s all about fulfilling what people are wanting, and every client has a different take on that.”

Food for thought
Olive Kavanagh, global travel manager at Kerry Group, and David Harpley, global account manager, HRS

After 13 years with Microsoft’s travel management team, Olive Kavanagh decided it was time for a career change – a move to a company where she could put her accumulated knowledge and expertise to the best possible use. In 2015 she joined Ireland’s food giant Kerry Group, the company behind brands including Kerrygold butter and Richmond sausages.

To the uninitiated, the job would have looked like a nightmare. In the space of 40 years, the erstwhile North Kerry Milk Products co-operative had acquired more than 100 companies. Starting with just 40 employees, the company now has a 24,000-strong workforce spread across 140 locations, from Belarus to Brazil, Poland to Panama, and the Netherlands to New Zealand. But, incredible as it may seem, it had no global travel programme.

Most people would have backed away nervously, but Kavanagh is made of sterner stuff. “It was a blank page – that’s probably the piece that interested me the most. There wasn’t really any global strategy, nothing had been globally tendered, and I was brought in to globalise the entire travel programme,” she says.

After Microsoft (124,000 employees, global revenues of US$110 billion, net income of nearly US$16.6 billion), Kerry Group (one-fifth of the workforce, revenues of €6.4 billion, profit of €781 million) isn’t in the same league – but that has its advantages.

“To have access to all the senior executives, simply bumping into them in the corridor, is a real bonus,” says Kavanagh. Getting boardroom buy-in by the water-cooler clearly makes one’s working life a lot easier.”

What makes life a lot less easy is the nature of Kerry’s locations. The company is headquartered in Naas, 20 miles south-west of Dublin, and with a population of 20,000. Naas has 14 hotels, the poshest of which – the four-star Killashee – has just 141 rooms.

That’s typical of Kerry’s sites. They are generally not in major city centres, and do not have many accommodation options, and what hotels there are tend to be small. This is not JW Marriott territory.

It is, however, HRS’s territory. In fact, says global account manager David Harpley, it’s right up HRS’s street. “One of our key USPs is that we have people on the ground in key locations. Where we see gaps in the Kerry programme, we can send people out to fill those gaps.”

Kavanagh chips in: “Our need is for independent properties, that would not necessarily be in the GDSs. The challenge is to find those independents that meet corporate requirements.”

Harpley explains: “At HRS, we try to leave our clients to do the strategising, while we get on with the day-to-day work. Olive has a key phrase – there is no such thing as ‘can’t do’ – and that’s something we subscribe to.”

Kavanagh and Harpley are in contact on a daily basis and have weekly “touchpoints”, but meetings are a different matter. “I’m based just south of Dublin and David is in London, but last week we met in Shanghai,” says Kavanagh, “because that’s the way of the world we live in.”

In terms of the relationship – do they actually get on? “It’s a case of work hard, play hard,” says Harpley. “We are not afraid to have those difficult conversations, but we do have some downtime and that’s something I find really valuable.”

Kavanagh concludes: “Over the past couple of years I have often been asked how I have managed to achieve what I have, and I always say that I have definitely not done it all on my own.”

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