Advantage CEO Julia Lo Bue-Said tells Sam Ballard how the travel group has evolved over time to reflect a maturing industry and remain relevant
Formed in the mid-70s on the back of the European holiday market entering the mainstream – and the spread of cheap holidays in particular – Advantage Travel Partnership has been a seminal part of the travel industry for decades.
What started off as a company designed to help agencies deal with small profit margins changed over time to one that dealt with more complex issues, mirroring a maturing industry. From Liberty Travel to NAITA (the National Association of Independent Travel Agents) – and eventually Advantage Travel Partnership in the late 90s – the name has changed but the mission has always been the same: to offer crucial advice and support to its agency members.
However, with a combined member revenue currently standing at more than £4.5 billion across business and leisure travel, the stakes have never been higher. So, as the years have gone by, how has Advantage managed to stay relevant throughout the industry’s many economic peaks and troughs?“Travel agents are not just travel agents anymore,” explains Julia Lo Bue-Said, the CEO of Advantage. “They have to be masters of everything. They need to be good businesspeople, have HR skills, be good consultants and know how to be good marketeers. Traditionally, most agents – and I’m going to generalise – are great at selling. They are very comfortable in that space. Now they need to be experts everywhere. And you can’t pick and choose, you need to be good in all of them.
“I’ve been in business a long time and over the past few years that has become more pronounced. What that means for Advantage is that we’re having to upskill agents. We’re now focusing on developing those skills to help our members.”
Having worked at Advantage for 20 years, Lo Bue-Said is well placed to know what the company needs to do for its members. And, with a challenging economic climate, it is interesting to see how a company like Advantage positions itself. As Lo Bue-Said says, the demands put on small businesses working in travel have changed dramatically – from internal matters that need the owner’s attention to external issues that affect everyone. “The world is tougher now,” she adds. “Customers want more. There is duty of care. There are lots more things that you have to be able to talk about and articulate, whether in your business or with your customers.
“Take regulations. Years ago you sold a package and it was simple – there were not lots of other elements that you needed to think about. Even in your business, you run it in a proper manner from a governance point of view – now you need to run it through a legislative lens, too.
“From our point of view, it’s made us look at ourselves from a strategy perspective and look at what we focus on. Our members own Advantage, they are our shareholders, so everything we do is about empowering them and helping them prosper and be better businesses.”
The biggest headwind that Advantage can help its membership overcome is margin, Lo Bue-Said explains, harking back to the original reason the company was set up in the 70s. “Whether it’s leisure or business, our members are converting business, but at what margin?” she asks. “The cost of doing business with pieces like the Package Travel Directives make it more costly to transact. How do we ensure our agents can continue to sell and serve their customers at a level they need from a margin point of view? Margin erosion is a problem all agents are facing, so what tools can we provide to increase that margin and work more efficiently?
The challenge therefore is twofold: travel agents have myriad issues to deal with, from GDPR to the aforementioned Package Travel Directives, and Advantage needs to stay one step ahead of them, foresee the issues and mitigate against them for members before they affect their businesses. It’s part of the reason why Lo Bue-Said announced a Census at this year’s conference, part of the company’s ‘vision for the future’.
“How do we better support our members?” she asks. “What do they love about what we do? What don’t they think adds value? It’s understanding what streams we need to work on.” The project all adds up to one thing: personalisation. And, with announcements at this year’s conference including new repackaged cruise and airline fares, a partnership with Miss Jones PA, new regional communities and a scheme for helping agencies benefit from government apprenticeships, the toolbox that Advantage members will be able to pick and choose from is developing.
“We will definitely be offering a more tailored approach going forward,” Lo Bue-Said says. “At the minute we are putting agents in a box and saying you are business or you are leisure, and frankly that’s not working.
“The approach moving forward from the Census will be a personalised one. We’ve got a new CRM system which will enable us to tailor that segmentation in a more scientific manner. It will drive our communication going forward.
“One size doesn’t fit all. It’s about identifying where our members’ needs are and us advising agents and leading them as well.” For Advantage, that will take many forms, be it marketing, commercial advice or help dealing with new legislation. Indeed, the company recently began its own MICE division for business agents looking for help setting up events. It all comes down to Advantage being able to symbiotically – and sometimes even clairvoyantly – look after its travel agents. “I want to put our arms around members,” Lo Bue-Said says. “We’ve got your back. Let us know what you need and lean on us when you need our support.”