Who is the customer around here anyway?

OK, OK, I know. I said I was going to quit corporate travel and disappear into the mists of travel legend…or something like that. But it is so very hard! I am rather like Frank Sinatra was, or Michel Jordan is, where something happens which triggers off a new reason why the lure of starting again becomes too much.

The trigger for me was American Airlines president Tom Horton and a guest article he wrote for ‘The Beat’ on ‘Customizing the Travel Experience’. Right, it was the expected sanitized statement that had no doubt done the rounds of the AA public relations department before release but it made one thing screamingly clear to me. That is, who American Airlines think their customers are.

They are clearly playing their ‘customer’ card. In fact in a smallish statement of circa 800 words they had used the term (and derivatives) at least 15 times before I gave up counting. Reading the words of the article it is also clear that by customer they refer to travellers and the choices AA are offering these individuals. In contrast he used the word ‘corporate’ once (that I saw) and that was referring to ‘travel agents’ customers.

Does this matter? Is it a simple slip? Or does it show a complete lack of recognition, empathy, and understanding with the corporate travel world? After all, do corporations really want their travellers to have all these extra choices at an extra price? Do they want the lack of control that this brings to their travel policy? Do they want the extra expense taken out of their control for potentially both bookings and ancillaries?

Does it matter that the president of AA still thinks of such a key intermediary as a ‘travel agent’ when the corporate service provided is now Travel Management hence the correct and more accurate term TMCs. This may sound like splitting hairs but is it. Or is it more that? Is it AA demonstrating a worldwide apathy amongst airlines to accept that the corporate world is changing around them?

So what is this ‘customizing’ all about? To me it is about the airlines tweaking the evolving business market to their own advantage whilst ignoring the needs/demands of a major sector of their market. Is that such a surprising thing? Probably not but I cannot bear all this sugar coating around what is actually some very unpleasant tablets. Here are some examples:

We don’t want to pay the GDS any more even though it is the medium of choice for those ‘travel agents’ corporate customers. We do not seem to be able to renegotiate a deal with these GDS so let’s provide a direct product. OK it is not what corporates want but hey, think of the savings, the control, the MI and the ancillary selling opportunity.

We have been badly stung by the inroads ‘no frills’ airlines have made in our markets. Fares have gone down and their shares have increased, but hang on, there is an opportunity here. These airlines have reached critical mass to the point where they have to add more charges to maintain growth and survive. They are not the threat they were and we can now use their weapons against them. We too can offer basic core prices and then bolt on all those other ancillaries to mask the true cost.
It seems to me that corporations themselves are helping (or at least not hindering) such strategies. Corporations seem to like unbundling as it works in other spheres of procurement. But does it work in travel? Ah, that is far more complex and has greater ramifications in the supply chain. Cost has a habit of moving, not disappearing.

I suggest corporates need to have a much greater influence in the travel industry. Their associations need visibly shift away from their suppliers who they use to subsidise their costs through sponsorship and advertising. These bodies need to push their way to the table which is totally dominated by the major suppliers. They need to be heard and recognised.

Suppliers need to understand that the world has moved on and that the ‘customer’ in the corporate world is the company itself and not its employees. Those intermediaries such as TMCs are not simply booking travel agents but an outsourced arm of their corporate customer. Only then will we have a successful transition to a new model.