Archive for September 2011

Entertaining Foreign Dignitaries – Part 4

OK, where was I? Oh yes, that night in the Scottish pub when I rediscovered that some of the locals still maintain that ‘mutual rivalry’ and ‘friendly respect’ between our two great nations. I also learned that, in times of duress you get loyal support from the most unexpected quarters!

The next morning dawned and we were all up early for a tour around the Trossachs and a visit to a stately home. What is a Trosach one guest asked over his full Scottish breakfast? Is it a rodent like the haggis another asked? Is a stately home a home that is in a state asked a third? All will be revealed I said cryptically as I was still feeling the effect of the previous night’s whiskies and could not face a long discussion on Scottish wildlife and ancestral homes.

I was just leaving the room when Mr High (the nickname of one of my Nigerians) stopped me and asked for a bigger room. ‘Why’ I asked? ‘For my wives who arrive today’ he smirked. ‘WIVES’, I gasped. ‘Yes’ he replied. ‘Mine are coming too’ chipped in Mt Mighty (the other one). ‘How many’ I sighed? ‘Three’ said the first. ‘Four’, replied the other ‘and the baby’. Life should not be so cruel, I thought.

This time we really did have to pile into a single coach but thankfully a truce between the nationalities had broken out since their alliance of the previous night when protecting my racial rights. They even behaved (well slept actually) the whole morning as we drove around the soggy Trossach hills and valleys as the tour guide talked to himself. They were even most patient when I stopped the coach so I could be sick behind a bolder to get rid of the previous night’s excesses.

At lunchtime we arrived at the stately home (Prestonfield House). It was incredibly packed and we could not get into the car park as it turned out they were hosting the ‘World Haggis Hurling Contest’ that very day. This involved contestants standing on top of a whiskey barrel and throwing haggis as far as they possibly could and it was being taken very seriously. My gang decided that they were all going to have a go so they could become champions of their own countries in something.

There is an art to hurling a haggis. It involves being able to turn one’s body around to maximum torque before twisting back and catapulting said bladder of offal in a forward direction. All this while balanced on top of a wobbly barrel end. Not as easy as it seems we witnessed as various muscular Scots tried and mainly failed. Finally the organisers ran out of excuses and they allowed my guests to have a go.

First up was the dapper Ghanaian who was still wearing his pin stripe suit and spats. ‘I got the idea from seeing the British boxer Chris Eubank‘ he confided ‘and thought that was what all fashionable English sportsmen wear’. Anyway, he vaulted onto the barrel and got handed his haggis which he held gingerly in his yellow driving gloves to avoid contamination. He crouched, yelled and hurled. The haggis went straight up in the air before arcing down straight onto his head causing him to fall of the barrel and twist his ankle.

My Liberian was next. He was still wearing his full Royal Stuart tartan and looked very grand indeed. ‘Mt Mike, I think I know how they do this’ he muttered,’ it is all in the spin’. Up he got and he started spinning round to get maximum speed of throw. His kilt flew higher and it was then that everyone saw his ‘crown jewels’. Apparently he had read that Scots in kilts did not wear pants so neither did he. His jewels were both enormous and in flight and everyone was mesmerised by the sight. Eventually he got dizzy and fell off with his haggis landing about two feet away.

My turn now my enormous Mr Mighty said. Now he must have weighed at least 160 kilos and there was no way he was going to get on that barrel without help however the team rallied around and tried to lift him. I ended up with my face between his vast bottom cheeks as the Gambians made a joint assault on his thighs but eventually he was up although wobbling dangerously. Someone give him a haggis quickly before the barrel implodes I shouted.

I will remember what happens next for a very long time. The looks on people’s faces, particularly the judges and serious competitors were an absolute picture. Our man just stood there, didn’t twist, didn’t hurl, he just put his hand behind him and threw. The haggis hurtled off as though it was rocket propelled, flew past everyone’s markers and won the competition. He had won that year’s world haggis hurling competition with his first attempt.

We tried to carry him shoulder high but it could not be achieved. He was given his trophy and then the organisers suggested we might like to leave now. Back in the coach we got and sang all their African national anthems all the way to the hotel. I did not even mind when we found the foyer half full of wives, girlfriends and suspect ladies. After a day like that they could do what they wanted.

I ended up really enjoying these trips and practically all I have written is true. I made great friends and was never bored and it has been a joy sharing my memories of them within this blog.

Entertaining Foreign Dignitaries – Part 3

I had a lonely breakfast in my room. My charges were to have a day ‘free for shopping’ and I simply could not go down to face them in the foyer. I could see it in my mind though; wrecked breakfast buffet, beleaguered concierges trying to explain the Edinburgh road system and cab drivers rubbing their hands with glee thinking about what ‘rip off’ level they could reach.

I stayed in hiding for half the morning and sneaked down when it was safe. It was not. There in the lobby was my Liberian absentee from the previous day wrestling with a multi fold large scale map of Scotland. It was spread over two tables and a stool and he was asking folk how to get to Edinburgh. “Your there mate” came a less than helpful remark from the waiter who was pointing at Aberdeen.

‘Ah, Mr Mike’ he beamed, ‘I have been waiting for you, shall we go now’? I could barely muffle my groan. Gone was the opportunity of a leisurely visit to the spa and instead the prospect of a shop from hell loomed. ‘First we buy a kilt, yes’? ‘Where is Marks and Spencer’?’ Do you have some Scottish money’? The questions came thick and fast as we left, dodging the eager taxi drivers.

The rest of the morning was a busy blur of shops, shops and more shops. I was loaded up with bags like a mule, following my guest up and down Princes Street until we finally got to a kilt shop. At least I will never moan about shopping with my wife ever again I thought as I brooded outside the changing cubicle. And then he emerged. He looked fantastic in his Royal Stuart tartan and spent a great deal of time preening in front of the mirror. ‘OK, I will take three’ he beamed. ‘Mr Mike, do you have a credit card’? He never took it off for the rest of the trip, sporran and all.

We all teamed up again in the evening and we looked a strange bunch what with our Ghanaian in tweeds and spats, my Liberian dressed like Bonny Prince Charlie and the rest in formal dining robes which were exactly the same as the clothes they arrived in.
Our meal was in a ‘traditional’ Scottish themed banqueting hall across town and we all piled into the eager taxis which had lurked around for this moment all day.

The evening was interesting. In came the haggis on a plate carried by a chef surrounded by pipes and drums, and the address to it began. ‘What is this’ one guest demanded in a loud voice. ‘Why is he stabbing it, is it alive’ shouted another? ‘Why does he not speak English’, demanded a third? Snore, grunt went another as he had dropped off.

Then they found out what was in it.’ I think it is against our religion to eat this’ moaned one. ‘You people are not civilized’ groaned another. So they drank the whiskey it came with instead on empty stomachs. They were all near to drunk when the main course of roast beef arrived. ‘More whiskey’ came the shout. Then the dessert arrived. ‘More whiskey’ they called again. By the end of the meal they, and I, were plastered.

‘Now we go to a traditional pub for a whiskey’ somebody said as we left a very relieved dining hall. ‘Let us walk until we find one’ another agreed as we moved deeper and deeper into the less salubrious part of the city. And then we found one. It was next to some very run down tenement flats and the outside walls and windows were covered in years of grime.

‘Hello friends’ my very bulky Nigerian shouted as he walked into a stunned public bar. I saw one person actually drop their drink. ‘Who would like to drink with us’ the other bulky Nigerian chipped in? There was a stunned silence, and suddenly the whole pub rushed to the bar to have a drink with their new found friends. Strangely they all seemed to be on double scotch although they had beer mugs in their hands.

It turned out to be more fun than I expected. We got some strange looks but the locals soon integrated with my group especially while my guys were paying. There were songs from Scotland, Africa and everywhere in between. The bar soon filled as people heard there were free drinks.

Then something happened. My Gambians were shouting and pushing a group of youth and the dreadful word ‘racist’ was shouted. ‘Oh no’, I thought. Some bigot has made a racist comment to my guests. ‘We must go now’, my whole group demanded. ‘We will not stay to hear these insults’ they said and out they walked. I was on my way after them until the landlord called me back. Apparently nobody had paid for their drinks or those they bought the pub and the bill was astronomical.

We got back to the hotel and congregated in the bar for a whiskey. I told them how sorry I was. ‘It is inexcusable to make racist remarks to foreign visitors’ I murmured. ‘Oh no’ a Gambian assured me, ‘it was you they were being racist about. They said you English should crawl back over the border where you belong’!

‘What an evening’ I thought as I slid into bed trying to ignore my queasy stomach. A liquid feast, a huge raid on my expenses and finally an attack on my nationality which was defended by a group of loyal foreigners. It can only get better I thought. But it didn’t as my final instalment will tell.

The Beat Live? Boy What a Blast

I have just been reading the agenda and speaker list and boy what a blast I would have if I were there! No folks, this is not an advertorial for this event, more a recognition that at last somebody in the travel world is getting together some smart guys to air critical issues. I hope they do not let us and themselves down by blowing the opportunity to sidetrack posturing and ‘company speak’ to thrash out some alternative arguments.

My time for speaking at such events has diminished either by the lack of an own company to provide travel logistics or concerns about just how forthright I have become since shedding company policy shackles. Either way it reduces wear and tear on my heart and liver but sometimes, rather like my scruffy old jeans, I miss them like this one.

I then started asking myself why I am so het up about not attending yet another industry conference. What would be the one question I would ask if I was there? What would I press speakers about? Why do I think it is so darn important? How much would I lose at the Blackjack table?! Before moving on I thought I would scribble down a few thoughts on the topic I would bring up if I had made it to Las Vegas. You never know, somebody might use part of my thinking within their own contribution.

I would ask airlines to explain the practicalities of how they make their strategic commercial/distribution decisions. Within that who the decision makers are? Who within their organisational management do they interface with (i.e. sales, marketing etc)? Do they factor in the impact and needs of their corporate customers and, if so how and through what channels? Do they consult the corporate customer and who/how?

I would want to know about their policies and priorities. Are their decision makers fully market aware? Do they think they need to be? Does their organisation feel any duty of care to the industry they work in or do they simply focus on their own needs and expect the supply chain to adjust with their changes?

I still find it extraordinary that after all this time even people of my years do not really truly know who makes the key decisions in the air supplier sector. Experience has made me pretty certain it is nobody less than twice removed from customer interface. In fact I am pretty certain that most sales divisions are low enough in the company pecking order not to have much input. If they are being honest they are mainly left to pick up the strategic pieces.

It does not need a brain surgeon to get to the point I am trying to make which is that I believe this market is supplier and not customer driven. This was (perhaps) OK in the past when the industry was heavily regulated but surely not now. Not only do they want to have their cake and eat it but they want somebody to wash up after them…for nothing!

The point of the question is to explore if there is any better way of receiving and giving true consultation between corporations, their TMCs and their supplier partners. I know it is a competitive world out there but surely there is a better modus operandi than the current system of making decisions without true understanding. You only have to look at some of the arguments coming out from AA regarding distribution to see that they either do not understand their customers wishes or choose to ignore them.

Anyway, to those that are going to ‘The Beat Live’ have a blast from me and get some answers!

A Distribution Prediction

Perhaps if you want to understand some of the practicalities of the airlines planned change over to direct connect you could look at the current hotel booking model and how it does (or does not) work. To me the hotel model is where the airline industry is heading. Let me explain.

Money and strategy matters aside the consolidated ‘one stop shop’ offering provided by the Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) is perfect for customers and intermediaries alike. You do not have to go to numerous different ‘shops’ to buy your airline product. Shops that have different languages, booking methods, rules and reporting. It is all there for you in one common language package with little diversity or complication.

Now hotels are totally different and far more difficult to package. Each location can be independent, owned by a chain, part of a consortium and sometimes a mixture. Each speak a slightly different version of the same language and they very rarely sell their inventory through a GDS because they are too expensive. Instead they do their own thing via many different outlets at many different tariffs. Frankly it is all a bit of a mess if you want a properly managed travel programme, particularly as they use differing technology.

So what is happening with hotels now and how does it compare with the current GDS system? In the main TMCs must have some kind of ‘connection’ (either direct or via third party) with key hotel establishments and chains. Some TMCs have created their own databases to hold inventory and information that then gets linked up to the GDS air booking screen. It ends up all looking like one source but contains numerous connection types that range from online links to manual entry.

The TMC has to create room allocation acquisition and management systems that doubtless include room close-out periods and price variations by customer and intermediary. These need constant adjustment and repopulation to remain current.
Ultimately they end up with their own mini GDS for hotels with numerous information flows coming from a similar number of independent sources.

OK, back to airlines. They are necessarily a selfish bunch. They don’t want to pay for the current excellent consolidated air booking system any more. They just want to sell their seats in a way that gives them more power/control and less cost. They try and dress it up differently by saying it is what the customer wants which of course is laughable if it wasn’t so serious. I wish they would just come out and say the truth which is that they intend to eradicate this cost or pass it elsewhere.

Where might this end up? Some might call it industry evolution but I would call it going backwards. Instead of efficiency and commonality in air travel it will revert back to the hotel model of individual airlines operating at different speeds with different communication methods. They will deal through TMCs who also vary in skill and flexibility. There will be dual pricing and availability depending on which model you book through and which source you use. That is progress?

I am sure the GDS have explored all avenues to find a solution to being considered bad value for money by their airline customers. I have always thought that if they presented and justified their cost more intelligently, reduced prices strategically whilst building in new markets (such as hotels) they might do a lot better for all our sakes Either that or negotiate their wares with corporations/TMCs in a new and different way? After all people will pay if they see a value and surely it is better than the chaotic alternative illustrated by the hotel market?

The smart TMCs have seen this direct connect war coming. In fact you would have had to be blind not to. They have been building what they call ‘super platforms’ and the like in anticipation of it. I predict it is only a matter of time before the mega TMCs connect their ‘pipe’ to the main suppliers in the air and hotel world. In fact it is happening now. What happens then? Are the TMCs going to distribute inventory at no charge? I doubt it. They will most likely become the new GDS of the future but with broader product reach and more control on who the customer uses and at what price.

Perhaps the GDS and airlines need to get there heads together in more harmony or they may end up creating something that compares with Frankenstein’s monster. Built with various industry parts but likely to murder them!

Anonymous Comment:

Brilliant commentary. Mike has REALLY hit upon something important here.

Love the line about airlines wanting more control and less cost, "They try and dress it up differently by saying it is what the customer wants which of course is laughable if it wasn’t so serious. I wish they would just come out and say the truth which is that they intend to eradicate this cost or pass it elsewhere."

Again, brilliant analysis

Anonymous Comment

As ever Mike hits the nail on the head whilst other so called industry experts have a tendancy to hit their thumb with an oversize hammer. What is being described as more than likely to happen within the industry is in fact already work in progress; and perhaps further down the line than many (on all sides of the equation) would care to admit.

Entertaining Foreign Dignitaries – Part 2

My second group of West Africans consisted of a totally mixed bag of folk coming from everywhere between the Cameroon and Sierra Leone. They ranged from 25 stone robed Nigerians to a little chap from Ghana who wore a pin stripe suit with spats and a red bow tie. He had diamonds embedded in two front teeth. Their personalities also varied hugely from quiet and courteous to downright obnoxious.

Again we made the foolish mistake of thinking they would all mix in well with each other and not mind sharing things like coaches and tours. ‘I am not going to sit with these Gambian riff raff’ a portly Nigerian yelled. ‘You Nigerians are all fat and greedy’ came the Gambian reply. There were then cat calls and sneers and it was hard to believe these were top industry executives.

‘We must do something’ my boss confided, which translated to ‘YOU must do something Platt’. It was clear that failure would not be a viable option and, as they were due to have dinner with our chairman I had to act fast. I had visions of a pitched battle ‘food fight’ with our man ducking to avoid chicken bones and cutlery. I even seriously considered changing the menu to only soft food!

I then remembered a man called Charles. He had spent half his life posted all over West Africa and I was sure he could give me some pointers. During his sojourn abroad he had unsurprisingly turned to drink and adopted strange habits like keeping chickens (live) in his company house and making crowing noises instead of laughing.
Anyway, I tracked him down to a pub in Crawley.

I bought him a pint of IPA bitter with a Glenmorangie chaser and explained my problem. ‘Show me the guest list dear boy’ he demanded. ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’ he shrieked, ‘this is a recipe for a massacre; you cannot have this guy with them’. ‘And what about those chaps, they despise each other’. I felt sick, ‘Help me I begged.

After a large number of heavy drinks I had my best solution. Amidst robust cock crowing Charles had divided the party up into sub groups with hints on how to handle each one and who not to sit with whom. It was impressive. Henry Kissinger could not have done better I thought as I weaved back to the Copthorne Hotel where my new brood were sleeping, and possibly simmering.

As soon as they came together for breakfast I set out my new seating plan and the relief was palpable as they all seemed to talk quite amiably to each other. I scrapped the large coach they were due to be transferred by and replaced it with four mini vans and a taxi for the two giant Nigerians who seemed not to like anyone, not even each other.

We went back to the airport and checked them in for the flight to Scotland. The VIP bar got raided even though it was only 9.45 a.m. but thankfully this seemed to sedate them rather than excite. The flight was slightly delayed as we had to convert three seats into two for our Nigerian ‘High’ and ‘Mighty’ guests (these became their nicknames) but otherwise the flight was uneventful. Unlike our arrival in Edinburgh.

We lost one. Somewhere between the aircraft steps and the baggage belt we lost a Liberian. My group were unsympathetic. There were shouts of ‘leave him’ and other inflammatory remarks, with each group trying to out do the other. ‘We must find him, he could be ill’ I said and left them to wait in the VIP lounge.

. I found him but how he did it I do not know. Somehow, without going through immigration or security he had got into the International departures area. He was propped up against a bar with two huge bags of duty free including everything from whiskey to giant Toblerone bars. ‘Ah, Mr Mike’ he grinned, ‘can you pay for my drink please’. I plucked him out and got him back to his name calling friends.

We had a full welcome party waiting for us at the Caledonian hotel. They stood in a line in order to greet our guests one by one. This was not a good idea as all our guests wanted to be at the front of the line. As a result they pushed forward in an untidy V formation towards the startled hotel commercial director. The lady mayoress put out her hand to shake with our man from Douala but he placed his bag in it and told her to take it to his room.

At least I had got them there safely with few scares except a misplaced Liberian, a smothered commercial director and an indignant mayoress. Must be plain sailing now I thought, but no. I still shudder to think of it all in one go so I shall tell the rest of my sorry tale next time!