Archive for October 2010


The British do not like to be separated from their pets and you might be surprised if you knew just how many of us tuck our little Fidos and Felixes in wooden boxes and take them with us if we get posted to foreign lands. I was no exception and, when we were posted to Zambia my wife gave me a non negotiable ultimatum. “Either me AND the cat or you go on your own”. The decision was made and Judith, me and a small bundle of furry hell prepared for our big adventure.

Sooty was his name and he was mad. We bought him from a farmer in Kent and he was clearly half feral(the cat that is not the farmer). He made his mark on the way home from collecting him when he broke out of his transportation box and ran amok in the car whilst I was trying to navigate through heavy traffic. Anybody nearby would have seen flailing arms and flashes of fur as we tried to catch him until finally he jumped on my head, stuck all four sets of claws in my scalp and refused to move. I had to drive to the nearest pet shop looking like Davy Crocket in order to buy a ‘Sooty proof’ wicker box. The guy behind the counter barely kept a straight face as he helped peel the spitting cat off me.

I went out ahead of Judith and Sooty to ensure everything in the house and garden was ready for their arrival. Having located our new house which was in the north of the country on the outskirts of the Copper belt town of Kitwe I started to prepare. The house had a servant called Silas and a gardener called Patrick. Silas was a giant of a man with a nasty bottle scar across his face. I took him aside and told him the raw facts of life

I explained that Madame was bringing her cat. I then told him he had two choices. He could protect little Sooty and make sure he did not end up maimed, poisoned or eaten and, in return he would be the best fed, best paid house servant in Kitwe. Alternatively he could let something happen to Madame’s cat and become instantly out of work.

He took the point so well that I started getting complaints. Apparently Silas, supported by Patrick had been touring the area beating all the other house servants to a pulp and explaining that if anything ever happened to ‘Madame’s pussy’ he would be back to finish the job. Not quite what I had in mind but very effective. Not only did Sooty remain undamaged and uneaten but, if he disappeared for the shortest of time the neighbourhood would echo to the sound of searching servants calling ‘here pussy pussy’.

Zambia Airways lost Sooty. Unfortunately they found him again in his box on the tarmac next to some pallets destined for Abu Dhabi. Apparently someone tried to stroke him by poking a finger through the bars only to have it shredded. So, off he went and finally arrived with us after two flights and a 24 hour delay. He was not happy and resorted to tormenting Silas by leaping on his head and tangling his claws into the curly hair. Our bar-room brawling giant was absolutely terrified and remained so for the two years we were there.

The average life expectancy of an English cat in the snake infested, hungry and wild area we were living in could be measured in weeks. Clearly they had not seen a cat like Sooty before. He laid waste to a wide area around the house, neighbouring gardens and the surrounding scrubland. After a couple of weeks there was nothing left to crawl or slither around the place.

He got bored and started new games like taunting the next door Doberman guard dogs. He would sit on an overhanging tree branch just high enough that the dogs could not quite reach him. They tried and tried until finally Sooty lowered himself a little further. The dogs never knew what hit them. As their slavering jaws strained upwards he simply raised his paw and slashed his claws across their noses. The neighbour presented me with the vet’s bill and had to admit that our three kilo cat had hospitalised his two guard dogs that both needed stitches. We did not speak much after that.

Sooty had loads of adventures in Zambia before we returned with him to the UK. He got stuck in drains, choked on a preying mantis; fell into the pool and everything in between. I will describe some of the mayhem he caused in another episode! Finally we had to get him out in a hurry because of a spreading outbreak of rabies and he ended up with his own seat on a light aircraft out of the country. Only the best for Madame’s cat!

He died a few years later at our home in Hampshire. The vet said it was feline leukaemia. I reckon it was more likely to have been boredom. He had a great life as his passport will testify!

As I said at the very beginning the British are mainly very attached to their pets but that can equally be said of a German I met in Zambia. He had bought a local German Shepherd as a guard dog and fell in love with it. He went on leave back to Germany and returned with a young and very attractive bride. Unfortunately the dog did not think so.

Every morning he would set off to work and his wife would have to lock herself in the house as the dog would try and set about her as soon as the car was around the corner. When he came home again the dog would be sweetness personified and go to her to be stroked. This went on for over a week until one day the dog got in to the house and bit the poor girl quite badly. Enough was enough and she gave him an ultimatum. It was her or the dog. He thought for the briefest moment and she caught the next flight to Germany.

A Take on AA Distribution Issues

Isn’t the American Airlines distribution blog interesting? No I mean it without the slightest hint of sarcasm. Obviously it is a propoganda vehicle for getting their point across to all sectors of the market but it does make some good and credible (albeit biased) comment on this key issue.

I find the language they use fascinating as it mirrors their strategy at this particular moment in time. For example they are currently referring to TMCs as ‘Travel Agency Partners’ so one can assume that the very zigzag line that represents their TMC love/hate relationship must be on the ascendancy as they focus on those dastardly GDS. No point in having a go at TMCs and GDS at the same time.

The only downer I have on this blog is that it fails to identify or even pay any lip service to the broader issues and seems rather 'me' centric. What their corporate end customer’s true needs, objectives and arguments do not seem to get much coverage. Perhaps if they focussed more on these and put forward some proposed solutions for debate it might help both their cause and the industry they work in. Mind you this might become a double edged sword as their arguments would need to be compelling.They would also need to think outside their own box which they and most major airlines find far too vexing.

Let me try and give you an example. In the last of their blogs I read on ‘The Beat’ they were trying to say that TMCs choice of GDS was predictable and closely linked to their original owning airline. This is a far too simple assumption and somewhat dated. TMCs choose GDSs for much broader reasons than that although, in the past, there is more credibility in that argument. Now it is more a matter finance, other non air products, trained staff availability, support, global reach, and yes, full content and fares. The GDS have exploited their broader strengths in the markets they were dominant in to maintain that position. They provide things like broader choice, comparison and ancillaries that airlines don't.

Corporates demand that their TMC is kitted out with a booking engine that can provide a total regional and global focussed product for all services including that continental train or local hotel. The TMC responds by searching for a system that meets as many of those demands as possible and then bolts on any extras through their own technology. Preferably a one-stop shop covering as many core products as possible. Not just American Airlines bookings. They need to do this cost effectively and as seamlessly as possible.

What the corporate and their TMCs do not want is to find airlines who cherry pick what fares they put on which GDS thus depriving their travellers from the best prices, availability and choice. Any airline who does this is basically saying that they alone will decide which booking system you will use. Even worse some then impose fee penalties on those TMCs and corporates who have the effrontery not to comply.

So the distribution battle is getting hotter. AA in their blog, are now talking about a test of ‘global’ reach with the GDS. It reminds me of a ‘dare’ game I enjoyed with my friends in the playground all those years ago. I cannot see much benefit for the customer while these two forces slug it out and I am not sure either would come out without a very bloody nose.

Meanwhile what is the TMC doing? Are they just sitting their in a ring side seat or in the corner of their favourite with a towel and gum-shield. No, they cannot afford to do either and you will find the bigger ones are already building alternatives. Their issue is that direct links with numerous different suppliers (there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them) is a poor but increasingly necessary option to the current few well chosen interfaces, but they need to do it.

One very likely scenario for the future will be the further development and release of these mega multi linked TMC platforms. Sounds familiar? Yes, such an entity is currently called a ‘GDS’.What will that do? It will enable TMCs to put (or deny) whatever content they want in front of whoever they want to see it. It will give them power. It will enable them to go to suppliers and negotiate deals and incentives.Deja vu?

So by trying to destroy one type of GDS the airlines will be creating other, possibly stronger ones. The same way they found removing TMC commissions meant they had to charge lower prices. Good luck to them. I suspect they will need it!

Corporate entertaining 3 – Could end in divorce!

My relationship with my wife has been tested sorely twice in my years of being corporately entertained. It could have so easily gone the wrong way twice but thankfully Judith and I are still together. The occasions were even worse than the time I murmured “Oh yes Valerie” in my sleep. A terrible thing to happen, especially as I do not know anyone called Valerie.

The first occasion was when I was invited by British Airways to fly to Australia to see the rugby world cup semi final match between France and England. A fabulous opportunity which I could not turn down even though we would only be there for less than four days.

Anyway, we went to the fantastic Telstra stadium which makes our Twickenham ground look like a public toilet and sat just above the half way line in some of the best seats in the place. Marvellous, and to complete our joy England won, thanks mainly to the boot of Johnny Wilkinson. After the game we went into one of the ground’s hospitality suites and imbibed in copious quantities of the amber nectar (Australian for beer).

The need to make more room for the next pint(s) became irresistible so I went back into the main stand to find the lavatories. In the nick of time I found one and as I did what comes naturally at such times the loudest, drunkest and rudest Australian jubilantly staggered into the convenience. “Is that all you have got” he crowed as he relieved himself in the middle of the room. We are going to thrash you bstrds in the final next week. I disagreed and we had a little undignified pushing and wrestling.

The argument was settled by me during a pause in grappling. “Look” I said. Why don’t we swap phone numbers and agree that whoever loses next week phones the other to apologies”. He agreed and we parted and I frankly thought nothing further about it.

The following week I sat down back home with my wife and watched the final and, thanks to the boot of Johnny Wilkinson, we won. I went ballistic and jumped all over the room screaming “YES, YES” rather like that famous scene in the film ‘When Harry Met Sally’. I did not hear the phone ring but Judith did.

The first thing I noticed was the shocked look on her face. She asked me if there was something I needed to tell her about my sexuality. The question rather shook me so I asked why she should enquire. “Well” she said “I have just spoken to a drunken Australian. He was crying. He said he met you in a toilet in Sydney and that you had been rough with each other. He says he feels sad and ill but wants to say sorry. Hard to explain convincingly, I am sure you will agree.

The second time was far more local. It was at a supplier’s evening summer garden party near Windsor Castle. It was ‘finger buffet’ style and I was standing on his patio with a glass in one hand and a plate in another talking to other guests.

I suddenly felt something hard (and sharp) pressing into my groin. I looked down to find the host’s Doberman dog showing an enormous interest in my private parts to the point of chewing them. I tried to move him but every time he growled and snarled and continued with his fetish. By this time I was desperate and fortunately mine host arrived to drag the hound away, but not before my whole crutch area was covered in doggy drool and also a couple of trouser tears.

There were huge apologies all round and, after an extended visit to the cloakroom I came out with some of my trousers, and dignity intact. I did not want to hang around with such a wet patch so I went straight home.

Judith was in bed reading a book when I walked into the room. “Looks like you have been having a nice time” she muttered. I followed her eyes down to discover that what was initially a clean wet patch had turned dry, crusty and stained. “I know what you are thinking but you are wrong” I said. “Really” she replied with eyebrows arched. “Yes” I said. “It was a dog”. “They all are” she responded cryptically, and switched off the light as I stood there.

Corporate entertaining 2 - A few painful lessons learned

Now the whole thing about entertaining or being entertained is one networks, enjoys oneself, meets people and forms relationships beyond pure negotiation. If you are lucky you get all these things each and every time. If you are gaffe prone like me you can get into all sorts of trouble as I will explain by way of a few examples.

Hosting Golf:
My company used to invite its key clients to a golf day at one of the main prestigious courses every year. I got to front them as nobody else on the board played. The last one I hosted was at Moore Park in Hertfordshire and we spared no expense in making sure it went well. The trouble was that everything seemed to conspire to go wrong.

It was just one of those days. It started when the Chief Exec of one of our top clients got locked in the ancient toilet cubicles in the old manor house. It turns out he suffered horribly from claustrophobia and he went berserk in the tiny cubicle unable to climb out (he was large) and was finally rescued when we kicked in the door. He went straight home.

We had arranged for a chap to do our clubhouse scoring for us. He had a lot of kit including computers and TV monitors that he somehow managed to jamb into a small hatchback. We did not want him to disturb our guest so we told him to go behind the manor and reverse up to the sweeping outside staircase so that we could discretely unload through the French windows of our allocated room. I idly watched as he arrived and started reversing, and reversing, and reversing.

He must stop I thought otherwise he would back into the huge old and rare urn planter that was standing on a tall concrete plinth at the side of the staircase. But no. It all seemed to happen in slow motion as first the crunch and second the sight of the ancient urn fragmenting as it went through his back window and then his monitors. Horrendous and very expensive to put right.

Finally the guests all arrived and a good day’s golf was enjoyed by all. Well perhaps not everybody. One team of guests fell out badly with each other because of alleged cheating and another got bitten by the only venomous snake in the British Isles. Oh and one broke his buggy and another fell down a small ravine. Not bad really considering everything.

After the golf we all sat down to dinner. My board colleagues turned up including my own chief executive. He had never played golf and clearly was not a fan. He was most put out when he saw the table plan and wanted to know why he did not have all the most senior people at his table. I tried to explain that after golf guests always sit with the team members they played with but to no avail. He clearly felt slighted especially as the only subject talked about at his table was golf.

At the end of the dinner it was his turn to take centre stage and address the guests. I had been announcing the winners and prizes and it was all very relaxed and jolly. My final task was to introduce a more and more impatient CEO. Let’s keep it relaxed and fun I thought so I said “I would like to introduce my CEO who some people describe as like a lighthouse in the desert. Brilliant, but absolutely useless”. Much chuckling took place and the great man spoke

The event finished and goodbyes were spoken. Everybody said they had a good time (including the wounded) and two chaps told me that one of the reasons they use us is the approachability of our directors and the way we could ‘have fun’ together.

I was pretty pleased with things and thought quite fondly of the last remark until my mobile phone rang as I drove home. It was my CEO. He said that if I ever humiliated him like that again my days in the company were numbered!

What did I learn? Apart from checking toilets, avoiding urns and maybe having a medic around I guess the main thing was never to expect your boss to automatically have a sense of humour similar to yours!

Corporate Entertaining, a Good Thing? - Part 1

Some would say I have been blessed in that I worked in an era where corporate entertaining in the travel business was frequent and lavish. Because of the positions I held I was either entertaining our clients or being entertained by suppliers. Great you may think, Wimbledon, Twickenham, Ascot, and Wentworth here we come. But things did not always run that smoothly especially when times became tougher.

You see, once you give someone something one year and don’t the next things get sticky. Even worse when a spouse is involved An example would be a very major car hire company that had a huge facility at Wimbledon every year for the tennis with vast numbers of corporate seats at the main courts right up to finals day. You might imagine that anybody would be thrilled to be invited but think for a minute. OK, the invites are great but for what day have you been invited? Was it earlier or later in the tournament than last year? Is it for the main courts? Is your spouse invited like last year?

I have known people get quite vengeful if they have been downgraded in the pecking order, offered tickets to secondary matches or even ignored entirely. The worst happening at Wimbledon was the fateful day when VIPs spouses were not invited for the first time. Senior industry figures were apoplectic to the extreme that many cancelled or, even worse, failed to turn up. Then the next year they had more invitations for hospitality than Centre Court seats. Imagine the scene as mine hosts walked around the tables dishing out envelopes on finals day and the varying expressions ranging from smugness to outrage as the tickets were pulled out. Not pretty. In fact slightly reminiscent of a TV talent show.

So there you are. Sometimes offering somebody something fantastic is only OK if you are going to do it again, and again and again otherwise your generosity backfires to a point where your money has bought an ‘insulted enemy’ not a loyal friend.

But should corporate hospitality be offered or accepted anyway? Many corporations ban their people from attending now and I wonder if they are right? Why is it being offered? Are suppliers working on the basis that if one accepts they are going to get your business? Are they trying to bribe you? Maybe some may be attempting just that but I think most are not that naïve.

You need to ask yourself what happens at these events apart from everyone hopefully having a good time. I think it means that people end up in close proximity with suppliers and fellow buyers in an environment where you can take their measure. Very often you can get to their bosses as well. So unless one is so weak and without scruples that you are prepared to take the wrong product at the wrong price in order to watch some tennis then I can only see value in it from both sides. Many I know will disagree.