Archive for December 2010

Blog Update

I was sitting here nursing my bloated Christmas stomach and regretting that final glass of Port last night and I started to wonder if there is anything I could do to improve my blog.
I am pleased as punch to have recieved over 2000 page views from all over the world but I got to think that I might be confusing too many people by trying to inject humorous memoires alongside serious industry comment.
As a result I have introduced two new blog sites to cover each story type. These can be found on:
If you would like to read both types I am continuing with this address which will still feature everything I produce.

Thanks so much for reading and PLEASE tell me if there is anything you would like me to pontificate about. HAPPY NEW YEAR!

A secure life Abroad 2 - Zambia

Zambia was my main overseas posting and I stayed there for 2 years. It was around 1973 which was the time when the battle for independence was in full swing in neighbouring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). That did not bother me much as I was posted to the Zambian ‘city’ of Kitwe up on the Copper Belt and a long way from the border conflict. Or so I thought.

What I failed to grasp was that although the actual fighting was taking place in the south the fighters themselves had many reserve and base camps around Kitwe. This meant that not only did residents have to cope with the numerous local gangsters but also raw army recruits who had no money or food but plenty of assault rifles and grenades. Unfortunately it was not rare to see troops selling Kalashnikovs to the local bad guys for money and food thus increasing their dangerousness by 1000%

We looked after ourselves as best we could. Most houses had razor wire around their gardens, barred windows, alarms and fierce dogs. We had our fierce cat called Sooty which I told you about in an earlier story. At least he had hospitalised the next door Dobermans once which was a pretty good reference!

People also hired night security cards from a local company to patrol their perimeters until dawn. These guys were supposed to be there as protection and to scare off intruders but in actuality they spent most of the time asleep. Unlike the murderous guard I had in Ghana these people were mainly weak, hungry and very poor and, in some ways, I could understand why they were not willing to risk their lives for a bunch of wealthy Europeans. I used to recognise this so I paid mine extra, gave them food and said that all I wanted was for them to scream a warning before running. That and to stay awake and not smoke the local drug called Dagga.

The security company recognised the problem of guards sleeping on the job and they employed supervisors to cycle around the neighbourhood tinkling their bells and calling ‘guard’ until they got an answer. More often than not they used to get no reply so the volume kept on increasing until they were shrieking ‘GUARD! GUARD!’ at the top of their voices. By this time everybody in the house was awake…except the guard.

Our most regular guard was called Greatson. He was a little better than the rest so I ended up pampering him quite a lot. It got to the point that I would play his favourite ABBA record every night. He used to lean back on his patio guard chair until his head half entered the lounge window and join in with a baritone drone. I also gave him a case load of my dad’s old clothes and told him to help himself.
Unfortunately the better I treated him the more complacent he got and the less reliable. Things came to a head when he turned up one evening drunk and dressed in an old silk smoking jacket/dressing gown which he had found in the case of cloths. He flopped in his chair looking like Noel Coward on a bad day and started singing Chiqitita from ABBA’s greatest hits. I went to bed in disgust.

About 2 in the morning I was woken from an uneasy sleep. As I regained consciousness I started to hear tinkling of bells, loud shouts of GUARD, GUARD and the loudest snoring possible. Clearly Greatson was out cold and his employer had lost patience. The next thing I knew a stone crashed through the bedroom window. It had come from the security supervisor and been aimed at Greatson but missed him by yards.

‘That’s it’ I cried and stormed outside to confront Noel Greatson Coward who was tucked up in his dressing gown smiling angelically in his sleep. I shook him again and again with no success. He is not going to beat me I thought. This man is going to wake up the hard way I thought and I picked him up. I held him for a moment in my arms and was about to drop him on the patio when he started nuzzling his head up against my neck still with that daft smile on his face.

No, I decided, the patio is too good for you my friend, and I carried him around to the swimming pool. It was well illuminated by the security lights and I lurched to the edge of the deep end. I dropped him. Well actually not dropped, more stumbled. We both went over and crashed into the water. Greatson woke up when he was about 3 feet under. His eyes dilated and his mouth opened discharging a large bubble of water. My face which was about 2 inches from his was being held in a panicked and vice like grip.

With a little bit of help we finally managed to get out. We looked sorry figures. Him in his soggy smoking jacket and me in my now transparent pyjamas. Greatson kept saying he had not been sleeping. ‘I was resting my eyes Bwana’ he said. Yes, and ears and senses I thought. His supervisor who had managed to climb over the garden gate to help pull us out started hitting him over the head with a stick and it took 10 minutes to throw them both out.

I heard they had sacked Greatson and I was very sorry. After all he had only let us down once and I felt responsible for him being thrown back on the streets. A couple of weeks later I went a nearby friend’s house for dinner. It was a great evening and we sat in his lounge drinking brandy and listening to the African night sounds. Suddenly I could hear some faint deep singing from around the corner. Someone was singing ‘Super Trooper’ by ABBA. I peeped around the corner and yes, it was Greatson reclining in his new security guard uniform and smoking something suspicious!

Loyalty Cards – What value?

There have been a growing number of reports recently about airlines reducing the number of ‘ex gratia’ cards negotiable within corporate agreements and I have no doubt whatsoever this will increase in future. There are a few possible reasons for this trend.

These cards started as a way of keeping the loyalty of regular travellers by giving a range of benefits from comfortable lounges and ‘free’ flights to priority for upgrades. They became a major instrument for wooing business people away from their competition, and possibly company policy by making the travellers feel special in a rapidly comoditising market.

Some corporations hated them and went to great lengths to try and cancel out their allure. A few tried with little success to confiscate the travel element (miles) for company use. Others took a different view and used the attraction of these loyalty clubs to underline and support the use of their chosen policy carrier. It was then that such awards became a significant beneficial component within corporate deal negotiations.

So all of a sudden airline loyalty clubs became valuable to corporates and a tool to sweeten a change in policy. This whole change thing became a great deal easier if you were able to hand out membership cards with substantial benefits to key travellers. As important were the top tier cards which appealed to status conscious senior executives. These Platinum/Black/Premier cards were usually allocated in very small numbers and linked to the company’s volume potential. Often you would see joint CEOs scrapping like alley cats as to who should get ‘The Card’ and TMCs being pestered to broker more of them.

Much of the above still happens now but the mood of the airlines is changing for a number of key reasons. Firstly the number of cards at high status (gold etc) has grown alarmingly causing lounges to become too full for comfort. The cost of these lounges and other benefits has risen correspondingly whilst their exclusivity has declined. I have been in some lounges which are busier and noisier than the seats outside them.
Equally there are fewer seats available for purchase with loyalty points which can cause problems.

The airlines in their quest to reduce distribution costs are now looking very closely at the value, and importantly, the cost of these schemes. They have gone from seeing these clubs as less of a marketing ploy and more of an out of control overhead. As a result they have identified the value and put a budget cost against it. This means that every time an airline salesman gives a card their budget gets debited accordingly. They now have to manage this cost in the same way that they do discount pricing and other overheads.

This state of affairs has reduced the number of cards being awarded within deals. Incidentally the same thing works within the airlines themselves. Senior airline management are having their own travel cards downgraded too and they are probably just as aggrieved as the corporate buyer. The problem is that if you take something away from someone it has at least twice the effect as giving it to them in the first place. What you never have you never miss!

I guess what everybody will have to realise is that if you drive mainstream airlines to behave like, and compete with low cost carriers you will see the continuing decline in such ‘luxuries’. Also, if you manage to finally be successful in mandating policy to your travellers then the need for such loyalty inducements disappear anyway.

A Christmas Tale of Travel Distribution – 2

Cast of Characters:

Air Schizophrenia Services (ASS Air) – A major airline from Never Never Land.
Pass it on Travel (Past Travel) - A neurotic TMC who misses the old days
Scrooge Global Inc (Scroogey Inc) - A global corporation that hates travel budgets
Vera Merchant Fee ( VeraCard) - A credit/charge card that does not add up
Online Travel Agency (Ollie OTA) – Illegitimate love child of Air Schizophrenia.
IATAmania (Colin Cartel) - An airline association that interprets
the rules as they go along.

Globally Dysfunctional (Gordon GDS) – A misunderstood much maligned cog in
the Distribution wheel who nobody wants to pay

(Again, a work of absolute fiction and all the characters are simply a result of my overactive imagination)

It was a quiet peaceful Christmas Eve. It was mainly quiet because half a teaspoonful of snow had landed on the tarmac at London Heathrow causing the entire airport and access road infrastructure to go into meltdown and stop completely.

ASS Air barricaded himself in his office, switched off the passenger information announcements and tried to turn his mind away from the groaning, lamentation and anger coming from those selfish passengers in the departure hall. After all he had given them foil blankets so what were they moaning about?

Finally he decided to think back over the last year and consider what he might do in 2011. He tried to focus on all the fun things and the new friends he had made which lasted about 20 seconds so he then moved onto the progress he was beginning to make on distribution matters. He had quite a busy year in this area but he considered it mere positioning for what was planned for the coming year. He would show those vultures (I mean ‘partners’) a thing or two.

He started ticking off the successes and failures of the past. He congratulated himself for his success in transferring a major chunk of his own selling costs down the line. Who would have thought it could be so easy! Just put the squeeze and expense onto Past Travel and watch them ricochet onwards to Scrooge Inc. Job done! Except Scrooge being a savvy customer had let it happen in order to commoditise and claw back.

He was however beginning to understand Scrooge a lot better. It was difficult to start with but when he realised that old Scroogy played by different rules and was not impressed by his arrogance he found more subtle ways to play him at his own game. He discovered that as long as the up front price made Scrooge look good he could tinker away with the ancillaries rather like those ‘ghastly and common’ No Frills guys do.

It had been a shame about the black sheep of his family. After the wild euphoria of creating his very own online travel agency Ollie OTA had ultimately disappointed him. Now he had to try and undo the damage by putting him down in as humane way as possible. So off he had gone with his ‘content club’ and bludgeoned poor old Ollie as if he was a seal pup. Trouble was Ollie had a tougher infrastructure than he realised. ‘Memo to me’, he thought. Get in touch with Colin Cartel in IATA land and get him to come up with some kind of ‘creative’ rule interpretation to help me. After all good old Colin will do exactly what I say if he knows what is good for him. I am after all his boss.

That left just VeraCard and Gordon GDS to sort out. Both were thorns in his distribution sides but he was beginning to make serious progress. All he had to do was close his eyes to what travellers want and appeal to Scrooges desire for cheap nets and he would be nearly there. Vera would be much easier than Gordon. All he had to do was introduce a premium for using Vera (preferably higher than she cost) and watch old Past Travel do the rest. Scrooge would have to accept, especially if his competitor chums followed suit and they sure would like they always do.

Gordon GDS is another prospect entirely. Yes, Gordon is as anti change as he is and yes, he wants it all his way and yes, Gordon wants to increase his wealth not to diminish it. But like AssAir, Gordon does not appear to be able to come up with any more positive solution than more deep-seated intransigence. “Everything must change”, they cry, but not me! So Gordon hides behind the walls of Fortress Full Content while poor old AssAir tries to bash it down access brick by access brick. Meanwhile Scrooge and Pass It On shout for him to stop before they get hurt by the aftermath..

What a lovely time of the year Ass Air mused as he snuggled deeper into the ego massage machine chair that had been installed behind the double-locked steel door of his airport office. Have those damn passengers stopped snivelling he thought as he eyed the lovely looking ‘humble pie’ his cabin crew had cooked for him. No, he thought, I can always eat that when I absolutely have to and it will be Spring by then.

He reclined his lounger into bed mode and drifted into a blameless sleep.’ Oh what fun I will have next year’ he thought in his last moment of consciousness. But then he had a terrible dream. It involved all his antagonists sitting with him in a room sponsored by corporate travel trade associations and he was being made to cut a deal that would be fair for all and serving to the travel community.

But that really would be a fairy story….

A Christmas Distribution Story - Timmy TMC

I wrote this sweet little story last Christmas and it is back 'by popular demmand' while I write the next one about GDSs which will be out in a few days.

Tales of Timmy TMC and his search for value– A Christmas Pantomime and work of utter fiction!

Timmy was sad. He had just returned from Agencies Anonymous and admitted to all of them that he was a TMC. He was looking for help to cure this terrible affliction but all the other sad souls took one look at him and agreed he was clearly past his sell by date and revoked his membership.

It had all started so very well for Timmy those years ago when his two benevolent uncles, Colin Commission and Oscar Override, used to send him cheques for doing very little. However recently, having used him for their horrible data mining purposes, they walked out leaving him a penniless orphan. Then even stranger things started to happen as his few pals started disappearing, changing their names and, worst of all, reverting to cannibalism and eating each other up. The stress of it all got to little Timmy and he started wondering if there would be a future role for him in this wacky and homicidal travel supply chain. He was sure he was useful but a little bit sketchy on the detail.

But Timmy was made of stronger stuff and knew, with a little sage advice from his supply chain colleagues, he would discover his value. “I know” he thought. “I will go and see my dear old benefactor Client Hardup”. “Sorry Timmy” said Hardup whilst absently massaging his EBIT, “but I have lost all my profits. I gave them to a nice man from the Fat Cat Investment Bank and he said they had been magiced away by millions of little elves wanting to feed their sub prime mortgages. However he also said that he was prepared to travel the length and breadth of Las Vegas to get it back if Timmy could donate a ticket”. “Sorry” said Timmy “I don’t get free tickets and upgrades any more. In fact the last ones were those First class round the world tickets which went to Mrs Hardup when she coincidently won your office grand draw”.

Hardup was sorry for Timmy. He remembered the days when Timmy used to give him good service, rebate cheques and upgrades. “Go and see my two sisters Pammy Procurement and Charmaine Cheaper-Thanyu” he said. “They may think of something valuable for you to do, although don’t hold your breath as I have just cut their travel allowance again.

Now these two girls hated each other something ugly. Charmaine thought she could do and get things better than Pammy. Pammy thought Charmaine was an undisciplined tart hawking herself around the web without any thought of the infections she could catch like cancellation flu and card chargeitus. The only thing they had in common was they both thought they could do anything better than Timmy who, to them, was an unnecessary downward pull on their sagging assets. They had enough budget stretch marks between the already.

Poor old Timmy. Little sustainable income and not the sharpest pencil in the commercial box. He trudged back to his lonely BTC and implanted himself in front of his PC. He aimlessly rubbed his mouse even though his fairy god mother had warned him his eyesight would be impaired when POOF! Out from the PC sprang the GDS Genie. “I will grant you one wish” she cried. “oh Genie” he wailed “You have told everyone that you know everything so please tell me what I need to do to find my value and make Pammie and Charmaine respect me like they used to when I bribed them.
“Blooming Heck” said Genie, “that’s a tricky question. How should I know? I have enough problems of my own dealing with that terrible ogre Amerimonster from IATAland. He wants me to get my sectors off for next to nothing. And then there is that green monster Olearymouth. He has been clambering down his beanstalk lately threatening you, me, in fact everyone he claps eyes on. So don’t bother me with your pathetic questions! And leave that mouse alone.”

Timmy was shocked and saddened. He had tried his colleagues, his clients, suppliers and even a fellow intermediary without a sniff of finding his value. Off he wandered into the pre Christmas recessionary gloom. Even his Blackberry had stopped talking to him and his Mobile phone, instead of saying “how are you” when switched on now said “Book Direct” instead. It was almost enough to make Timmy give up and become a consultant like everyone else.

Just as all seemed lost a jolly faced lumbering giant in a Santa outfit scooped Timmy up, clutched him warmly to his chest and squeezed him tenderly by the throat. “Giant Major Airline Timmy wheezed”. “Never fear Timmy” boomed Major. “You can trust me and I will look after you just sign this binding agreement and all your troubles will be over - well at least for a month or two”. “But that is what you said last time” said Timmy, “before you started smacking me about”. “Now, now” said Major “let’s forget about the past”. “That is also what you said last time” replied Timmy.
“NOW SEE HERE” boomed the Major with an inscrutable look on his face, Have you got any other options?

“Oh Major” said Timmy, “it is so good to be home. I’m hungry. Got any commission?!”

And they all lived happily every after – Or did they?

A Secure Life Abroad 1

Having been born and raised in foreign parts I had no qualms about working and living abroad when I became an adult. After all, what could possibly happen to a strong and smart young man? I was invulnerable wasn’t I? And I knew exactly what to expect. Didn’t I? Err…no I am afraid not. I got mugged twice by the same person, shot at and even seduced (allegedly) by a Zambian ‘Mata Hari’. I had a suspected revolutionary in the office and a pet maniac in my garden.

It all started when I got a job working for an airline called British Caledonian. They retained a pool of individuals whose job was to travel around the world taking over from overseas managers when they took their annual leave. This meant I ended up travelling from one place to another spending four weeks in each location which was great work for a single young man.

My first trip was to Accra in Ghana. It was a jolly nice stable place I was told and so it seemed. The local folk were very nice and very efficient. I was granted temporary membership to the sailing club, polo club, rugby club and various private drinking establishments so I felt pretty smug.

The only problem was my night watchman. He was a one-eyed giant of a man in long white robes and he took his job very seriously indeed. I nicknamed him Cyclops which suited him well. I mischievously told him my name was Mr Heracles so we seemed to fit together quite well! Only trouble was that I began to wonder whether I was his employer or his prey.

He would arrive in the evening with a large sack containing the tools of his trade. These consisted of stones (specially selected to fly further) knives (yes plural) and a range of clubs. His two spears he left in the garage for safe keeping. On arrival he would slink around the garden hiding his weapons under bushes so that he was never 2 metres from anything sharp or lethal. You only had to look at his eyes to see he longed to use them and I even saw him once leave the garden gate open as bait for opportunist thieves.

The trouble was he used to consider himself my personal bodyguard. He literally shadowed me and when I looked out of any window his form brandishing a spear would rear up from the undergrowth in front of me. If I went in the garden he would ghost around about five paces behind me and occasionally flatten himself against the wall. ‘Mr Heracles, I think I see something’ he said.’Rubbish Cyclops’ I would say but it did not stop him leaping forward spear raised.

It really is unnerving to be watched that closely. I would brush my teeth at night to see him in the mirror with his nose flattened against the window. He would not allow me to get into bed without him checking under the bed and in the wardrobe. I finally had enough when he held two of my dinner guests at spear point until I vouched for their good intent.

Then one day the army arrived. There was apparently a coup against the then president Kwame Nkrumah and the army was securing their position. This included digging a large circular machine gun trench in the middle of the garden. The hole was dug out, surrounded by sandbags and occupied by two armed soldiers and an enormous antique looking Bren gun.

Imagine what this did to Cyclops when he arrived for his night shift. First he was startled, then he was enraged and finally a tight lipped grimace of anticipation spread over his face. ‘Oh, new toys’ I could imagine him thinking as he started walking around this new ‘flower bed’ while two nervous faces looked out.

I went to bed around about eleven after saying goodnight to Cyclops in the bathroom mirror and slept like a baby. After all, what could go wrong with two soldiers and Cyclops to protect me? However, when I woke up there was only Cyclops and an abandoned machine gun nest . What have you done with them I demanded to know but he just squinted devilishly at me through his one eye.

I received a visit from the military later that morning. The guards had endured Cyclops for only around 3 hours before they fled. It had been something like the Blair Witch project with strange sounds, shadows and rasping breath from every direction. The clincher was when ‘somebody’ had thrown a snake in there with them. The trench was never occupied again. Cyclops was bereft. Who had stolen his toys he seemed to ask.

Night guards can sometimes be nearly as problematic as the people they are supposed to save you from. The police can often be worse as my sequel will tell.

You don’t get ‘owt for nowt’ in travel distribution.

For those that do not speak Yorkshire English that means anything for nothing and never has that been truer than in corporate travel. The only trouble is that this is exactly what many stakeholders are trying to achieve with alarming and inharmonious results.

Now people sometimes call this the pain of change or evolution but I think it is much more basic than that. I believe very little is changing other than people trying to offload cost to others as they rightly (or wrongly) believe that it no longer belongs with them. This has only recently started because now they cannot increase their charges to absorb this expense as the end customer wont stand for it. Lead price now seems to be everything so everything has to be stripped to the bone. This type of commoditisation is fine if you are prepared to do without something but not if you still demand your content, your credit, your data and all.

So everybody tries to find cheaper and more self serving alternatives. Some even see it as an opportunity to make more money by separating out a product and charging more for it than it costs. For example those suppliers who are now charging extra for GDS booking options and credit card usage. Is the price they are currently paying more or less than what they are going to charge the rest of the supply chain who want these services? Just look at TMCs and you will see how many turned a potentially disastrous commission cut into a more profitable business model.

I think we all have to go back to basics again and ask ourselves what we want and essentially, what we really do not need. Having done this we should look at all these component parts and ascertain who is currently paying for them and whether we could do it cheaper and more efficiently if we took control and accountability ourselves. I definitely think TMCs could play a broader role in managing these costs for corporations than they do at present. They are after all supposed to be an outsourced consultancy arm of their clients.

The travel distribution model is in a mess and stuck in a previous era. Low cost airlines and commoditisation completely shook up the market but the original infrastructure still remains despite attempts to shift it. Cartels like IATA still hold sway and bodies such as ACTE/NBTA/ITM have not really yet driven constructive dialogue to broker a badly needed repositioning. To my mind these groups need to get together and call a proper summit on these issues which would surely be more constructive than the same old glad handing bi annual conferences.

Everyone is in defence mode. Some people’s idea of defence is by attacking first. Others try the old head in the sand technique favoured by Ostriches. Most have tunnel vision. We need some clear thinking before we all end up as aggressive poor sighted flightless birds!