Archive for March 2011

A Secure Life abroad – Part 5

Fortunately most of the ‘incidents’ that have taken place involving me during my travels have been relatively trivial. In fact some have turned out to be nothing of the sort. I can think of no better example than a short visit I made to Banjul, Gambia many years ago.

I had been told that The Gambia was a very safe place full of very nice people and it proved true. However it did not seem like that when, within minutes of arriving, my duty free cigarettes were stolen. They went when I was standing in the international arrivals and departures hut. I tell a lie. It was more a shed than a hut which comprised mainly of a bar with two trestle tables either side for the check in and arrivals formalities. The bar was full of expatriate males who were watching all new arrivals very carefully.

One of these guys, a very well spoken dignified chap. shuffled up to me and asked if I had any cigarettes I would be prepared to sell him. It turned out that Banjul had run out of European cigarettes the previous week and people were getting desperate. I felt sorry for him so I reached around for my cabin bag, which I put on the ground when another white hand (his accomplice) beat me to it, grabbed my Rothmans and dashed to a waiting Land Rover followed by my new but brief friend. The local customs officer rolled his eyes and said it was the third cigarette snatch that week.

Wow, I am going to have to be on my toes in this city I thought as I made my way to the hotel. No wonder some of the local houses looked so secure I thought as I gazed out of the taxi window. It turned out that some of them had four inch steel walls as apparently, after the second world war, some army or other had left behind all their tank tracks and steel mesh temporary road equipment, much to the delight of the local homeless.

My second incident happened in the centre of town. It was getting towards the end of the day very few people were around. I walked past a group of dangerous looking Gambians when one stood up and stared. I kept walking and he called after me. I walked a bit faster and he started following me. “Hey man” he shouted again and started to run. “Oh God” I thought and broke into a trot “Hey you white man” he called again and by this time we were both running fast.

He is going to catch me I thought so I decided to make my stand. I whirled round fists ready and teeth clenched. “Ok you bastard, you want some” I snarled as he came to a halt in front of me. “Excuse me sir” he answered “but I think you dropped your sun glasses and I am bringing them back to you”. In his giant hand were my sunglasses. I nearly died of shame there and then. To make it worse I offered him money in thanks which embarrassed him and shamed me further.

I left Gambia a much chastened person who had learned that not every citizen in a foreign country is a con artist or thief. I pondered this at the bar of the international arrivals and departures shed bar whilst waiting for my plane when a rat the size of a small Daschund ran across the counter and stole the meat from my ham sandwich (true) and fled. The locals are fine I surmised but the wildlife are definitely a bunch of villains!

A Secure Life Abroad - Part 4

In the rough almost lawless days of Zambia in the early seventies the two strongest virtues people needed were stoicism and a sense of humour in equal measures. I mean if you took the situation too seriously or you could not take the danger you would have left on the first plane without a backwards look.

As I mentioned in a previous blog the country was riddled with guns but starved of food and hope. A crazy situation considering the weather and fertility of the ground should have made it heaven for farmers. But that is another story. You literally took a risk every time you left your house and you never stopped your car anywhere near a ditch or other potential hiding places. You always ‘jumped’ any traffic lights if you possibly could get away with it.

It did not help that you could never be absolutely sure who was reliable and who was not. The police or army for instance often doubled up as the bad guys and you had to make a judgement every time you came to a road block. I always carried cartons of cigarettes, company T shirts and pens and a hidden stash of money just in case I needed to ease my passing.

The deserted country highways were the most dangerous. A friend was driving his new Rang Rover to a place called Chingola where his company had a factory when he got stopped at a road block by people in army uniform. It turned out they were thieves. They took his car and then all his clothes. They did not want to humiliate him, they just needed his clothes. Considering the top star prize on Zambian TV shows was a pair of jeans it was hardly surprising. He (and probably his car) was stripped naked in a matter of minutes.

The man eventually got home and, the following day he went to Kitwe police station. He was giving his report when one of the thieves walked past. He was out of his army gear. But he was wearing a police uniform.

Two weeks later I was on the Chingola road. It seemed deserted apart from the occasional burnt out truck where various drivers had fallen asleep at the wheel which was a regular occurrence. It was teeming with rain and as I came around one of the few corners I saw a road block in front of me. It consisted of collapsed sign a large tree branch and a bedraggled khaki tent. There was no way I was stopping. I drove around it and was accelerating away when the bullet hit. It went through the rear window and out the windscreen in front of the passenger seat. To this day I do not know if it was army or thief. Or both as I did not stop to ask.

As I said at the beginning sometimes you had to laugh. Another friend had an attempted break in but miraculously they had not cut the phone wire. He lay on the bedroom floor and phoned the police. They did not answer for ages but eventually a sleepy voice answered. ‘Help’ my friend pleaded ‘I am being robbed’. ‘Oh’, came the reply. ‘We have no transport, can you come and pick us up’. ‘No I bloody can’t’ my friend replied. ‘Oh, well tell them to go away’ came the advice. ‘GO AWAY’ my friend shouted at the armed robbers. And they did!

The police can also act in the most extraordinary way as I personally found out. We had neighbour problems. The house next door was owned by a Zambian with a very powerful stereo and an interesting choice of music. She had only one record which was ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton and she played it over and over again at top volume. It was shattering and eventually I thought ‘sod it I am ringing the police’ rather like you might do in say the UK.

I rang the police station and to my surprise they took it very seriously indeed. Are your neighbours black they asked me pointedly? Fears of being branded a racialist struck me but I answered ‘yes’. ‘Typical’ the policeman snorted,’ just because they have money they think they can behave badly but we will show them, can you collect us we have no transport’. ‘I do not want any trouble over this but could you please just reason with them’ I answered lamely.

I went around to the local station and they were waiting for me. There were two. They looked like Mike Tyson’s bigger brothers and they were armed to the teeth.’ Is this necessary’ I asked as they levered themselves and their rifles into the back of my small Fiat saloon. I drove them home. Every time we went over a bump their rifle barrels made holes in the roof lining. On arrival Jolene was still wailing and being told not to take her love to town.

Have you ever seen ‘Apocalypse Now”? You know the bit where troops zigzag through cover to advance on an enemy position? Well that is what these two policemen did. They advanced across the front garden bush by bush giving each other cover. They ended up pinned either side of the front door, weapons locked and loaded. The door opened and the poor women came face to face with two AK 47s held by two Mike Tysons. She nearly had a heart attack and we never heard Jolene ever again.

So there you go. You could never know what you were going to get but I can say with certainly that although life was sometimes scary it was never boring.

Combined Airline Deals – Good or Bad?

I was surprised to read that one of the new British Airways/Iberia/American Airlines triumvirate had stated that the market can expect combined corporate deals within the coming few months. Astonishing really considering alliances have been finding reasons ranging from anti trust to market difference to avoid doing such a thing in the past. However, if they now go ahead it has the potential to impact the market as significantly as direct connect.

Let us assume such deals are going to come on the market. What will they look like? What benefits or otherwise will they deliver? What value (if any) will they bring? And was it worth globalising ones travel programme for? Here are some of my thoughts which I must emphasise are my own and not shaped by what anyone else has said on the subject.

There will be a clear set of obstacles for the airlines, not the least of which will be coming to some mutual consensus. None of them will want to dilute existing yield particularly in their own market and they all have their own regulatory rules to abide by. For example BA and Iberia cannot fall foul of European competition law and AA has to live with its own US legislation. There is also an imbalance in that Iberia is based in a much smaller and less corporately mature market than the other two with less to contribute in key business areas.

The biggest obstacle is that of desire/willingness to combine commercial strategies particularly between AA and BA who are still deadly rivals for the same customers. Admittedly they will be very interested in being favoured with onward traveller connections but the core routes (and yields therein) are equally vital to both. However they will be interested in marrying their main services and ancillary connections together to best economic effect hence you can understand why Virgin and others tried to stop this happening.

If they are really serious about coming up with joint corporate deals (which I still doubt) what will they look like? I think they will follow the models used by some alliances with TMCs. I explained a bit about this in my blog in June last year under the heading ‘Global Travel Programmes – Delivering? Here it is again:

a) Initial deals will not be very different to now except there will be a bonus if you have arrangements with the others too.
b) An overall separate umbrella deal will be introduced over and above individual ones. This will be linked to growth.
c) The above will then start being modified so that you only earn if you achieve certain targets on all participating airlines.
d) The overall deal will be tightened to the extent that you have to put all participating carriers in your programme whether you wish to or not.

Eventually you may get one complete deal but it will be riddled with conditions and caveats as they all really do operate differently in different markets and different cultures and customers. You will not say get the same deal with BA as you get with AA and then both of those will be different to Iberia. And you wouldn’t want to either.
Call me an old cynic but I have said it before and will no doubt say it again. These airlines are not coming together to offer better financial packages to customers. Why should they? They are combining to win more customers and greater economies through linking services, connections and cost. The customer should get a better overall package but not necessarily a cheaper price. This is really just a much improved version of code sharing or alliances and you will soon see service harmonisation and rationalising happen.

In saying all this I believe it to be just the start of a journey towards meaningful global deals. Airlines saw commission reductions, net pricing and unbundling as ways to improve profit and look where that got them. If market pressures grow they will have to broaden their commercial offering in the future.

A Secure Life Abroad – Part 3

These people must be daft I snorted as I read about some unfortunate but ‘stupid’ traveller who had naively put themselves in a dangerous part of a foreign land and allowed themselves to be mugged. How idiotic of them. Don’t they realise that these places are not the same as home? Can’t they see the poverty around them which can breed crime? Then I thought back over my travels and realised the risks I and many others place themselves in every time they leave their homes or hotels.

Either crime is not as frequent as we believe or I have a brilliant guardian angel walking the streets with me. Mind you this guardian angel sometimes had a day or evening off and occasionally I did end up in a bit of trouble as I will now tell. Strangely, one of these experiences ended up in a kind of friendship that lasted a couple of years.

My office in Zambia was located in a parade of shops. Cars were parked in a square behind that was accessed through any of three narrow alleys. Logic said one should never walk down these alone after dark but it was late and I needed to go home. I was very self aware when I started walking. Every sense was working overtime as I listened and watched carefully as I started my walk. Half way down I knew I was being followed and sure enough he chose his moment and jumped me from behind.

After the initial shock I realised this guy was small, old and very weak. He also had cataracts in both eyes and three remaining teeth. I knew this as in a very short time I was sitting on his chest looking down on him. He was also clearly defiant as he would not stop wriggling under my 13 stone bulk. I was planning on punching him very hard but I could not bring myself to do it especially, when seeing my raised fist, he stopped struggling and said “Good evening Sah” whilst grinning toothlessly.

I got off him and lifted him up. His name was George and he was a remarkably old looking 50 years old. He said he had a family to feed and could not get work so he had decided to branch out into mugging. It was his first night in his new profession and I was his first ‘victim’. Now you get a lot of sob stories in Zambia but most of them are true. Life is tough when you are poor and even worse if you are poor, old and having to look after an extended family. This guy qualified on all points.

You are going to have to quit this new enterprise before you get hurt I told George. I am already hurt Bwana he replied whilst trying to get his breath back from his winded chest. I left him there and went to my car and sat in it for a while as I could not get him out of my mind. Eventually I got out and went back. Sure enough half way back up the alley he only tried again. It’s me George I said as he clung to my neck. “Good evening Sah” he replied.

He ended up working for me. We needed a messenger and he needed work. We did not pay him much and he did steal the occasional shopping item and cigarette from me but never money. His big moment was when he tried to smuggle a large dead chicken out of the office down the back of his trousers. He used to get drunk, drugged and sleepy occasionally but in the main he was a good messenger. In fact a darn sight better messenger than mugger!

Travel Evolution is not just about Technology – Right?

I always thought technology drives most change and the travel industry is no different to any other business in this respect. I assumed that the reason for travel evolution being so painful was that new technology had been so scarce for so long that now it has arrived people are overdosing on it. However unlike the pharmaceutical business nobody has tested products, understood the correct dosage or learned how to deal with adverse reactions.

Already you can look back over the recent past and see all sorts of corporate travel wonder solutions that have not actually delivered in accordance with their hype. Many were unsuitable, unrealistic or simply did not work but they all looked damn good on paper. Apart from any basic flaw there seems to be something in the way of success and I think I know what it may be.

The plain truth of it is that whatever new initiatives come along they will only be embraced if the various key players in the supply chain want to make it happen. Like the old saying that you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink the same goes for managed travel programmes and compliance. You still cannot get somebody to change their mindset unless you force them or justify your actions and I see precious little of either going on.

You see there are many people, either through tradition or personal experience, who still view travel as a service experience rather than a commodity. And whilst there are different suppliers of varying quality, frequent flyer programmes and individual timescales and demands there will always be service choices needed. When you think of it most corporations are insisting their employees undertake personal risks and comfort challenges with very little research into safety and standards. How do you know the airlines you have chosen are safe and comfortable? Cheap yes…but. A question that could soon be asked by lawyers in regard to ‘duty of care’.

It is not just the traveller who still has a perception that service is important. You can often see this ‘malaise’ in some suppliers and a large number of TMCs. I suspect they are getting so frustrated that service is not being given a value by typical procurement that they will continue to reduce it to a minimum like the low cost carriers. Why bother creating a value and service differentiator if nobody is interested in paying for it.

For so long the travel industry has been built around giving good service and being rewarded for doing so. Travellers too want to know they will be safe, comfortable and that somebody will be there for them if something goes wrong. Those buyers who focus mainly on unbundling, constant cost reduction and commoditisation need to take note.

My answer to my own question is yes, technology is key to the future but only as an enabler not as a solution. Pick your target end solution that matches your company ethos and then look for the enabling technology. I have seen so many people commit to unproven technology to try and solve an issue they did not really have. What is more important is service and solutions and if you embrace the need for the former to deliver the latter then all you need to do is choose the technology to enable it to happen.

My life in Hotels – Part 4

Thankfully most of my nights in hotels have been paid for by the various companies I have worked for. A good job too as in many cases I would have been pretty outraged to pay for them myself. One of the numerous Holiday Inns around and in Toronto would be a case in point. I had a night from hell within its walls.

It had all started in the British Airways First Class lounge at the airport where I was sitting, sipping good wine and enjoying their pre-boarding dinner service. All of a sudden the flight was cancelled and the decision was made to overnight passengers in local hotels. The lounge staffs were courtesy itself. That is until they saw my ticket and discovered not only was I an upgrade but also a travel agent. It went from “I am so very sorry sir, your limousine is waiting to take you to your suite” to “Get in that other queue behind the economy passengers and wait for a bus”. A bitter blow.

We arrived late and tired at a hotel that looked even more tired than we were and then given a lecture on what we were not allowed to sign for. We were given keys to our rooms and I went up in the lift with this little skinny chap who looked like he needed a good bath. I found my room which was right next door to his. It was a featureless box of a place that seemed to harbour traces of every previous guest in the cracks in the floor and bathroom tiles. It even had a solitary pubic hair in the sink. How did that get there I thought to myself.

We did not have our suitcases so I slunk between the grey sheets wearing underwear and a bath towel and drifted into an uneasy sleep. Then the itching started. I was being eaten alive by something and they had clearly brought their relatives with them. I must have looked very strange gyrating in my towel as I tried to scratch myself. Then it all started up next door.

The walls were very thin and I had underestimated my skinny grubby neighbour. It sounded like an orgy going on in there and I heard at least two separate women’s voices. He was clearly a sexual athlete and boy did he shout about it. The more he shouted the louder his companions squealed and groaned. This was long ago and way before Viagra but this guy just went on and on for most of the night. There is nothing worse than lying alone in the dark, being bitten by bugs and hearing somebody so close having a great time.

Finally he stopped and somewhere I heard a door slam shut. I fell into a deep sleep until I got a crazy un-ordered alarm call 10 minutes later that the airline had pre-booked so we could go and wait for hours at Pearson Airport. I dragged myself down to the foyer and queued to pay any extras at the check out counter. In front of me was my skinny grubby friend who had a relaxed but smug look on his face. Sleep well he asked while rubbing his stubble. “No” I replied “Did you” I asked? “Oh yes” he said.
“Liar” I thought.

Finally his turn to pay came and that was the moment everything became a lot clearer. He looked at his bill and started an argument. I am not paying for that, you should charge the airline he snarled. “Listen guy” the cashier replied “The airline don’t pay for the porno channels and you watched all of them twice”

So that was it. I had been devoured by bed bugs and spent half the night being kept awake by the TV next door showing porno films played at top volume. When I got to the airport I met a most concerned passenger service agent who told me it had all been a silly mistake by the lounge staff. Apparently, as I had been checked into first class I was entitled to that service in the event of delays. On realising their error they had booked me a room in a nearby 5 star hotel but, as I had already gone to bed they decided not to call me in case I was already asleep.

“Mr Platt, are you OK” they asked as I went pale, except for the red bite marks. Of course, just great, fantastic I muttered in reply.

My 'Greatest Hits'

It has been a year since I started my blogs and I just had a look at my stats to see which ones of my 80+ posts recieved the biggest 'hits'. It was pretty close but I found the top ones from both my business and humour blogs and am pleased to reproduce them now for those that missed them. They are about TMC/Supplier relationships and a catastrophe I endured in an Australian toilet!
Here they are:

Can TMCs Really Influence Business?
Part 2 -Deals

OK, so we got to the point where we ascertained that TMC/agents still get incentives from suppliers, albeit presented in a different shape. I also mentioned that, in my opinion, this need not necessarily be a bad thing for corporate customers if managed right. What I did not go into in any detail was a) what these deals are b) how TMCs do (or do not) shift business and c) how such deals could benefit all. So let me address at least one of these points now and deal with the others another time.

What kind of deals?

There are three main types which are growth percentage rewards, net fares that can be marked up and increase share payments.

Payments for growth are usually a percentage of net ticket value sometimes paid back to zero and sometimes just for the growth element compared with previous year. Percentages paid vary enormously depending on supplier size, their importance/share of the local market and their strategic need to buy a way into the region. I have heard of deals ranging around 2% from a big volume airline to 50% from someone trying to make inroads into a market. Such deals are pretty unfashionable now in most primary markets but do still happen in numerous places around the globe especially from suppliers who have no effective systems to measure performance.

As time past some of the more major airlines started to get concerned that TMCs might simply start doing growth deals with all their competitors as, in a growing market, the prospects of growing volume with everyone was high. Also volume could vary greatly simply by the losing or winning of a major volume corporate account. This ultimately got addressed by airlines ‘red ringing’ the biggest clients which meant their volumes were taken out for volume and payment purposes.

There have always been a few net fare deals about. This is where an airline offers a fixed net price to specific agents who can mark it up by as much as they think they can get away with. These net fares were targeted towards specialist agencies who were involved in markets such as ethnic or tourist travel. In the main the plan was to gain this business but not dilute their yields by exposing such discounts to the corporate market. Nevertheless there has been growing overlap which usually manifests itself by corporate travellers that gets hold of the fare and demands to know why his TMC cannot match it. This has been going on for many years but in recent times some USA airlines have dallied in this area too by offering net business prices to TMCs instead of overrides.

In an attempt to make future deals work airlines started introducing rewards based on share increase. This is infinitely more difficult to measure and depended on the airline itself to produce the results with no way for the TMCs to verify them. Some of these deals became so very complex that it was almost impossible for anyone to predict what would be paid. .Another issue was that, for some dominant airlines such deals were considered by the authorities as anti-competitive and thereby illegal. However these deals are still widespread today.

Most modern deals are far more sophisticated and linked to ‘service level agreements’ (SLAs) although this term is a misnomer in my view. What they effectively do is reward TMCs for performing (or allowing) certain activities. These activities vary from allowing access to their staff, account managers and senior management to shifting share, providing key MI on their clients, promoting the airline’s campaigns and supporting a particular strategy. All such activities are measured and rewarded accordingly. These ‘incentives’ seem to work reasonably well for both parties as the airline usually sees more volume and the TMC gets it’s money in a way that negates them having to pay it straight on to the corporation as extra client income/overrides.

Originally TMCs used to negotiate SMAs with individual airlines but even that has moved on. Now the suppliers are trying to do deals by Alliances rather than individual members. These usually manifest themselves as umbrella incentives paid only if the TMC performs with a certain minimum number of their partners. This way the dominant airline in any alliance group can demand TMC preferred status for their smaller partners that would not otherwise register on their radar screen. Such deals are highly unpopular with most eligible TMCs for obvious reasons and particularly because many airline partners are either unable to provide accurate data or simply not a product they want in their portfolio especially if they clash with another preferred supplier.

Consolidation by alliances is one thing but the ability/desire to agree a global incentive agreement is even harder and suppliers have, in the main, been reticent to do this either with TMCs or corporations. Don’t get me wrong, there are some prototype deals out there but I am highly sceptical of their current value to anyone. After all the airlines still work on a system where they cannot tell their overseas offices what to do as they are cost centres in their own right and have the authority to say no.

Finally I expect to see a new type of deal arriving and it is not a million miles away from the net concept. Well actually it is here now but only in it’s formative state. The arrival of TMC specific fares is here and expanding. In the past, probably as a result of past legacies, airlines have stuck to treating all TMCs the same as each other as far as fares are concerned. This is changing with the arrival of new generation TMC technology platforms that can be very specific about who sees what fare where and when.. This will enable them to drive business to (and from) airlines at the press off a button. Airlines will be able to flex the fares they offer depending on need and thereby have a tighter grip on their yields in a similar way to what they do on their own dot com sites…if the TMC is incentivised enough to support them. As I say, it is early days but worth watching.

This subject is vast and worthy of a day seminar rather than a brief blog entry however I hope it gives some a basic grasp of what is going on in this somewhat secretive area. More on how such deals are supported and how I think all could benefit next time.

My Life in Toilets – Part 1
Yes I know…a strange title but stay with me.
In the process of writing these blog ‘memoires I started to realise how often the word ‘toilet’ was coming up. This sounds odd to me too but I began to realise that toilets had played an important (albeit traumatic) part in my career over the years.

Some of you who may have read my rambling will remember how I fought an Australian in a Sydney W.C. and a large female attendant in a toilet next to the Paris perimeter motorway but these are just small skirmishes in my war with public conveniences of the world. I have fought with and in toilets across all continents and I feel I owe it to posterity to clear my conscience now as I lurch towards my twilight years. After all, how many people can say they have lost business, ruined relationships and been arrested whilst simply trying to relieve myself.

My most disastrous first memory was when I got arrested for indecent exposure in Perth, Western Australia. It was an awful misunderstanding. I had flown to the other side of the world to visit my then girlfriend who had been ‘forced’ to emigrate with her parents a few weeks previously. I travelled on airline staff tickets and it took me two sleepless days to make the journey. I found her address which was in the suburbs of the city and presented myself on her doorstep unannounced. Her new boyfriend answered the door!

What has this terrible tale of a jetlagged and broken heart got to do with toilets? That came later when she, her new boyfriend and her parents felt obliged to take me along to a dinner dance they were about to leave for. I was clearly as welcome as hem aroids .We sat at a big table with huge flagons of cold Swan Lager in the middle and I sat and watched the lovely Sue dancing with her new love so closely that you could not squeeze a cigarette paper between them.

There was nothing for it so I turned to drink. After consuming one flagon by myself I felt the most excruciating need to relieve myself so I stood up and made my way unsteadily across to the corner of the room where the toilets were. It was all a blur to me but apparently I first went into the ladies and got ejected. I went through another door which said ‘MEN’ and there was a further plain door on the left going into the toilet itself and another on the right that provided access to another entertainment room.

By this stage I really feared I was not going to make it in time so I started unzipping and preparing as I walked. I was out and ready as I turned right and fell into the other function room where they were celebrating a golden wedding. There was uproar. One of the people there was an off duty police officer and he immediately pinned me to the wall, read me my rights and arrested me for indecent exposure.

He phoned for back-up and a car and marched me out onto the pub forecourt whilst I continued trying to pull up my zip. The zip got caught (some of my male readers may understand the pain) which made things even worse. To cap it all they would not let me go back in so I had to pee against the wall which added another charge to my sheet.

My lovely ex and her family knew nothing of this until they got a call from the police station and an order to come and collect me. By this time I had been able to explain my jet lag, tiredness and misery and they took pity on me after having a good laugh at my expense. Needless to say I was disowned by my reluctant hosts who drove me to Perth Airport where I spent the night in the departures hall.

Whenever I go back to Australia I always wonder if one day I will stand at the immigration desk and this arrest with reason will flash up on the screen. So far so good but there is more to come in ‘Toilets 2’ the sequel!