As the consortium’s chief executive celebrates 25 years with the business, she looks forward to helping members recover from the pandemic. She spoke to Lucy Huxley
Julia Lo Bue-Said became one of the most high-profile advocates for travel agents during 2020, as Covid-19 ravaged the sector.
In frequent television interviews, the chief executive of The Advantage Travel Partnership explained to viewers how devastating the pandemic was for agencies. She also lobbied politicians in Whitehall.
Meanwhile, she was supporting the 700 members of Advantage to survive the turmoil – financially and emotionally – striving to help them to reach 2021 and a hoped-for upturn in travel.
It’s all been a far cry from her first job, working for WHSmith Travel in a shopping centre. That agency was acquired by AT Mays, which itself was subsequently taken over by Thomas Cook, which led her into tour operating for the first time.
Lo Bue-Said worked for Best Travel Group, the largest tour operator to Greece and Cyprus, with its Grecian & Cypriana Holidays brand. There she met industry veterans Hugh Morgan and Tom Knopek, and later joined the latter at Balkan Holidays.
At Balkan, she met the late Ron Muir, managing director of the National Association of Independent Travel Agents (Naita), which evolved into Advantage. He recruited her as commercial director to develop agreements with leisure operators and support members.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she recalls. “My lifeblood, my whole career, in Advantage until the last five or six years was always in that commercial area. That’s where my passion for the business came.”
A decade of expansion
Over the past decade, Lo Bue-Said has developed the consortium’s business travel arm, expanding its global footprint to 75 countries.
Advantage has also grown from about 200 to more than 700 members, with a pre-pandemic turnover of about £4.5 billion.
“The last 10 years of business travel has been a phenomenal time,” she says. “We’ve grown it into the UK’s largest consortium of independent business travel management companies.”
But Lo Bue-Said admits that stepping up to managing director, in 2013, and then to chief executive, in 2018, presented challenges. “I’m not sure I was really prepared at first. It’s been a huge learning curve,” she says.
“The great thing is the team at Advantage. A lot of the team have had a long tenure with the organisation.”
Despite celebrating a quarter of a century at Advantage, she is a passionate proponent of change.
“I’m the first one to want to change; otherwise, you lose your sparkle, your innovation and that entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.
“I feel our organisation, certainly over the last five or six years, has stepped into a world that is very different and challenging for our members. We’ve stepped up in terms of making sure that we can provide our members with all the tools and products they need to be as competitive as they can in a really tough marketplace.”
One key change was the name, from Advantage Travel Centres to The Advantage Travel Partnership.
“It’s about partners together: whether you’re a member or a business partner,” she says.
Lo Bue-Said also appointed the first non-executive director, former Waitrose boss Steven Esom, in 2013, who brought a wealth of retail and business experience.
Even the short-lived alliance with Worldchoice and Global Travel Group under the Triton super-consortium brand helped Advantage to make progress.
“At the time, it was absolutely the right thing to do. Independent agents were being marginalised,” she recalls.
“It gave us that springboard to take the organisation to the next level.”
Another stride forward came in 2014 with the launch of Vision 2020, with pledges to reach transparent performance targets.
And, apart from Covid-hit 2020, Lo Bue-Said has seen Advantage increase profits every year, while also paying member dividends and expanding its services.
Other highlights have included celebrity speakers at the consortium’s annual conferences, most notably Nando Parado in 2008. He spoke movingly about how he survived a plane crash in the Andes, which was later dramatised in the film Alive.
“It was a moment of self-reflection. We were all there together and all experienced that,” she recalls.
“It was an opportunity to reflect as individuals, as business leaders, on how we could do things better.”
Other memorable speakers have included cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, who dined with delegates who’d won a competition, and Joanna Lumley.
In 2016, Advantage launched its annual Big Celebration Lunch to celebrate the successes of its members and business partners.
This was followed by high-profile accolades. The London Stock Exchange named Advantage as one its 1,000 Companies to Inspire Britain in 2016 and 2017, while The Sunday Times honoured the consortium as ‘One to Watch’ in its Best Companies listing in 2018.
“We are very proud. We do the best we can but when you get some recognition publicly, and by those sorts of institutions, it means a huge amount,” says Lo Bue-Said.
But nothing could have prepared Lo Bue-Said and the team for the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s been really tough,” she says. “It started with disbelief, then realising this is not going to end quickly. You had to make very quick decisions.
“I can’t pretend that I haven’t shed a tear. I’ve been on staff calls where I’ve lost it…because [the situation] is just too overwhelming.
“But we’ve all learnt so much; it has changed how we are as a business.”
Looking back over her 25 years with Advantage and in particular the past year, she pays tribute to her colleagues and her family.
At weekends, when restrictions allow, she can be seen on the touchline, cheering on her sons, aged 20 and 15. “I’m really proud of them. At the end of the day, I’m still mum,” she adds.
Looking forward to 2021, she pledges to “stay completely focused” on the core business of supporting members and helping them to generate revenue.
The consortium has fewer members of staff now and 10 members were lost over the course of 2020.
“A lot of our agents have just hibernated their businesses: locked down as much as they can and used the government schemes to furlough staff and the grants,” she says.
This year, the consortium will focus on recovery and revenue generation for members, but do less of the “fluff”, such as marketing.
Lo Bue-Said also pledges to continue fighting for agents in the corridors of power and is angry with the lack of support from government.
“I don’t think we’ve been listened to. When things calm down, we’ve really got to rethink how we promote ourselves as an industry,” she says.
“As an industry, we’ve done phenomenally well and collaborated, but it’s not enough.”
Lo Bue-Said will continue highlighting the value of a travel agent who can help customers navigate the complexities of Covid travel restrictions and post-Brexit rules.
And she is confident for the future of agents and the consortium, which already has an overseas division with Advantage Asia, run by Pricol Travel based in India.
“I see the brand growing to the point where it will be more recognised,” she says. “It will have to stand for independence, value, expertise and choice.”
She concludes: “We’ve already grown the organisation to make sure that we can represent travel agents in every different model.
“I want Advantage to be the only game in town.”