Interview: Internova Travel Group president on post-pandemic recovery plans

Gabe Rizzi tells Lucy Huxley about structure, support and leadership at Barrhead Travel’s US parent company

Before travel, Gabe Rizzi worked in six industries, ranging from manufacturing to software, but he says travel is by far the sector with the best relationships, engagement and retention.

The fast-talking New Jerseyan took on the role of president of Barrhead Travel parent Internova Travel Group in March 2021 to support chief executive JD O’Hara. He was previously president and chief sales officer of Travel Leaders Corporate.

Rizzi and O’Hara now split the workload, with O’Hara focusing on vision and strategy and Rizzi on operations.

“We come at things very differently and that’s a good thing,” he tells Travel Weekly during a recent visit to London, going on to explain how he is blown away by the loyalty in travel he has experienced during Covid.

“The industry contracted overnight,” he recalls. “We’d had a record-breaking January and February in 2020, then demand dropped 90%. We had to lose staff, shrink benefits, cut locations. People took pay cuts, were furloughed, were interacting constantly with clients, but not generating any revenue. They could have left, but they chose to stay because it’s the most exciting, friendly, hospitable sector in the world.”

Loyalty and trust

Rizzi also believes travel is the sector most resilient to the crisis, and Internova particularly so due to the breadth of its operations.

“People were forced to stop travelling,” he says. “But consumers all want to experience what we purvey. So it was never a case of if it comes back but when.

“And the one great thing that happened during the pause is that Covid accelerated the perception of the need for a trusted advisor.

“Nobody has the distribution reach [Internova] does. Most other businesses are just a consortia, or just in corporate travel, or just in leisure, just in meetings or just in luxury. We do it all, so as the market recovers we are well placed.”

Internova has more than 60,000 travel advisors globally, something that shocked Rizzi before he joined the company.

“I actually said ‘do people still use a travel advisor?’, he reveals.

“But then I used one for my own holiday and it saved me so much time and was completely stress-free, and I understood. What our advisors do overwhelms me.”

Rizzi says the group is seeing more new customers turn to agents post-pandemic, with the fastest-growing segments being younger adults in their 20s and 30s.

“They have realised there’s a cost to not have any aggravation, so they are prepared to pay an agent to take care of everything,” he explains.

“We can’t control the variant, or the media, but we can control our staff – and they can give clients the confidence to know they can travel safely. The business has changed from transactions to interactions.”

Group structure

Internova Travel Group is now split into four divisions.

The first is the Global Travel Collection, which Rizzi describes as “iconic brands that service the luxury leisure space”. In the UK, this includes Colletts Travel, Tzell UK and Protravel UK, all led by managing director Jason Oshiokpekhai.

The second division is Travel Leaders Group, which comprises Barrhead Travel, Travel Leaders Network and Nexion Travel Group.

The third is Altour, which focuses on entertainment and business travel.

Finally, there is Bonotel, which is an inbound operator and bed bank.

Internova is backed by private equity firm Certares, which is also an investor in the likes of G Adventures, AmaWaterways, Latam Airlines, Hertz and many more travel, tourism and hospitality businesses.

“Certares is solely focused on travel assets and has been incredibly supportive,” says Rizzi. “Who knows how we would have fared through this without our lenders?”

Corporate v leisure

Rizzi claims corporate and leisure travel are “recovering in parallel”.

“We heard all this doom and gloom about corporate travel,” he says, noting: “Bill Gates said 50% of corporate travel would never return. Well, I’m glad Gates is not head of our strategy.”

Rizzi says corporate travel is now “more boutique and more essential”, but adds: “People are meeting again, taking more time over it and relishing the opportunity. Meetings are more intense and have an impact. People are more prepared for their meetings and have greater expectations. They need to make them count.”

In leisure travel, he says “privacy has become synonymous with luxury”, with clients “looking for safety, security and privacy” and a “high-touch” service from agents.

Referring specifically to Barrhead, and its Trustpilot rating of 4.8, he adds: “Nobody competes with us, whether it’s Tui or Hays. Nobody.”

Rizzi says customers are demanding “less friction” as travel resumes, and reports demand for private villas, the Caribbean and Mexico. Quoting Royal Caribbean International sales chief Vicki Freed, he says “people no longer have bucket lists – they have to-do lists”, which offers luxury agents a bright future.

Supporting staff

Rizzi is passionate about driving more diversity in Internova. He says diversity, equality and inclusion have been “accelerated big time” during Covid, and have “gone from a soundbite to a fundamental strategy”. But he stresses “it comes down to execution”.

Rizzi attends all Women of Internova sessions, monthly gatherings of more than 100 women in the group. Noting how 60% of the company’s leadership team are women, he says: “I go as I need to know how to support our leaders.” They include Barrhead sales and marketing director Nicki Tempest-Mitchell, who is about to join the Women of Internova committee.

He is also about to “light up” a mentoring programme. “We do it already, but not formally,” he says.

“Everyone needs an advocate pulling them up. But it needs to be about the mentee not the mentor. Mentees don’t just want to hear how someone else did it, they want to know how to get there themselves.”

In addition, Rizzi is in charge of the group’s culture and says flexible working arrangements are key.

“Having flexibility leads to autonomy, self-direction, promotion and retention,” he explains.

Strong leadership

Internova is trying to recruit more travel advisors again. “There’s a lot of great talent out there and we’ve already made some terrific hires,” says Rizzi. “These folks have reached out to us as people want to align themselves to a winner. Success begets success.”

He believes strong leadership has been key to Internova’s survival through Covid and journey back to growth. To illustrate this, he describes Barrhead chief executive Jacqueline Dobson’s leadership as “unbelievable”, citing her initiative to take on three NHS Scotland contracts “to keep folks employed”.

Those contracts are now coming to an end and all travel staff will be “onboarded back into the main business” over the next three to six months following extensive training.

“Folks did get rusty, plus there are all these new Covid protocols to learn,” says Rizzi. “So there’s a big training process to go through.

“It’s been tough but Jac has kept the team together. It’s easy to operate in black and white. I value leaders who can operate in grey. The measure of good leaders is how they perform when things go wrong. You sometimes have to take poison to heal yourself. But we want to get back to how we were, so we need more people back.”

As travel recovers, Rizzi acknowledges everyone in the industry is experiencing “growing pains”, ranging from recruitment to staff testing positive for Covid.

“My biggest fear now is how quickly we recover,” he says. “We are going from famine to feast. It’s a good thing but we don’t want to go too fast.”

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