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Interview: Dnata Travel has ‘shifted focus from size to profitability’

Incoming UK and Europe chief executive Ailsa Pollard talks to Lucy Huxley ahead of speaking at Abta’s Travel Convention

Ailsa Pollard says she will approach her new challenge as chief executive of dnata Travel UK with “humility and ambition” and is keen to do this in line with the group’s overall guiding principle.

“Our North Star across the business globally is to reconnect a better world. That’s very important,” she says.

Pollard replaces John Bevan – who has moved to Dubai to oversee all aspects of dnata’s global travel business, as divisional senior vice-president for travel – and says her priority will be to look at “where we should focus so that we come out of the pandemic stronger”.

She said: “We have shifted our focus from size and volume to profitability. We need to be more selective about where we play, where we win and how we can help our customers and agents.”

Pollard has been part of dnata’s senior leadership team for 12 years, including working on investments, mergers and acquisitions, overseeing the rollout of Emirates Holidays to 36 markets, and most recently as senior vice-president of transformation and consumer businesses. Now she is in charge of Gold Medal (including Pure Luxury and Cruise Plus), Travelbag, Travel Republic, Netflights and Sunmaster – and has big plans.

“Just before Covid we were looking at the global portfolio of dnata Travel,” she says. “It had grown all these arms and legs in different directions. We were fat in certain areas and were looking to reprioritise things. That plan was in place already but, because of the pandemic, we had to go a lot deeper. Some of these were very tough decisions.”

Restructuring

The group exited some businesses in Germany and India, while in the UK it sold Global Travel Group to The Travel Network Group and merged Gold Medal and Travel 2.

Speaking about the merger, she explains: “We went into that process looking at the pros and cons. Covid probably accelerated some of that thinking, which made the cons of doing things less concerning. We knew we had to consolidate our real estate portfolio, and probably underestimated the passion for both brands, but Covid made us make the brave move, believe in our products, services and teams, and emerge even stronger.”

Agents have an opportunity right now and it shouldn’t be wasted

Key staff in Glasgow were retained as homeworkers and the team focused on refunds and dialogue with agents, “making sure we were servicing them and working with them on this journey of change”.

Pollard adds: “There will be bits we haven’t got right. We are significantly reduced in numbers but were careful not to do blanket reductions across teams, and we’ve had to focus on cost reduction. But we have focused our spend on retaining talent and have been consistent in IT investment over the past 18 months.”

The focus now is on how to help agents service their customers better, she says. A new website will shortly go live. More than 1,200 agents have been trained on it so far with “significant levels of adoption”.

“Agents have an opportunity right now and it shouldn’t be wasted,” she says, stressing the importance of developing “lifetime customers”.

“It’s all about the retention of customers and removing friction points – making sure customers know that we’ve got their backs,” she adds.

“For the next few years, there’s going to be complexity – that’s the opportunity for agents, to hand‑hold customers through this. People can travel, but it’s not easy. Agents’ expertise will be really valued.

Opportunities

“Gold Medal is the market-leading trade-only tour operator. What more product can we help service our agents with? We’re looking at more short-haul.”

Pollard is targeting growth in areas such as touring in Italy and its DMC Destination Asia, which operates in seven countries. She notes the Indian Ocean and Dubai have “really strengthened” and dnata is “keeping our stronghold there, as we are in Orlando”.

Pollard has instigated a “cohort analysis” of the whole UK business. This, she says, will “look at how every customer comes in and will assign them to a different cohort”.

“In the B2C space, we’ve been hooked on the drug of paid acquisition. But if you acquire a customer through meta [data], how long are they with you?” she questions.

“In our [Travelbag] stores, there is much more affinity with the brand. We underestimate the halo effect of that high street presence. We are not ruling out more shops. We will be opportunistic.

“We see an opportunity, particularly coming out of Covid, that people need higher-touch service and wanting these experiences more – and this doesn’t just apply to our Travelbag agents, but all agents.”

She says dnata Travel UK has more virtual agents following the pandemic. “What’s important to a customer is that they can get hold of you,” she said.

“We’ve got to be where customers want us…in a shop, on the phone, on WhatsApp, rather than forcing how our customers speak to us.”

But she will ensure a “healthy differentiation” between the group’s brands is maintained, adding that the higher the cost of a holiday, the higher touch there is likely to be.

Cost-cutting

Pollard says a lot of cost has been cut out of online travel agency Travel Republic – including by servicing some calls in Belgrade, Serbia. She says the product mix is changing under new managing director Antonio Fellino, who is based in Dubai.

“Europe will still be Travel Republic’s mainstream, but we are shifting more to Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah and the Maldives –places where we have destination dominance and strong purchasing,” she says.

It needs to be less about volume and more about putting the customer at our heart

“The Travel Republic customer has matured. It’s all about price and availability, ease of booking and the value addeds such as free transfers, upgrades and drinks packages.”

Asked about Travel Republic’s competitors – some of which gave up Abta membership over Covid refund policies – she says: “It’s not about size, it’s about profitability and reputation with the customer.

“One of our challenges is that we don’t get hooked on a race to the bottom on price. It needs to be less about volume and more about putting the customer at our heart.”

Referring to Netflights, she is “cautiously optimistic”, saying: “On the Monday of the announcement of the US border reopening, we booked more flights to the US in seven hours than in the whole of August. But we’re still in a fragile environment. We’ve still got challenges.”

Pollard described dnata Travel UK as “a sleeping giant”.

“Outside of the industry, we’re the most unknown travel business for our size,” she says. “Across the value chain, our brands touch many points. We need to make sure to point each brand to where we can win, taking advantage of opportunities and being agile.”

But she says there are still gaps in the business. “I’m a big believer, from my strategy background, that you’ve got to fix your core first. We’re still on a journey. We’ve got to get that right. It’s nice to have shiny new things, but I’m not going to get too distracted.

“We’ve got lots of opportunities and there will be plenty more over the next year, sadly. My M&A background shows this will be a part of my plan but, for now, just watch this space.”


Ailsa Pollard is due to speak at Abta’s Travel Convention on October 13

Theme: ‘Leading the Way: Envisaging and Inspiring in Extraordinary Times’
Date: October 13
Venue: East Winter Garden, Canary Wharf, London
Fees: Abta members/partners £295 in-person, £155 online; Non-members £395 in-person, £255 online
Register at: thetravelconvention.com

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