Getting SMEs back to business travel: Interview with Tom Walley (Corporate Traveller Australia)
Marketing speaks with Tom Walley, the general manager of Corporate Traveller Australia about an uncertain future for the travel sector that hinges on vaccine rollout. We also discuss sustainable travel practices and connecting with the changing needs of travellers.
Corporate Traveller Australia sits in the business division of the Flight Centre Travel Group. Walley and his team specialise in servicing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and believes that the travel industry needs to pay attention to this segment if it hopes for business travel to recover.
SMEs make up about two thirds of all business travel in Australia. “So pre-pandemic, that business travel market was worth $25 billion worth of spend in the Australian market. Including all the spend they have whilst they’re traveling, like restaurants, taxis, hotels, etc.,” Walley says.
“SMEs form a major part of the recovery of the economy because normally they are not only spending money on travel, but they’re growing their businesses in various regions and overseas.”
Now with a large portion of the population under varying degrees of restrictions due to the Delta variant, Australia needs to ensure a healthy vaccine rollout for the business travel sector to catch up with the leisure sector. But before we unpack the future, let’s take a look at the state of travel in Australia pre-pandemic.
The travel industry at “bursting point” pre-pandemic
Walley has been in the travel industry for 20 years. He left his job as a chartered accountant to get his wings, becoming a commercial pilot. After some time flying and instructing in Perth, he had an interview with British Airways and was set to work in London as a first officer. Then the September 11 attacks happened, changing aviation forever. In the ensuing chaos, he got a job at Flight Centre and has never looked back.
When I ask why travel, Walley says he is in it for the culture, something that still persists at Flight Centre despite the challenges that COVID-19 has presented. And we all know that the travel and tourism industry has faced much adversity. He says many people get into the business for the fringe benefits, like cheap travel and big vibrant culture, but overnight all of that changed.
Tourism Research Australia says that prior to the pandemic in 2019, tourism generated billions of dollars and directly contributed 2.5 percent of Australia’s GDP. Now as we pass the mid-point of 2021, things aren’t looking hopeful with slow vaccine rollouts, lockdowns, the end of JobKeeper and borders unlikely to open any time soon.
That said, there were some changes that needed to be made in the sector. Walley says the industry was at “bursting point” before the pandemic hit. Things were unprecedentedly cheap, a shift driven by low cost carriers. While travel was more accessible than ever for consumers, it led to high capacity in the market and was unsustainable from a supplier point of view but also environmentally.
Companies like Corporate Traveller used this time during the pandemic to look at revenue lines and learn more than ever about its customer base. Like other brands, there was a steely determination to “not waste a good crisis” and a push to rapidly evolve.
“I think we understand our business bucket load better than we did [before the pandemic] because we’ve been forced to scrutinise it down to every dollar,” says Walley. “We went from being less about acquisition marketing and more about retention and value proposition.”
Sustainable travel programs
The changing landscape of COVID-19 provided an opportunity to put business travel on a sustainable trajectory. Walley says sustainable travel is a growth area coming through reasonably loudly from consumers since the pandemic and something businesses should be considering.
“It’s not just about travel and carbon offsetting – that’s a fairly obvious thing. It’s about how do you have less of an impact on the environment you’re traveling to? It includes things like dealing with indigenous communities and reconciliation action plans. There’s about seven sustainable development goals that we’ve been working on as an organisation and that we want to try and help our customers with as well.”
“I think again, [sustainable travel] will become a relatively solvable problem but also something that most companies are growing passionate about. And the pandemic is probably a good thing to help along the conversation.”
While the industry needed to evolve in some ways, Walley is quick to add that the sector employed a lot of good people who lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. It has impacted small businesses the most. The pandemic has promoted the expansion of larger organisations (like Flight Centre) and the consolidation of airlines, which Walley says contributes to a monopoly that is ultimately bad for consumers and the industry.
Impact on travellers
The pandemic has had a huge impact on travellers too, who were left navigating refunds and reimagining what the future would look like. Travellers have been separated from family, friends and missed out on holidays or important business trips. To try to address this, the Corporate Traveller marketing team had to focus on staying connected with customers through personalised messaging. In a time where public health advice can change quickly and with little notice, they recognised a need to keep business people updated on the latest industry news with an information hub.
In some ways the complex information landscape has renewed the role of travel managers and consultants. In fact, in the last 12 months Corporate Traveller won 360 new accounts.
“So someone working in a company who was just booking travel on Qantas or Expedia [for example] but is now willing to pay a fee because actually, they see the value in what we do from a total travel management program and around risk. Things like, where my staff are right now or what happens if they shut the border, how do I get them home? I’ve been a victim of that a couple of times myself. All of those things played very well into our hands as a travel management company.”
The return to travel
Walley thinks the complexities will only be exacerbated when international borders eventually reopen. Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a four phase plan to ‘return to normal’, but was reluctant to commit to a definitive timeline. For many in the travel sector the government roadmap lacked clarity, prompting industry leaders like Walley’s boss, Flight Centre CEO Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner, to share their own timelines and push for faster vaccine rollout.
Walley foresees that the border opening will be handled in stages and there will be restrictions around travel, including potentially requiring a vaccine to travel internationally. He speculated that there might be some countries that have higher risk levels than others and a ranking system for destinations might be implemented, with locations being labeled red, amber and green.
Speculations aside, he says the uncertainty is hurting business traveller’s confidence. Australia needs to continue to push the vaccine rollout but also communicate clearly with the community. “I think if businesses can see a real, clear road to recovery, to opening, then they can start planning,” says Walley.
Flexible work arrangements are great but “there is no real substitute for that face to face” according to Walley. He explains that it can be difficult to truly collaborate on video meetings and often Zoom becomes about presenting as opposed to solving a problem. For businesses, particularly SMEs, getting back into the market and returning to travel is important for growth and relationship building.
Walley, for one, still retains a passion for travel, despite the challenges ahead for Australia’s recovery.
“I actually booked a two week snowboarding trip to Canada for January next year to give myself and my family a bit of hope. I haven’t booked flights, because you can’t, but I have booked accommodation. So if it opens up, that’s where I’m going.”
Tom Walley is the general manager of Corporate Traveller Australia.