In the first in a series of Q&A interviews with industry professionals we speak to Pierre Lawrence who has been the acting head of IT for an industry leading travel provider throughout the coronavirus pandemic. He gives us his account of how operating and trying to survive in one of the UK’s worst hit industries has been. We cover new tech, his initial response, what the future holds and his big decision to switch industries amid growing uncertainty in the travel sector.
Can you talk us through what you were responsible for delivering throughout your most recent role?
Certainly.... My original remit when I joined was to deliver a new website, it was exciting as it was a brand-new green field build. I was 5 months into the role when their IT director left so I inherited most of his duties which I took on well alongside the delivery of the website. All of a sudden my main responsibilities shifted to the more operational aspects of IT but we decided to still push forward with the delivery of the new site.
That sounds like a bold move considering everything that was going on. Did that decision pay off?
I think so. In terms of delivering the website, that went live at the end of March. I think some people thought we were fairly crazy launching it just as the first lockdown hit, but looking back over it I think it was a great time to deliver. We weren’t getting a lot of traffic so we could make changes on the fly, we didn’t have to try to do a soft launch it just kind of happened for us. We planned the launch as a soft launch but as it transpired, we didn’t need to do it as through COVID it all seemed to happen naturally.
In terms of launching the site it actually worked out to be a positive as we could tweak it and get it to a point that we were happy with
it ready for when it starts getting a lot more use.
How have things changed for you and your team?
I had one of my team on furlough and all of the contractors we had through you guys had their contracts terminated so our numbers dwindled. My role turned from a project delivery and strategic focus to just keeping the lights on. It was quite interesting being involved in that type of change. In terms of working from home it didn’t really impact me and my team, as we used a lot of cloud-based tools in any case.
Technology wise, is there anything that you introduced that helped throughout all the change?
In hindsight I made a good choice to introduce Slack across the business in November last year and I think in the last 6 months we wouldn’t have been able to survive as a business without Slack in terms of being able to keep the dialogue going, keeping the collaboration going with everyone being remote it has proved its worth many times over.
How hard has the business been hit by all of the travel restrictions that were put in place?
Generally in terms of the travel industry it’s not great at all, we were down more than 90% on last year in March/April time, now it’s not as bad, but it’s still a massive drop. We furloughed roughly 80% of staff and the senior management team took pay cuts, everyone else went down to 4 days per week and got paid pro rata. It just wasn’t good and it’s still not good with the Government changing these bubbles/air bridges or whatever they call them.
We had a bit of an uptake when Spain and Portugal were opened up but they have gone back to a 14 day quarantine so those bookings have subsequently been cancelled It’s been really hard for the industry. Unfortunately we had to make a few redundancies and I think people will be jumping ship to more prosperous industries.
The travel industry is just not a good place to be right now if you are looking for job security or looking for businesses that are investing, the travel industry is purely just keeping the lights on. Everything we are doing is around brand awareness and just keeping the brand going. There’s no real active marketing campaigns, there’s no project delivery, everything I had planned as the 2020 IT strategy has basically died.
How much longer do you feel companies in the travel industry can carry on operating with things the way that they are?
I think it depends where you are in the industry, if you are an airline, then times are really difficult. If you are a hotel business, it depends what sector you are in. People aren’t doing city breaks, they just aren’t doing that kind of thing, they want hideaways, they want to get away from everyone else, they want small places in the middle of nowhere.
You have to look at the uptake, particularly in the UK with people renting cottages and going camping, there’s a massive surge in those types of breaks whereas people aren’t going for more traditional hotels and they definitely aren’t flying.
Does your organisation have a robust UK offering?
We have a small number but most of our hotels are city based but I think there’s enough diversification in our UK offering to sustain the limited number of bookings we are getting. Where we have been hit the most is in the US. The US is our primary market followed by the UK. We have really lost out in the US market as people are just not getting on a plane, they are just going on road trips, doing things like log cabin stays in Yosemite and those kind of things and we don’t offer any of that at all.
I was hoping to find out how you have overcome these problems, but would you say the Travel industry is still in the midst of the worst of it?
Yeah, we really are, and no one knows how long this is going to take. We’ve got an interesting mix of views from our portfolio of hotels. Some have opened for a shortened season; some will be opening towards the end of the year and others have written off 2020 completely and won’t open at all.
Has there been any positives?
Yes the website delivery, we did launch at the end of march and amongst all the doom and gloom of COVID we had a very successful launch so I can look back at the site and take pride in that. The imagery on there is fantastic and it really showcases our portfolio of hotels at their very best. It’s just a shame nobody is using the site in anger.
For me personally, I’m going to be moving back into an industry I’m far more familiar with (eCommerce), I’m also going to be moving in to an industry that’s experiencing phenomenal growth. you just have to look at the businesses that are getting rid of high street stores and moving towards using online as their primary sales channel. For me I see some interesting challenges ahead and it’s a great time to get back into it due to that phenomenal growth.