From the source: Cameron Holland, Luxury Escapes

In February, Luxury Escapes was enjoying some of its best results ever, but that took a sudden turn when the pandemic hit. Like others, the online travel site has made rapid changes to continue serving customers and weather the storm. CEO Cameron Holland discusses what it was like redeploying a large part of his staff to manage the sudden workload and why he thinks travel will be back with a vengeance.

Inside Retail Weekly: Travel has been one of the worst hit sectors during the pandemic.

Cameron Holland: It’s been very busy and very challenging, obviously, during this unprecedented time for everyone across the whole world. Travel definitely felt the brunt quicker than most other industries. I think other industries have since followed through, while others will have an impact on delayed business including retail, as economic factors start to bite harder this year.

Travel was impacted early, and one of the characteristics is the speed with which it came. We were enjoying our best ever results in January and February and it just turned on a dime within five to six days. The suddenness of it was probably the most difficult thing to deal with. It required us as a team to really pivot quickly to a new reality in a very short space of time.

IRW: What did that pivot look like?

CH: There were three main categories. The first was we had to ensure the health and safety of our team and customers. We made a lot of rapid decisions to ensure our global teams were safe, either in quarantine or looked after or considering working from home.

The second category was the sheer volume of customer requests about what it meant for their bookings and what they could do. Like everyone else, our call centre exploded. As a luxury business, we pride ourselves on offering very direct one-to-one service. Our call centre definitely had an increase in volume and we had to pivot quickly to make sure we could handle it but also implement self-service options to deal with the volume.

The third thing was making sure the business was set up to weather the storm and get through to the other side, which took a lot of planning and pivoting to make sure we were in a position to get through the crisis with closed borders and the ban on international and domestic travel. We had to make sure we were set up to survive through that shutdown.

We had to make a few changes to the team, but not as dramatic as many others, just because of the nature of being a digital business. We’re a lot lighter on the operational side than a hotel or airline, so we were able to retain our staff, just on reduced hours.

IRW: Where are you guys at now?

CH: It’s been a busy couple of months. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve started to feel like the public sentiment in Australia has turned a bit of a corner. There may be no international travel, but we can see people getting out and about, more cars on the road and more retailers opening up. There’s a glimmer that the lockdown will have an end date.  

We’re in a society where any signs of hope and improved conditions just lift the mood in general. In the last week, we have started to see an increase in searches for holidays, maybe not bookings, but inquiries.

The conditions are improving so people are feeling more confident but having been in lockdown for so long, and speaking from personal experience, people are desperate to get out and have a holiday at some point this year. I suppose looking for that next break is a good way to lift the spirits and have something to look forward to. They often say that planning a holiday is almost as good as having a holiday. We’re starting to see that turn, particularly for domestic travel – not yet international.

We’re set up to continue on [post-pandemic] and we’ve got a great loyal customer base and a great relationship with our suppliers. We’ve made some changes to the product we sell – we’re less international, more domestic, but we expect to be here for the long term.

IRW: How would you describe the process of changing so may customer bookings and communicating with them during such a volatile period?

CH: It’s been difficult. We had a lot of people travelling in this quarter who couldn’t travel anymore.  

We updated our Ts and Cs for all the bookings so people could make unlimited changes right up to the date of travel. We enabled a feature that is unique in travel, if not in other industries, where you can change the booking to ‘buy now, decide later’. You can buy the package but choose dates later on. It means they don’t have to guess when travel’s going to be OK and they can just enter the dates later on.

We extended the availability dates for most of our hotels, so people are able to use their bookings in 18 months’ time when travel opens up again.

The biggest challenge was communicating it all in a way that would make sense. We prioritised people travelling in the next seven days, then for everyone else. We did customised email communications, and then we did a lot through social communications as well.

Because we sell things like cruises, tours and flights every booking is different, with many varied suppliers with their own conditions, which requires a different response, so we’re addressing each case on its individual merit. We’ve been contacting them in priority order of departure date and most customers have been understanding that the volume of calls has been significant.

After two months, our team has done an amazing job. They’ve been flat-out and done a great job to get to those customers as much as they can.

We’ve changed over 50,000 customers’ bookings so far in two months – usually we would do 1000.

IRW: You had to redeploy a large part of your workforce to move into customer service. Tell me what that change was like.

CH: To help get through that volume, we deployed our team members from other areas of the business to support our service centre. Some of our call centre agents who were sales agents were converted to the service side. A lot of our market and account management team taught themselves how to change bookings received via our social channels, leaving the difficult ones for escalation. As we know, social media channels have become a default customer service channel, so it was great to have people jump on board and get ahead of the queue.

We redeployed our tech team to develop more self-service options for customers to change their own bookings online. That was very successful and a product that had a quick turnaround time [to build]. We had our development team update those features and we’ll keep those long term.

We can make changes quickly that benefit our customers very fast.

IRW: What are some of the business insights you’ve gathered since the pandemic?

CH: The one thing I’ve been most impressed by is the resilience of my team. Everyone is on reduced hours but still willing to work hard, focused on making sure customers are looked after. There’s a lot of uncertainty with customers around their inability to travel at the moment, so they’re going through the full range of emotions. It can be quite confronting and most customers are understanding, but the resilience of the team to work through that has been simply outstanding.

Secondly, [that resilience] is not something you just turn on – it’s that product of having a great team in the first place and investing in a high-quality team though learning, culture development and making sure that your team is invested in your purpose and values over a long period of time. It’s not something you can switch on and off. The long-term investment in the quality of people and looking after them and being an employer of choice makes a big difference when a crisis comes. I’m very proud of them and the board and shareholders are very impressed as well.

 The third thing I’ve enjoyed seeing is we’re proud of our brand and strength in the market, but our customers have really gone out of their way to send us messages of support by and large. We’re seeing amazing support not just from loyal and frequent customers and not just for the business, but the Australian and global travel industry. People who love going to Bali and want to make sure that as a destination, it’s somewhere they can still visit again. They want to do anything they can to make sure that tourism is supported and the places they want to go to will still be there.

The community around travel is quite inspiring, as well and a good reminder of why we’re in this business in the first place.

IRW: Are there any changes you’ve made to the business that you think will remain after the pandemic?

CH: We’ve obviously had to pivot a lot of our business to domestic, which may be expanded to New Zealand and the South Pacific, if we keep having that travel bubble being reported in the media. That was half our business prior to the pandemic, which will obviously increase over the next six to nine months, so that means we’ve had to rethink our expansion calendar, our assignment of resources around the business and how we think about our campaigns.  

I don’t think that will necessarily be permanent when international travel returns. When it does, it will return with a vengeance and we’ll want to enjoy that uptick again. Longer term, we are looking at different additions to our business model, just in terms of the new reality and there are some ongoing projects we’re looking at right now.

IRW: How would you say most people feel about travel right now?

CH: We’re probably still in a period of uncertainty right now, so we understand people are a bit frustrated across the board, where people are unable to travel due to the circumstances which are beyond anyone’s control. There’s always going to be frustration that they can’t go where they want and trying to figure out how to resolve that.

 There’s customer sentiment around what it means for them and when they can travel again. Every operator and travel provider is different, so people who have packaged lots of different options from different providers are getting frustrated that they have to call multiple people to fix it. Every airline and most hotels have different changes of policies. It is a difficult area to navigate, which is why booking through a company like us is a bit easier for people.

But out of the 50,000 changes that we’ve made, there’s a small fraction that have serious issues that we have to work through or where there are difficulties. The vast majority [of people] do understand that travel will come back.

E-commerce travel will end up probably a bit bigger, as a lot of traditional travel agents have downsized store numbers over the last couple of months. When travel does bounce back, we might see more online travel sites, whether direct tourism providers or third party retailers, actually grow in share, which we’re seeing happen in other markets overseas like in the US and UK. But this might be the pivot point where the e-commerce travel sector increases in share in Australia.

IRW: Beyond the pandemic, what plans do you have for the business? I know that right before the pandemic, you guys had just launched a physical activation in Melbourne.

CH: That was a great success, the timing didn’t help us in the end, but that retail space was a really great experience. We had fantastic feedback from everyone who popped in, and it was a great way to get our story out there and for people to think about how you can determine what kind of holiday suits you best. It was great execution and something we’d want to do again.

In terms of a more permanent retail presence, it’s probably not in our future, though. We can improve on what we do in terms of being an e-commerce presence. Our main strategy has been expanding into international markets, and that’s both from a deals sourcing point of view, but also as a 100 per cent Australian business taking our model overseas. We have teams in the US, China, Singapore, India and soon, the UK as well. So that might have a pause for the next little while, but once we start to see a return to travel, we’ll go full steam ahead again. Up until February, business was going exceedingly well.

Travel always bounces back. We’ll have a slowdown this year, but once restrictions ease and borders open up, I think we’ll see it return with a vengeance, people will just want to get out and about. We’ve seen it in other countries like South Korea, where they’ve got flights booked out for the holidays.

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