In the latest of our ‘5 minutes with’ posts, we talk to Julia Lo Bue-Said, Chief Executive Officer at The Advantage Travel Partnership.
1) Let’s start with our normal opener, what was your journey to becoming the CEO at The Advantage Travel Partnership?
It has been a very long journey! In fact, I will have been at Advantage for 26 years in just a few weeks’ time. I started out in travel working as a Travel Agent for WH Smith Travel, back in the days before they were taken over by Thomas Cook. I then spent several years working for tour operators. My last role prior to joining Advantage was at Balkan Holidays, a tour operator specialising in holidays to Bulgaria.
I started at Advantage working in the commercial team predominantly on leisure. I then progressed from there, firstly heading up leisure as Leisure Director, then I moved to the Managing Director role for six years before being promoted to Chief Executive Officer in 2018.
For me it was the Managing Director role that was a real eyeopener. I remember when I took the role someone said to me ‘If you ever want to lead a business think about it first as it will not always be what you want it to be’. I have found myself reflecting on this a lot over the past 20 months.
Advantage has always offered opportunities for progression. The business is always evolving. It is certainly nothing like it was 26 years ago, and in fact, it is not the same business it was 20 months ago. I feel fortunate to have colleagues that have always been very innovative and have wanted to take Advantage to the next step. We have never stood still and I feel grateful that I have been part of the journey.
2) For our readers that aren’t familiar with The Advantage Travel Partnership, what is the remit of the organisation?
The remit is to be a voice for the independent agents, our members, whether they are in the leisure or business travel space. We are here to represent their needs across the media and Government channels and as a buying group to help deliver commercial benefits that are typically only available to the larger players. Put simply we help provide the independents with scale.
3) And what direct benefits does The Advantage Travel Partnership provide to the customers of Travel Agencies and Travel Management Companies?
Advantage provides members numerous commercial benefits that enable them to be both competitive and relevant.
We provide our members with access to preferential airfares and to a global hotel programme as well as a full end to end suite of products and services. We leverage the cumulative spend of our members to negotiate with airlines and hotel chains to get the very best fares and rates. In turn, our members are able to provide these to their customers. This is very important for many of our members who don’t have the scale to negotiate at this level on their own.
We also have arrangements with many different technology providers. Our scale helps in respect to affordability. We help bring new products and innovations to the market and our members can then select to work with the providers if they are right for their customers.
As an example The Advantage Global Network has representation across 80 countries and this helps our members provide their customers with a multinational service enabling our members to enhance their overall client proposition.
Finally, the Advantage brand holds value. Our members are our shareholders and by promoting the brand, our proposition and the benefits we offer it will help inspire confidence with both customers and prospects.
4) Whilst the travel industry suffered a hiatus during the pandemic, you have not stopped for the last 18 months. Please tell us what you have been doing to support our industry?
Oh my god what a journey! It has been the busiest, but I think in some ways whilst I’m never complacent, we are coming out of it much stronger as an organisation.
Right from the start we wanted to ensure there was a voice for not just our members, but for the industry as well. We quickly stepped up to the plate and 18 months later we have built up some very strong lobbying capability, we are engaging cross industry with Government departments and are now engaging across other economic sectors, rather than only in the travel space.
We have done a huge number of media and broadcast interviews. At the last count, between Kelly our Leisure Director and I, we had featured in over 150 broadcast interviews and radio. From appearing prime time on BBC Breakfast, having ITV interview me in my garden and speaking live from Gatwick Airport it has been relentless. That said, we do now have a platform to make sure we continue to have a voice for our members and our industry.
5) Why is travel industry important for the UK economy and what is your view on recovery timelines?
The Travel industry crosses so many different parts of the economy. We are on the High Street as a retailer delivering services for local communities, we provide services for corporates, we enable them to run their businesses and to do deals which help the economy grow.
As an industry we are the third largest employer. The challenge we have is that we are not looked at as being part of the economic ecosystem. We are always viewed singularly and as such we can be viewed as not being important. Because we cut across many Government departments no one is looking at our industry holistically. There is not one government minister with a portfolio for outbound travel.
If you look at business travel, there is currently no fiscal value attributed to the overall income travel creates as part of a wider ecosystem for our economy. We’ve got to learn from this and be smarter in our language and in our overall narrative in the future.
When it comes to recovery, I wish I had a crystal ball. The good news is that it has started and confidence is returning, however we do still have a long way to go.
6) When it comes to sustainability naturally there is a spotlight on flying. How do you see the travel industry rising to the challenge of eventually achieving net zero?
I think that we are already doing so. If you look at the commitment made by many airlines to net zero, with easyJet being a prime example, this isn’t something new for our industry. We have been talking about sustainability for many, many, years, so I think we are all on the journey.
The role of agencies as intermediaries is key. We need to understand polices, we must understand the supply chain and what they are doing on this front. We must then inform and educate our customers. I think this is the area that needs focus. We must do more to help corporates meet their ambitions on sustainability.
7) The final question is always one for fun! If you could have any other job outside of travel what would it be?
This is the most boring answer you will ever get, but I would have loved to be a qualified accountant. This would have helped me during my journey with Advantage. If you really understand how the business operates from a balance sheet perspective then it really opens your eyes and fundamentally gives you the right platform to run a business.
I know it’s not a fun answer, but it is an honest answer. I could have made something up and pretended that I always wanted to be a dancer for example. But that would have been a load of rubbish. Also, I’m not very good at dancing either!