Simon Altham was handed a new role at Wyndham this year as managing director of revenue across the UK portfolio. He talks to Lucy Huxley
Artificial intelligence, a lack of talent in travel and misperceptions about UK holidays are key concerns for Simon Altham.
Addressing all three are among his priorities as he completes his first three months as managing director of revenue, looking after sales, marketing, operations and the commercial performance of the whole Wyndham UK business.
The group has appointed a managing director of digital, Nick Rudge, who will look after tech integrations, database platforms and Wyndham UK’s relationships with Google, but Altham is keen to ensure he does his bit to ensure the group is ready for the looming ‘machine learning’ era.
“The speed of the advance of technology is one of the biggest challenges facing business owners today,” he says.
“Artificial intelligence will be a real disruptor – and the biggest challenge of this will be [recruiting]the talent required to keep up.”
Altham believes creating a more unified view of the Wyndham business and sharing best practice and knowledge across its four office locations will help.
“We still believe that having regional centres of excellence in Earby, Lowestoft, Exeter and London gives us a competitive advantage, so it is not our plan to merge or consolidate,” he says.
“But I need to leverage opportunities for staff across the brands so that we are servicing our owners and customers better.
“If staff can work in any of our four locations, it allows us to spread our geographical pull for people. By being more flexible we can access the very best talent to respond to all the technological changes coming.”
Altham believes talent acquisition and retention is a big problem for the travel industry.
“When I started in travel 20 years ago, it was the industry to get into – aspirational and glamorous. Not anymore.”
Altham accepts there are plenty of new travel businesses, innovators and disruptors, that are attractive to today’s tech-savvy and talented graduates.
But he says: “There are more companies that have been around a long time that just don’t have the sizzle factor of a Facebook, a Google or a Twitter, which are attractive for young digital developers – and pay more.
“We have got to be able to excite young, talented people to come on the journey with us, and to be as passionate about travel as we are.
“We get all these insights on our industry from Google, but it should be the people at the coalface predicting how travel is going to develop. Ten years ago, it was all about the low-cost carriers shaking up the industry. Now it’s about how people research and book.”
Altham believes the biggest challenge for large, established companies is how to attract new audiences without alienating older, more traditional customers.
“If I were starting a new business, I wouldn’t worry about brochures; it would all be online. I wouldn’t have to worry about what existing customers might think. At Wyndham, we take three million people on holiday every year so we have got to protect those existing, loyal customers as well as sourcing new, younger ones.”
Altham says the same applies to agents. “When there is a strategic view among larger retailers that they want to close shops, we have to think about engaging different agents – without alienating our existing trade partners.”
Altham is keen to work with agents who are looking to supplement long-haul holidays, cruises and escorted tours with a UK break of similar quality.
“We’re not just chalets and caravan parks,” he says. “We have stunning ‘wow factor’ properties that cost £5,500 a week, which equates to pretty good commission that’s comparable to a cruise. But we need to challenge agents’ – and consumers’ – perceptions of cottage or lodge holidays.”
He adds that luxury homes are the fastest-growing part of the Wyndham UK business, making up about 10% [1,500 properties] of Wyndham UK’s inventory.
“We need more,” says Altham, explaining that property acquisition is now the job of property and portfolio managing director Allan Lambert, who was managing director of Blue Chip Holidays until Wyndham’s UK management restructure in April. Lambert also looks after merger and acquisition opportunities across the group, which will add properties in Northern Ireland for 2018.
Challenging the misperceptions that exist around domestic holidays and domestic travel brands is Altham’s third priority.
“Overseas holidays have the glamour factor but you’re invariably staying in an apartment that’s substandard to your own home,” he says.
“With UK holidays, that needn’t be the case, and, because people can’t rely on the weather, they splash out on a beautiful home to stay in so their holiday is amazing.
“We are very strong with the older market, but the older market knows us for what we were and not necessarily what we are today.
“They don’t know that we have the best selection of luxury properties of any operator in the UK. There’s a whole range, from comfortable, more-traditional cottages, to jaw-dropping, glass-fronted, sea view, contemporary-styled wow factor properties – and we’ve got to work out how to showcase that better,” says Altham.
Altham says Wyndham UK brands will continue to be on TV, with adverts that challenge the perceptions of UK holidays.
He is also planning a host of video tutorials – such as ‘How to sell UK holidays’ or ‘How to sell hot‑tub holidays’ – for the trade to help agents learn and sell
“Video is so much more engaging than a long email,” he says. “But there’s a lot of poor video out there that is too long and not engaging beyond 10 seconds.
“50% of people start their holiday booking process with no idea what they really want to do. So it’s our job to inspire them.”
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