Ben Ireland speaks to consortium’s chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said about ‘Vivolution’ event in Cadiz

Advantage designs ‘bite-sized’ sessions to inspire and educate

Sessions at this year’s Advantage Conference in Cadiz will be broken down into “bite-sized” chunks to allow agents to get more involved and cover more topics.

Breakout sessions at the Valentin Sancti Petri Hotel & Convention Centre on Sunday, May 19, will be hosted across four rooms, representing each decade The Advantage Travel Partnership has been in business.

Sessions will be either leisure or business-focused, but some will feature both, reflecting the shifting patterns of members’ businesses.

Specific topics will include branding, led by Kuoni’s Dean Harvey; sales, presented by Reality Training’s Bob Morrell; luxury travel, moderated by Travel Weekly’s Lucy Huxley; fraud prevention, by David Scott of law firm Horwich Farrelly; personalisation, led by Travelport’s Guy Snelgar; and corporate social responsibility, presented by G Adventures’ Brian Young.

Chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said said: “It is about providing delegates with inspirational topics of discussion, lessons and key learnings to take back to their businesses.

“Today’s world is really complex. An agent can’t just be an agent any more. They have to be masters of everything: financiers, marketers, sales people. The days when you could just be a travel agent have gone.

“What we are really trying to achieve in our 40th year is how could we break down all the challenges we face into bite-sized sessions. We’ve got more sessions than ever before, which should change the dynamic and focus on areas where members can really come away thinking about how they can tailor these lessons to their businesses and choose which sessions will benefit them the most.

“We are not just selling travel, we have to be great marketers. It’s about your individual brand, not just the business’s brand.

“If delegates have smaller groups they have that ability to really get involved. Going to conference is an investment for everybody, so we want to make sure everyone going gets a return on that. The only way we can do that is through the content.”

Forty years and counting: Consortium reflects on agents’ changing challenges

The biggest challenges facing independent agencies over the past four decades has been the “march of the multiples” and the ever‑evolving face of marketing, the boss of Advantage says.

Julia Lo Bue-Said said the dominance of the “big four” multiples – Thomson, Airtours, First Choice and Thomas Cook – in the late 80s and early 90s was the hardest challenge to overcome.

She recalled: “Independent agencies were getting constantly squeezed. The march of the multiples was as a result of increasing consumer demand that led to increased shop openings by the likes of Lunn Poly (owned by Thomson) and Thomas Cook, which saw rife discounting in these vertically-integrated establishments.

“For independent agents, through consortia such as Advantage, access to more‑affordable holidays through the big four was an opportunity, but discounting by the multiples meant Advantage was becoming much more relevant as more agents required enhanced commercial support to compete.”

Lo Bue-Said also identified stricter barriers to entry in the industry as something consortia had had to increasingly help members with over the years – along with a ‘sea change’ in consumer habits with the rise of the internet and social media.

The biggest shift has been in marketing, she said. “In the old days, it was newspapers, radio and advertising; nowadays, it’s everything from social to online, websites and targeted emails.

“Marketing can be the driving force behind a business or where it goes wrong. That’s why our marketing portfolio, and all the technology that forms part of it, has been the biggest investment we’ve made.”

She added: “As our members’ businesses have become more complex, we’ve become more complex too. We’re someone for members to lean on and we can put our arm around them to support them through the different trials and tribulations of running a business – which can be really lonely sometimes.”

Lo Bue-Said: Look to the future with our core values

It’s safe to say no one knows The Advantage Travel Partnership better than chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said.

She started 24 years ago in a commercial role, then became commercial director, head of leisure, managing director and now chief executive.

“I know the business intimately,” she said. “But because it’s grown so much, I’m reliant on having great people around me and bringing fresh talent in.

“The downside is having knowledge of lots of detail, which can bog you down at times. We are a complex business: not just a retail business but an international business with an insurance company and meetings and events company. It’s a broad business, but that makes it exciting, and over time we have become a loud voice for our members, and the independent sector.

“It helps that I’ve been here for so long. I can constantly remind people why we do what we do. All too often we are running at 100mph and thinking about the next big thing – but it’s important to remember the core values.”

One of the reasons Lo Bue-Said is so invested in the company is that its members are its shareholders, which she says is unique for a travel consortium in the UK. “Our overarching goal is to drive value for our shareholders, who are our members too. We don’t have external shareholders to please, so it is all about what benefits those individual businesses. I really believe that and see an exciting future, and a massive opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses.”

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