Below is a copy of the Q & A by ITT completed as a preamble to my receipt of the ITT Odyssey Award 2017
1. You founded Travel Counsellors in 1994, inspired by the words of 1990s futurist Faith Popcorn who predicted that people would increasingly stay at home, surrounded by the latest technology, to run their lives and businesses. If you had a crystal ball, what do you think will be the next game changer in the industry?
I believe advances in technology and Artificial Intelligence will help to improve the customer experience, particularly security and immigration at airports, where it is badly needed.
I believe that there will be an even bigger reduction in real customer contact and those that put trusting relationships at the core of the business will differentiate themselves and reap greater rewards.
I believe that there will be restrictions on day-visitors, to over-popular destinations, rather than tourists who stay for weeks etc. We are already seeing such restrictions in Venice and Barcelona. Resorts are being overwhelmed by day visitors, particularly cruise passengers, who add disproportionately less to the local economy.
Driverless cars will be a massive game changer for transport as Government will be able to tax by the mile and track every journey by every person. Car sharing will become the norm and car parks will become less important. Just think no traffic lights for cyclists to go through on red.
2. You stepped down as Chairman in 2014. If time travel was possible, what advice would you give your then-self?
I left having no real regrets as I had created a fantastic business with fantastic people. We retained a substantial stake in the business but I’m an owner and not an operator and I love creating businesses and leading them. Once I was no longer the owner and leader and the business just needed to be operated it was the right time to resign and move on. I had developed a business that, providing the formula and culture remain unchanged, could be grown without me as leader. So it was right to hand the baton onto others who would realise it’s growth and carry on the good work.
3. Your Twitter handle bears the legend: “Do the Right Thing and do the Thing Right”. Would that sum up your advice to someone joining the industry?
I think that handle is not just about the travel industry but should be a mantra for any business owner or employee.
Doing the right thing by people is a reflection of the personal integrity and principles you bring to your personal and business life. If you are in the relationship business then you should do the right thing by the customer irrespective of cost. It’s just another iteration of the Golden Rule “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.”
A prime example of this is the Ryanair cancellation issue in which Ryanair doesn’t do the right thing by customers.
The late, author and educator, Dr Stephen Covey believed there were “three constants in life, change, choice and principles” I fully endorse that as I love adapting to change, I am lucky to have the most understanding wife in the world who has allowed me to choose and be in control of my destiny and I believe in living by principles.
Doing the thing right is the professionalism and efficiency you should bring to serve the customer.
4. In 2014, you said that agents tend to undervalue themselves. Do you still feel this way?
Yes I think the industry is infatuated with price rather than value. Conditioning starts early, agents are encouraged to push special offers and be willing to discount commission. Discounting commission is an admission, subconsciously or otherwise, by the agent, that they don’t believe their service has a value.
The amount of product knowledge and personal experience of destinations together with the suitability to a specific client is something that has a value. Self belief and self-esteem are necessary to realise and charge for the expertise you have.
Over the years I have used NLP and other motivational techniques to get agents to value themselves and not to be afraid to charge for the care, trust and conscientiousness they give to the customer.
5. Who do you most admire in business and why?
The people I admire most in business are those who have been brave enough to set up their own businesses. Their self-belief, the shortage of money, the sleepless nights, making payroll, the threat of letting your family down if you don’t succeed. These people, fellow entrepreneurs, are the real heroes of our society. They risk their all to be fulfilled and make a better life for themselves and give employment to others. In my case Maureen, my wife, has suffered alongside me as she was in charge of the business cheque book. As an entrepreneur she gave me permission to fail. Maureen has been unstinting in indulging my need for new business ventures and change. She is someone very special.
6. If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would you change?
- I would introduce legislation to give automatic compensation for flight delays under 261/4
- I would introduce legislation that would financially protect customers for all travel products sold, including flight-only and accommodation-only.
- I would introduce maximum security and immigration waiting times at airports e.g. 5 minutes maximum. Apart from the obvious it would show that life will be unaffected by the threat of terrorism.
- I would bring in legislation that controlled the minimum seat pitch.
- I would bring in legislation that allows parents to take their children out of school during term time (In the future artificial intelligence and robots will teach children at different speeds depending on their ability, therefore freeing pupils from the same weekly curriculum).
- I would bring back Grammar schools which would aid social mobility.
- I would withdraw student loans by Government
- I would pay full grants for undergraduates to go to University for in-demand subjects
- I would cancel HS2 and replace it with Hyperloop.
- I would introduce identity cards to validate citizenship and benefit entitlement.
- I would intern or deport anyone who was suspected of jihad in Syria
- I would reduce the House of Commons
- I would reduce the House of Lords
- I would introduce superannuation as in Australia and abolish National Insurance
- Then I would have a working lunch.
- Have a cross-party investigation into the NHS
- Promise the public that we would actively deport illegal immigrants
- Subsidise the building of new runways as they are essential infrastructure
- Insist on more competition on railways
- Reduce planning time and controls on house building
7. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Being persistent when I should have quit sooner. Quitting too soon when I should have been persistent.
8. …And your proudest business achievement to date?
Changing people’s lives by empowering great people to be Travel Counsellors. Giving so many the opportunity to be as successful as they want to be and they in turn having the joy of helping doing a good job for their customers. Doing it with all my family involved in the business
9. Despite being recognised as one of the pillars of the UK travel industry, you once described yourself as being an ‘Outsider’. Has that opinion changed?
Well I’ve never been called a pillar before, though maybe something similar!
No, I still believe I am an outsider. Partly because my business was “upt North” and partly because I believe that the less your competitors know about you the better. When you attend every travel event I feel you become less of a threat as you are no longer an unknown. So I purposely kept my distance from the travel establishment even though I was a board member of ABTA and a supporter of ITT.
10. You ‘retired’ to Spain in 2014. Is it all it’s cracked up to be?
We moved to Spain in 2006 and we love the weather, the people and the infrastructure. My son, Paul and his wife Sarah along with three of my grandchildren now live next door. I will never retire as I love business and I love to advise and help new and growing businesses. I think I still have something to offer.
And yes, Spain is all it’s cracked up to be!
11. Living in Spain, what is your view on Brexit and the UK/EU’s ongoing negotiations?
The UK Government should create a department that will plan for leaving without a deal with the EU. We should outline what we think is reasonable and put a timetable and time limit on negotiations. If the EU show signs of dragging their feet on a deal we should leave. This way we keep the initiative. It’s obvious that the UK have little idea about negotiation and also clear the EU don’t want to.
Legal advice clearly advises we owe nothing and therefore Government have a moral obligation not to pay a penny of taxpayers money to the EU.
12. If you could meet anyone – any character from history, literature, any religious character, absolutely anyone, man or woman – who would it be, and why?
As an ex-Altar boy and a past pupil of an Irish Christian Brothers school it has to be the man who became the leader of the largest religion in the world. Jesus Christ!