ITT Odyssey Award

david itt

On 19th October 2017 I was proud to receive the ITT Odyssey Award. Below is the speech I gave on the night:

“My Lords, Members of ITT, Ladies and Gentlemen,

To receive this award tonight is such a privilege for a lad from Lancashire.

Just over seventy years ago I was adopted by John and Ada Speakman. They lived in Tyldesley a small cotton and coal town in South Lancashire.

My mother, Ada worked in a grocers and my dad worked down the pit. He was no ordinary miner as he was in charge of blasting tunnels in search of new seams of coal thousands of feet underground.

Though we lived in a National Coal Board house and he had what was considered a good and secure job his main wish for me was never to to be a miner, never to spend the rest of my life buried all day underground.

My parents aspirations were never theirs alone but their aspirations lay with me to be somebody, to achieve something more than they would ever be able to, they wanted to be proud of their son but whatever that was, I was never to go down the pit and I didn’t.

So I became a Quantity Surveyor and after leaving the building industry and starting my new business  life with my wife, Maureen as owners of an off-licence I opened my first travel agency 39 years ago

What a great industry I had entered, I’d come from a job were I had to measure how many bricks there were in a school manhole as foul sewerage lapped around my ankles as the kids flushed the toilets at playtime.

From that, I was transported into what seemed the travel jet-set, a week skiing in Switzerland, three days in New York, five days in Thailand, all free of charge, treated like kings or queens, openings, brochure launches, ship launches, breakfasts, dinners, lunches. Just too good to be true.

We are all privileged to be part of such a great industry. I remember in the early days of  being a travel agent, a long time owner described his good fortune working in travel, as having a £30,000 salary and a £100,000 lifestyle. Travel has given us all so many great memories and emotions.

In 1986 the Chernobyl radioactive cloud threatened our livelihood in travel and we sold our four very successful travel agencies. But our original travel business was only a precursor to our real success in the industry.

After a fantastic success followed by abysmal failure in the restaurant business we returned with no money to this industry we loved and started Travel Counsellors.

At first we were just pleased to survive, sleepless night followed sleepless night with not enough money to pay the bills. A loving wife who was there by my side picking up the pieces  of  my one previous business venture too far. But I loved the challenge and winning. I know it’s sounds cliched but I loved exceeding customers expectations. Even more I loved empowering the individuals, who had a passion to serve their customers but lacked the business experience I could provide.

The overriding principle I have lived and worked by is the Golden Rule,

“to treat people the way I would want to be treated”

My business ethos was governed by this Golden Rule, at Travel Counsellors we treated all with respect, many were leaving a regular salary to back themselves, I am proud to have been a part of their empowerment. Travel agents are the gems of the travel industry.

The success of Travel Counsellors was never due to, working from home, being self-employed, having no rent, commission-only. 

All those processes can be copied, what made the business and to this day still applies, is it’s credibility, its reliability, it’s intimacy and it’s passion to do the right thing by the customer. Call it customer service, customer experience or whatever it’s name. Good process should be a given but the differentiation is passion and emotion.

We all have the opportunity of being respected by our customers, we should always keep that in mind when process and profit takes precedence over respect for the customer.

In the future companies will be measured by how we treat people rather than the products we provide.

What we offer should be Trusting Customer service.

Surely an industry rightly so incensed by bogus customer  illness claims undermines its moral position by being misleading and tardy in its settlement of claims for flight delay compensation.

Also let’s make 100% customer financial protection mean just that, no equivocation, no vagueness.

Not placing customer money in jeopardy is fundamental in building trust.

I fear the cuts to services and price for flights has now reached an unsustainable level. Let’s have the self-belief to charge the right price for the services we offer.

So after a fulfilling and colourful business life mostly in travel, tonight I am sincerely proud to receive the Institutes  Odyssey Award.

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I want to take this opportunity of thanking Maureen my wife of 45 years who throughout my life has given me permission to fail, which I have done, but has worked alongside me and empowered me to aspire to success.

I thank my family who have also worked alongside me in the business. They are here with me tonight, without them I would not be the business man or the person I am today.

I thank my friends and colleagues past and present for their patience and their loyalty.

Last but not least I thank the institute of Travel and Tourism and the industry in general for this accolade. I have loved the challenges, the camaraderie, the changes and the vision of the industry.

I’m sure everyone of us appreciates the  privilege we have to work in this great industry and luckily none of us will ever have to go down the pit.

I sincerely thank you all.”

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Q&A with ITT 

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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!

Net Promoter Score

I had been looking for a new kind of customer questionnaire and browsing through the business books in Toronto airport I came across “The Ultimate Question” by Fred Reichheld. Fred created Net Promoter Score (NPS) which measures customer satisfaction but reflects the likelihood of building your business by building customer advocacy.

Travel Counsellors had the highest NPS Score in the World and I was invited along with four other high scoring NPS companies to present ( video) their stories to the Chick-fil-a annual convention in 2013.

Chick Fil a open over 100 new outlets per year and they have a private jet to ferry the executives around the US. The video is taken at their aircraft hangar in Atlanta, Georgia in the US.