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Ever since he worked with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at the now legendary orphanage in Kolkata, India, Andy Duncan has understood the enormous role travel can play in enriching lives. The experience was a game-changer for the young traveler in his 20s, who went on to volunteer with another charity in Ethiopia and, over the course of the years, has since visited more than 90 countries.
“The ability for travel to open minds, bring greater tolerance and promote cross-cultural understanding just generally enriches people’s lives,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
It’s a powerful quality that has underpinned his globe-trotting adventures, but which has also become a major driver for travel company Travelopia, where Duncan is CEO, and one which is only surpassed by its mission to become the world’s best experiential travel company.
Despite his profound love of globetrotting, Duncan only stepped into the travel industry when he joined Travelopia in 2018, shortly after global investment group KKR acquired the company from travel giant TUI.
He brought with him a well-stacked vault of experience, having already held three CEO roles previously – at Channel 4, luxury motor retailer H.R. Owen and most recently at Camelot National Lottery.
“Even before that, I ran businesses within Unilever and also set up and ran Freeview, the joint venture between the BBC and Sky,” he explains. “I’m into my third decade of running businesses.”
A self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, Duncan believes that much of his career success comes down to his approach to the world of business.
“There are two different types of CEOs or leaders,” he explains.
The first is the industry specialist, someone who has stayed within a specific industry or sector for the entirety of their career. While that is very appropriate in certain cases, he says, Duncan has followed a different path.
“Arguably, the pandemic had a bigger impact on travel than probably many, if not any, other industry.”
“I’ve been a bit of a generalist, I suppose, but the common threads are consumer businesses, so something that’s fundamentally about consumers and customers, not business to business or heavy engineering,” he admits.
“Certainly all the jobs I’ve enjoyed and done have had a heavy element of transformation, and in a fast-changing world, and faster changing now than it was when I first started out, the ability to transition and transform organizations in order to either become successful or remain successful is critical,” he says.
Travelopia represented a clean page for Duncan, who, having worked with a number of organizations that came with a “heavy dose” of both politics and regulation, found his new remit to be a refreshing change.
“I wanted to return to something unequivocally commercial, which is obviously my background early on with Unilever for 17 years, but still with a sense of higher purpose, which again was very much the grain of Unilever,” he explains.
Having started out strong with what Duncan describes as two very good years, the company was hit with two incredibly difficult years as travel ground to a halt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented ripple effect.
“We had a very good recovery year last year, and at the moment we’re halfway through what I hope will be a strong record year for the group.”
“Arguably, the pandemic had a bigger impact on travel than probably many, if not any, other industry,” he reflects. “Most other industries were able to operate to some extent. Many benefited. Even things like hospitality, sport, they recovered much quicker.”
With much of Travelopia’s business falling into the long-haul category, which took longer to bounce back, it was a major setback. But things have already picked up.
“We had a very good recovery year last year, and at the moment we’re halfway through what I hope will be a strong record year for the group,” Duncan says.
“When we are looking into the future, it’s really about building up momentum and more growth and continuing on the trajectory that we were on pre-pandemic and that we subsequently built up during the pandemic.”
He is quick to point out that Travelopia didn’t stand still during the pandemic. While the company had to cut costs and do everything in its power to protect jobs, it also managed to invest in certain areas.
“Even though we couldn’t operate in many places, some of the businesses could,” he says. “Canal boats could operate for a period, yachts could operate for a period. In fact, yacht sales, which is one of the things we do, were booming.”
It also built a new polar ship in Croatia, as well as hiring and upgrading people for when the recovery kicked in. It also injected substantial funds into a tech transformation. For while the company had incredible experiences down pat, it was less advanced on the tech front with many internal legacy systems, Duncan admits.
But an ongoing process of tech transformation has remedied this.
Getting the basics right was crucial, with reservations systems, many of which were decades old, swapped out for more advanced platforms. The company has also made major strides in terms of collecting customer data thanks to collaborations with organizations such as Hubspot, with a great opportunity to do more.
“Tech isn’t going to win the day, but it’s a critical enabler of delivering our mission and purpose and making life better for our staff and customers.”
“We’ve gone from tech being a weakness of the business to now a strength of the business,” he says. “Tech isn’t going to win the day, but it’s a critical enabler of delivering our mission and purpose and making life better for our staff and customers.
“We continued to spend in other areas, marketing platform, sales platforms,” he continues. “There was a sense of, look, recovery will come and when it comes we want to really seize and take advantage of it. I think we’ve benefited a lot from that in the last year, and the next few years is very much about that growth agenda.”
While demand is solid, Duncan is seeing the post-pandemic travel boom start to dwindle, particularly for more mainstream travel companies.
“There’s a combination of pent-up demand running out of steam meets cost-of-living crisis and people being genuinely pressed on how much money they’ve got to spend,” he reflects.
Many of its brands operate in the high-end of the market, so the impact is minimal. These customers want to travel and are prepared to pay for it, he explains.
Its ultra luxury round-the-world jet operator TCS, which also operates the trips for hotel group Four Seasons, has expanded its fleet with two new planes, with people paying US$180,000 for a three-week trip, and upward of US$300,000 for a couple. The same is true with high-end yacht charters, with the company operating 300 yachts in the British Virgin Islands alone.
Safaris and polar expeditions have also rebounded well, according to Duncan. “Where we’ve got the differentiation, then things are looking good,” he says.
“If you talk to people in Travelopia, it’s a brilliant place to work. People love working here.”
Nonetheless, as demand stabilizes, Duncan is well aware that he must stay on the ball in order to continue standing out amid the competition.
“That comes down to brilliant customer service, offering amazing trips to our customers. It comes down to being an amazing place to work,” he says. “We have been able to hire some fantastic people and retain, I would say, virtually all of our key people throughout the organization. If you talk to people in Travelopia, it’s a brilliant place to work. People love working here.”
Indeed, including seasonal workers, Travelopia’s workforce sits at around 3,100 people, with the company hiring heavily over the past year and with plans to hire several hundred more in the months ahead, Duncan reveals.
“Travel is a really fun, exciting industry to work in, but having been through the pandemic, it’s gone from being a fun, exciting industry to work in to maybe the hardest industry in the world to work in. Now it’s coming back to being actually an exciting growth industry to work in again,” he says.
“There’s a very nice blend of those that battled through the pandemic and did a great job, and then some new, fresh joiners coming in with a fresh perspective,” he says. “I’m always a great believer in fresh blood and experience being a really powerful combination.”
Stability at the top of the organization has also been a valuable part of the equation, according to Duncan, with the executive leadership team unchanged now for nearly four years. That has helped Travelopia find the right balance of experience and achieve alignment, he says.
“I’m a great believer in alignment,” he acknowledges. “I’m a great believer that if you have a common goal, you know where you’re heading – much like an expedition, much like an adventure – that if you’re literally doing a kind of traveling across Africa or something, you know where you’re trying to get to and you know roughly when you want to get there, but you might have all sorts of adventures along the way.”
Internally, there is a strong focus on people in terms of growth and development, with Duncan a firm believer that people are a company’s greatest asset.
“It’s a bit like a good sporting team,” he says. “If you’re in a good sporting team, there’s that constant refresh, some new people coming in, maybe a couple of youth players emerging, maybe a couple of signings coming in, and a couple of people for whom they’ve done their job. But the skills and experience they have would now be a better fit somewhere new.”
“I think that we found that we’ve been able to get great people from other industries who’d be able to come in and immediately help build those skills and best practices.”
“I think it’s not been necessarily at the senior level, because I think we’ve got that stability’s been important, but within the organization, we’ve been upgrading, refreshing, particularly bringing in new skills, new skills around tech, data, marketing, sales capability, innovation,” he continues. “I think that we found that we’ve been able to get great people from other industries who’d be able to come in and immediately help build those skills and best practices.”
In his quest to take Travelopia to the next level, Duncan has also adopted a best of both worlds philosophy, with its globally leading travel brands joining forces with with strong partners such as Sunstone Maritime Group and Robertson and Caine, and with other industry leading infrastructure and support.”
“Our ability to share best practice, I think, gives us a powerful advantage versus most of our competition,” he says. “We’re able to learn something about customers or about data or about pricing or whatever it might be, and then share that best practice quickly across the group, and that makes it exciting for people.
“It’s a very good way of giving people international exposure and growth and development opportunities, which I think people find very motivating.”
While Duncan identifies sourcing the best talent as one of the biggest challenges facing Travelopia, the company is already highly proactive in this area, having established three major global talent hubs in India, Central America and South Africa.
“Having access to these global talent pools means we’re finding that we’re able to get some fantastic people that can support our businesses all over the world on three different time zones,” he says. “So again, further scaling those up and making sure they’re as efficient and effective as they can be, I would put on our list of operational excellence opportunities.”
“I think being able to deliver amazing travel experiences as seamlessly as possible in a somewhat pressured, external environment is a big challenge area.”
Another strength standing the company in good stead is its ability to deliver trips operationally, even in the face of hurdles such as airport capacity, supply chain disruptions and rising customer expectations.
“I think being able to deliver amazing travel experiences as seamlessly as possible in a somewhat pressured, external environment is a big challenge area,” he says.
But he remains unfazed, confident in Travelopia’s offerings and capabilities. Indeed, there seems little doubt that Duncan has found the perfect fit.
“Unquestionably, it’s my favorite ever job,” he laughs. “I’ve always loved my jobs, but this one will be my favorite ever.”