In the race for the 2008 US presidency, Barack Obama waged one of the most effective campaigns in the history of electioneering. A change we can believe in was the slogan incessantly repeated in stump speeches and social media channels. After an eight-year Bush presidency, which included the questionable intervention in Iraq and a capitulating economy, the Obama team calculated that Americans wanted something different. They were clever, of course, not to provide too much detail (why make yourself a hostage to fortune?). But, overall, they nailed public sentiment, and the rookie senator from Illinois took the White House.
Change as a concept is far easier to embrace than any kind of practical transformation. People are wired in different ways; but most instinctively resist change when it has a tangible impact on the status quo. And for obvious reasons: loss of control and uncertainty are considered, by most, to be key ingredients of instability. In the world of business, doubt and ambiguity stifle investor confidence and employee motivation. There is also, demonstrated many times throughout history, the real possibility that change – technologically speaking or otherwise – is a threat to the livelihood of individuals. English textile workers in the early 19th century, for example, smashed weaving machines that would eventually render their skills worthless.
Unlike the Luddites, travel buyers and managers have never encountered a genuine existential threat. That does not mean the fear of change is absent from discussion. If anything, the pace at which technology evolves has placed a new veneer on the art of travel management. Depending on your viewpoint, it’s a risk or opportunity. However, it is not unreasonable to point out that the managed travel sector has endured disruption for many years. And arguably, it should be more adaptable than it is.
In the UK for example, those with long enough memories will remember the advent of Virgin Atlantic, a challenger brand alternative to the establishment UK flag carrier. Many regarded Branson’s business to be too maverick for the corporate world. Later came low cost carriers easyJet and Ryanair, causing massive disruption to the tradition model of distribution and remuneration. “It might be fine for the leisure sector, but not for us,” quipped many a corporate travel executive. Despite acute resistance, the industry knew it would have to find a way to work with budget airlines.
More recently, budget hotel chains, online booking tools, mobile apps and sharing economy suppliers have each, in their own way, challenged established travel management dogma. Obscurantists cite rigid duty of care processes and the collation of management information as reasons to oppose change. But is that really the root of reticence? Or is it simply instinctive resistance? Most probably the latter.
Great leaders in politics and business have always been drivers of change. Not leading change means, by definition, that a person, business or government is either standing still or being overtaken by the competition. Exhibiting impulsive defensiveness, in business terms, is a characteristic of middle management. The antidote, therefore, is to develop a lean, agile approach to all aspects of travel management.
Change itself is inevitable: those who embrace it will survive; those that drive it are more likely to succeed. One need only look at how easyJet and Ryanair are now permanent fixtures on the corporate travel landscape to recognise the futility of the early opposition. The same will, eventually, be said of Uber (the most expensed ground transportation cost in the US last year, according to Skift), Airbnb and others.