We are pleased to announce today the partnership with bta first travel. For more than thirty years, the company, which was acquired by the Migros subsidiary Hotelplan in 2010, has focused on high quality, customer-oriented and end-to-end services for SMEs and large international companies in Switzerland. We asked the CEO of bta first travel, Roland Birchmeier, why a partnership with a Swiss travel partner makes sense especially in times of Corona and what Corona means for the travel industry in general.
Tell me a bit more about bta first travel, what is the story of its foundation?
bta first travel was founded in Zurich in 1985. From today's perspective, this would be called a 'start-up'. The three young founders, all in services with the then established business travel service providers, recognised the potential of differentiation through personal and individualised service and the real added value it offered the customer. The business model took full effect - the company expanded and a nationwide sales network was created. In 2010 the Migros subsidiary Hotelplan Group took over the company. Even though many things have changed: The DNA has remained the same to this day: high quality in all channels, customer-oriented, professional end-to-end services for SMEs and large international companies, supported by technology and at fair prices.
Corona has thwarted us all, but the short and long-term consequences seem to be massive especially for the travel industry. How do you see that? What does Corona mean in the short and long term for the industry in which bta travel first operates?
The industry was hit head-on by Covid-19. Only a few aircraft can be seen in the sky, the borders to many key markets are closed. This is indeed a dramatic starting position. But this is not the first challenge: with 09/11, the grounding of Swissair, the financial crisis, the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull or the lung disease SARS, the travel industry was also repeatedly affected by drastic events in earlier years - and always emerged from them stronger. But the current crisis will of course have a more significant impact, also on the travel industry.
And what impact will Corona have on bta first travel? What impact on your customers?
There were different phases: From the onset of uncertainty, through the measures taken in the "extraordinary" situation of the Federal Council, to ensuring the health of our employees, we were put under great pressure. The same challenges were faced by our clients. And as so often in crises, it has been shown that customers are once again focusing more on advice and are increasingly turning to travel agencies. Many customers who had booked directly with service providers had to experience how difficult it is to reach them in such times. In recent times, our customers have become increasingly concerned about the rules introduced by various national states (keywords: entry bans, quarantine regulations, tests). How do I plan a trip if I don't know today whether I will be allowed to enter a country tomorrow?
What measures have you taken as a company to respond to this and which learning can you already draw from them?
We have reacted to Corona on various "fronts". From the first adjustment of the budget figures in January, to the formation of the crisis team in February, to planning for the future, which unfortunately also includes restructuring. I currently see short-term planning as one of the main lessons to be learned. During the "hot" phase, we had made short-term decisions in each case, as the situation (and also the general conditions) was constantly changing. This approach has proven to be the right one and we are forced to continue to use it due to the uncertainties mentioned above.
Are there things that clients will attach more importance to in the future?
Clients will again attach more importance to personal advice in the future. With our regional distribution network and as two-time "best Travel Management Company" 2018 & 2019 in Switzerland, we are in a very good position. In addition, employers' duty of care will become even more important in the future. We are very well positioned with products such as btaSAFETRIP and btaANALYSIS. These are indispensable applications with a very good price-performance ratio for successful travel management. Our medium-sized customers in particular appreciate that with bta first travel they do not need to start a large IT project to implement such tools; we deliver them ready to use - without unnecessary effort on the part of the customer.
And are there also things you will be adapting to your offer for customers?
We are working on new products - for example, a handy approval process. Again, there are thousands of possibilities and our clients have - especially in this day and age - other priorities than investing time, money and resources in such projects. bta first travel covers the entire process chain; and it is in this context that the cooperation with you from Yokoy should be seen.
In an interview with Skift, an online travel magazine, Paul Abbott, CEO of American Express Global Business Travel said: "You will see more companies look at their real estate strategy, having a more dispersed workforce is going to accelerate. But with a more dispersed workforce, you reduce commuting, you reduce your real estate costs, but you actually increase business travel. - What do you think?
I have probably never read so many future assessments and white papers in my life as in the last few weeks and months. I can imagine that this statement may well be valid for other markets such as the USA. But I don't think it can be applied 1-1 to the Swiss market. One aspect that is important from my point of view - also in the context of the home office - is the greater role that video or telephone conferences will play. These in turn will have a reducing effect on planned business trips - especially for internal appointments. However, it is not possible to estimate how long-term this trend will be. In past crises, these trends had not lasted as long as initially assumed. However, it is uncertain whether these experiences will be repeated after the current crisis. One example of this is the situation of our international partner ATPI in Asia, where certain markets are approaching the previous year's figures. This is also due to the fact that in Asia the personal meeting is culturally very important.
Now we have announced our partnership with you today. Why do you think that such partnerships are especially important in the current times?
The origins of the partnership between Yokoy and bta first travel go back to the last calendar year. In this respect they are not directly related to Corona. Therefore: such partnerships are of great strategic importance for us, because as mentioned above, we offer our clients a hand for solutions that cannot be assigned to the classic travel distribution. For some time now, we have seen a great need on the part of our customers in this respect. The Corona crisis is now accelerating this process.
And what added value does Yokoy offer your customers? Especially in view of the short and long-term consequences of Corona for the travel industry?
The added value lies in an overall, integrated expense solution with an excellent price-performance ratio. The associated gains in quality and time at lower process costs are very attractive. There are a lot of providers in your business segment - it is becoming increasingly difficult for our customers to gain an overview. Therefore, we were looking for a partner who offers an excellent product, is dynamic and - not to be underestimated - has a national presence and is therefore quickly available, which is by no means a given. On the other hand, as an established player in the market for decades, bta first travel brings precisely this market knowledge and contacts to Yokoy to continuously improve your product.
When do you think people will be able to travel again? And what will be different?
This is the crucial question for our industry. The first airlines are slowly starting to expand their flight schedules again. But we are seeing different reactions from our customers: Some are relaxing their travel policies, others are waiting and leaving the status quo unchanged. The "new normal" will gradually set in, because even if transport connections exist, it must be ensured that one is allowed to enter a country at all and does not have to go into quarantine afterwards. The last weeks, with national, regional solutions, with “traffic light systems”, with quarantine and/or tests and so on, have led to even greater uncertainty. As long as it is generally so difficult to plan trips abroad, the situation will not improve. In addition, a shift from flights to alternative means of transport such as trains and - not to forget - rental cars is to be expected. The price development is also not yet foreseeable. If I look into the crystal ball here, I would first expect lower prices in the flight sector. After that, prices will rise due to the additional measures and possibly changed capacity utilization. However, it is quite possible that the oversupply of aircraft will lead to price erosion, which in turn will depress the final prices.
What do you like most about the travel industry?
I have been working in this industry for 35 years and - even in these times - I experience something exciting every day. Especially in a crisis you experience a lot of goodwill and gratitude from customers and partners. That is very motivating. In addition, I'm thrilled by the many conversations I've had with colleagues from home office to home office and now "face to face" again. The commitment to customers and teamwork is outstanding even in these uncertain times. Even if lasting changes are imminent: I'm not worried about the future of the travel industry as such: people's need to travel, to get to know strangers, to meet other people is far too deep. Curiosity is a basic trait of human character, and the effects of the Corona crisis have shown us just how much we miss direct human contact.