Engineering a Better Tomorrow Together: Interview With Maurita Baker

Stricken hard, the global travel industry has been affected by the current pandemic in ways no one could have predicted. For Encore Travel, our suppliers and business partners are critical allies that play an important role in our ability to provide an exceptional level of service to our customers and their travelers.

maurita_baker_travelportIn an exclusive interview, we are pleased to introduce you to Maurita Baker, General Manager for Canada and the United States at Travelport. Travelport is a Global Distribution System (GDS), an innovative technology partner that allows us to consolidate fare content, important information and make real-time reservations with hundreds of thousands of suppliers around the world.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Baker in order to be able to showcase the concrete actions they have taken and continue to take – in order to allow us to serve you even more effectively during and after the pandemic.

Encore: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career at Travelport?

Maurita Baker (MB): I started my career at Travelport (back then it was Galileo) in Toronto 25 years ago. I have spent the last 15 years as the General Manager for Canada. Last year, I expanded my role and took on responsibility for both the US and CA. With this promotion, I relocated to our Americas headquarters and am now living in Atlanta, Georgia. I love to travel and explore new places. I also love to revisit my favorite places as frequently as possible! I love nature and immersing myself in the outdoors and I also love the cosmopolitan culture, excitement, and energy of big cities.

I am an avid runner since taking up this new hobby 5 years ago and ran my first marathon, the NY Marathon, in November. But my greatest passion in life is spending time with my two, young adult, sons.

Encore: Since Travelport is a Global Distribution System, connecting the various travel providers worldwide, the current pandemic has directly affected your business; what are you doing differently or will be doing differently going forward?

MB: Like most businesses in our industry, we firstly took sensible steps to ensure we are secure financially, including securing financing and making decisions from an OPEX perspective.

In our role as business partner to many key players in the industry, we historically spent a lot of our time engaging in-person with customers, prospects, the industry and internally with our colleagues. Yet, we have been very effective and successful in transitioning to a virtual environment. In fact, we have increased our communication to partners and employees, and are now offering even more support to our business partners with online consultancy sessions and virtual training.

We all faced challenges early on with the amount of information and changes related to COVID travel restrictions in other countries, as well as policies for airlines, hotel stays and car rentals. I am proud to say Travelport was the first travel technology company to launch a COVID-19 resource hub to help our partners access the right information to help travellers.

From a training standpoint, our team is offering self-paced, online training for travel agents on a range of topics – including how to manage air ticket exchanges. For the period of March to May this year, 87,000 agents participated in these sessions and most importantly, their average satisfaction score was 9.3/10.

We are also focused on providing more search and booking data, trends and insights to our customers and the industry. As such, we are working diligently to ensure our customers receive access to all relevant data and have the capabilities in place to understand that data.

Encore: From your perspective, how do you picture the current situation in the travel industry – what trends are you seeing?

MB: We expect this to be a slow, rolling recovery as restrictions are gradually lifted across the globe. But glimmers of hope are appearing. For the most part, volumes have been getting better every week. Some geographies are showing more aggressive recovery than others. Some have been showing a good recovery and then took a small dip the first week of July.   What is consistent is that the recovery we are seeing is in domestic travel. For example, for the first week of July, South Korea domestic travel is showing a 46% recovery level. New Zealand domestic travel rebounded 62%, Italy 67%, Australia 22%, Japan 3%, the U.K. 15%, United States 30% and Canada 25%.

With summer vacation season upon us, we are seeing the largest increases in demand and bookings with leisure travelers, and airlines are giving dates for when they plan to put more planes in the skies. While some are more aggressive than others in increasing their capacity, the overall trend is very positive.

Hotel occupancy rates in some regions are also showing encouraging signs of improvement. With governments and municipalities starting to ease lockdowns, and the associated travel restrictions easing as well, we can expect this positive trend to continue.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Safe Travels protocols for aviation should also help to accelerate recovery. While it’s impossible to predict exactly what the future will look like, the travel industry is incredibly resilient, and it will recover. Business travelers will return to visiting customers, and leisure travelers will find that urge to explore.

We are continuing to invest in our business so that we are poised to take full advantage when travel returns.

Encore: Could we relate the COVID situation to SARS or to 9/11 for the air industry? What do you think is similar and what is unique?

MB: While it is not the first time our industry has been disrupted by a public health emergency, like SARS —the impact being felt by the COVID-19 pandemic is more significant than any other event.

As this is a global crisis, many of the challenges the industry is facing in different parts of the world are the same or, at least, similar. The differences that do exist with this COVID situation, predominantly stem from how local governments have responded to the crisis when it comes to financial relief, lockdowns, and travel restrictions. We are also seeing different airlines and hotels respond with different health and safety measures at different speeds. We are encouraging all our travel partners to let us know what measures they are introducing and when, so we can get this information to TMCs and the wider agency community as soon as possible.

Encore: The airlines terms and conditions to manage the credits resulting of massive cancellations over the past months are creating challenges for TMCs and the millions those credits represent are a source of worry for businesses. How is Travelport helping to keep these credits, with the associated terms and conditions, organized and visible for future use?

MB: This is an issue we know is very important to our partners and their clients. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and government travel restrictions, airlines have been suspending, reducing, or canceling flights. It is estimated that more than one million flights have been canceled globally so far! At the same time, large numbers of travelers are requesting changes, cancellations, or refunds for impacted flights.

The good thing is that Travelport-connected Travel Management Companies (TMCs) can overcome the usually time-consuming process for manually processing changes to issued tickets thanks to tools and automation we are offering. The Airline Tariff Publishing Company (ATPCO), as a service organization to the industry, has released its Emergency Flexibility solution and Travelport customers all have access to this solution.

ATPCO’s Emergency Flexibility solution addresses the volume of previously issued tickets that need to be changed, sometimes more than once. These changes are made harder to process by the constantly changing conditions on when and where airlines will be able to fly. So the solution offered provides flexibility to relax restrictive terms on already-issued tickets. Previously, only rule conditions that were in effect when the ticket was issued could be used on existing tickets. In the current environment, this no longer worked for the industry.

Another key capability Travelport provides is a tracking solution for all the unused ticket credits generated as a result of cancelled air bookings. This solution allows for travel agencies and corporations to track and report on real time status of tickets and unused credits with airlines. The reporting capabilities allows users to define specific search criteria to better organize unused credits, helping ensure they are subsequently utilized.

Encore: Health experts warn of a possible COVID-19 second wave in the fall and the potential for other future global pandemics. What measures are you considering to lessen the impact of future events like this one on your business?

MB: I think a lot of it is around fostering business agility. We are remaining flexible and adjusting to the needs of our partners and customers.

Looking to the future, standing still is not an option – especially for companies like Travelport that sit at the heart of the travel ecosystem and need to support all partners, no matter how big or small, how innovative or conservative and regardless of the global climate. This is where our next generation platform comes in. It will be built on newer technology that will offer efficiencies, allow us to introduce new capabilities and enable us and our partners to act quickly and decisively in a rapidly evolving industry landscape.

We have found that some of the investments that we have been making in our technology solutions have proven very useful in that. For example:

Retailing, a key component of our next generation platform, has some existing tools to enable travel suppliers and travel agencies. When COVID-19 hit, messaging on seat upsells was not important. We needed to talk about things like cleaning processes, contactless check-in, air filtration, access to sanitation stations, etc. The same things used to drive ancillary sales previously have also been used to address a more fundamental problem today – driving demand.

Retailing has historically been about revenue optimization. Now the focus is demand generation – getting people back into airline seats and in hotel rooms and feeling confident about their plans for travel.

Encore: What impact did the pandemic have on your organization’s strategic initiatives and goals?

MB: Well before the crisis began, work on our next generation platform was well underway. While weathering through the crisis and looking towards recovery, we are seeing that the value our platform will be even more significant, and we remain focused and on track with its development.

A few details I can callout here… the Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to access our system show amazing improvements in shop to book. The end-to-end servicing of New Distribution Capabilities (NDC) will continue to show meaningful growth in content. And, our enhanced refund and exchange tools in the new platform are a big step forward.

Stay tuned on this element, as we are going to have a lot more to say soon – how it will enable better retail capabilities, access to more content, and the best value for the trip. We are very excited to help our partners provide travellers the best shopping, booking and after sale experience possible.

Our strategic priorities laid out at the beginning of the year, have not changed but rather have been reinforced by the pandemic, looking at the next few years are:

  • Invest to Win: Proactively allocating our resources in pursuit of the opportunities that deliver us the best financial return.
  • Launch the Platform: Launching a technology platform for all our customers that will leapfrog our competition and set a new benchmark in our industry.
  • Control the Business: Identifying activities that will enable us to achieve our desired results and being ruthless in our prioritization of those activities.

Encore: Travelport is a very dynamic organization, innovating constantly. Did the COVID pandemic bring on new ideas or new needs you see as opportunities to enhance your offering?

MB: Travelport has been working closely with the industry during these unprecedented times to help deliver innovative solutions to support the industry and their travelers.

For example, our recent launch of the covid-19 Smartpoint app – it provides agents, within their workflow, with critical real-time information related to local government restrictions, flight restrictions and safety measures. Airlines have now started using our Rich Content and Branding solution to communicate safety information with travel agents.

We are helping our supplier partners adjust the way they share information with the travel agent community through our solutions. Naturally, health and safety information, for example, has become increasingly important and needs prominence. Just in the last couple of weeks, Travelport has worked with IHG and Marriott to utilize descriptive space on the GDS screens to communicate safety information. Within 48 hours of initial testing, they had loaded their clean room policy in our search and availability screens with a link to their respective campaigns on cleanliness.

As I mentioned earlier, we were the first travel technology company to launch a COVID-19 resource hub that includes our airline policy tracker (as well as hotel and car), along with other helpful resources our agencies have asked for, and the information is constantly being updated. We have also been collaborating with a wide range of parties on initiatives designed to support a strong recovery – and we’re actively advocating for sensible global guidelines and standards for travel.

Post COVID-19, we can expect the travel industry to continue experiencing rapid change. This transformation will be built on three foundational priorities for the industry: multi-source content, retailing excellence and maximizing the value of every trip. This is all being enabled through our next generation platform that I just mentioned.

We are also constantly monitoring a wide range of emerging technologies like blockchain and adaptive cybersecurity, so we can establish if and how they can also add value to our customers and our customers’ customers – travelers.

Encore: What is the silver lining of this crisis from your perspective? What positives do you see coming out for your customers and their customers?

MB: Collaboration has never been more important than it is today. And I am pleased to say, the industry is really pulling together right now.

The value of the services provided by TMCs, particularly Encore Travel, from Duty of Care to reporting, management of unused ticket credits, safe and cost-effective travel consulting and travel arrangements and the automation and services that only a GDS, can offer for things like content aggregation from multiple sources, booking, workflow automation, change management, customer servicing, agency robotics, booking changes, policy compliance, expense management, invoicing and business analytics has never been more important and more emphasized as a critical value and necessity for businesses and their travelers.

With transactions being down significantly with the pause of travel caused by C-19, TMCs can change the model and better design compensation structures that are commensurate with the value offered regardless of the number of transactions processed.

As a silver lining, I think technology will only continue to grow in importance and we will see an increasing focus on efficiency, automation, mobile capability, and personalization of customer service. All these things benefit our customers – and of course, travelers.

For travelers, I think the safety protocols that are being introduced because of the pandemic will ultimately make travel safer than it has ever been.

This time of diminished travel has also allowed businesses a fresh start. This has provided the time and the room for innovation, upskilling and training. Often, we are otherwise “too busy” to embrace and cultivate key evolutions that can only come from fresh and unobstructed thinking which is hard to do in the mire of the usual day-to-day rat race.

And finally, I think the pandemic in general has each of us reflecting on what is important in life, to be grateful and to become involved and take action against the social injustices, primarily the systematic racism that has plagued our society for too long.

Encore: As a leader in your organization, you are expected to lead the way forward for your team and employees during these challenging times. Do you have any advice, anything you have learned that you would like to share around leadership in these turbulent times, full of change and uncertainty?

MB: My advice is to expect the unexpected! Remember that one event can change everything overnight. As such, we can never be complacent. When a crisis does hit, a leader needs to act quickly and decisively.

Looking back, I am glad we moved as quickly as we did at the start of the year. If your strategy still works, keep pursuing it. Try not to get too distracted and derailed if you know you are already heading in the right direction, it helps to look at the short-term issues with a long-term perspective.

As a person and as a people leader, be compassionate. Know that this is a journey and different people are at different places on the journey. There are many factors and variables affecting each employee right now – both personally and professionally. Remain a beacon of positivity and hope.

I found that during a period like we are going through it is also important for everyone to communicate often and authentically, internally, and externally.

Regardless of you job title or position, you can help everyone remain on track and focused on what is needed to emerge stronger by demonstrating and explaining the resilience and the tenacity needed to adapt and overcome the challenge. It helps to remember you are part of one industry and to do what you can to support others. They will remember when the crisis has passed.

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