Inspiring Women Leaders in Transport

Women in Transport Network

Julia Lo Bue-Said

Chief Executive Officer, Advantage Travel Partnership​

Women in Transport Network

Meet Julia

Julia became CEO of Advantage Travel Partnership group, the UK's largest independent Consortia of travel agents and travel management companies, in April 2018. Julia is responsible for running the business day-to-day, and for developing the strategy and vision for the company. Under her leadership, profitability and shareholder value have grown, along with pre-Covid (no dividends in 2020) annual dividend payments. Long recognised in the industry for her vigour and energy, Julia was named an ‘Industry Influencer’ in the Business Travel News Europe 2021 Hotlist, in January 2021, capping a series of awards over the years in recognition of her influence and leadership skills. After studying travel and tourism at college, Julia started her travel career working overseas before joining WH Smith Travel. Julia then held roles with Balkan Holidays and The Best Travel Group before joining Advantage.
1. Tell us about your career so far and what attracted you to work in the travel industry?

I’ve been in the travel industry for all of my working career. I started working for WH Smith Travel. I always wanted to be in the travel industry but did not know where this would take me. My manager at that time said she had not realised how inexperienced I was, and this really spurred me on to prove her wrong. I enjoyed working as a travel agent for WH Smith Travel, until their acquisition, after which I moved into Best Travel Group. There, I started off in reservations, moved into sales and marketing, working with Hugh Morgan, who was a great business leader. I learnt a huge amount in tour operations. I then went into sales and marketing for Balkan Holidays. Then, 25 years ago I joined Advantage in a Commercial role - mostly leisure. Members are experts in leisure and business travel (50:50 based on member turnover).

2. What would your career highlight be that you are really proud of?

There are so many, it is difficult to answer. ​

1. I would say there have been many highlights in terms of people I managed. I love seeing a difference from day one to how people grow. People are the ones that make the business, the business doesn't make itself. Knowing who the rising stars are is critical. Educating your people that developing sideways in a business as well as climbing up the ladder are all routes to aim for. ​

2. How I changed the profile of the business and strategy. Membership businesses can be viewed as perhaps a little old fashioned - as a network. Alongside my team, we put a new strategy in place, setting clear deliverables and transparency to take the business forward as a commercial leader in the market place. I was proud of our Vision 2020 strategy and the profile built for the business under the Advantage banner. There were clear communications and the right people in place. ​

3. Unlike any other consortia, Advantage is owned by our members and therefore meeting the expectations of members is vital in all we do. Seeing how proud members are of being a shareholder fills us all with immense pride and keeps us motivated every day.

4. I am also personally proud of the raised media profile that Advantage has gained over the last ten months. If you said to me last year that my media training would be put to the test on prime time news, broadcaster lists and the like, I wouldn't believe this. My top tip on live broadcasts: prepare with briefing notes, pick 2-3 key points and what is that one thing that is really important, listen to what's going on out there at the moment on the news and social media, and know your stuff so your points are relevant to the audience. TV is just a camera; you can't see them. Look at your webcam, start understanding when to talk/not to. ​

3. What has been the most challenging part of your career and how did you overcome this?

If asked last year, I would have said stepping up from Leisure Director to Managing Director. I hadn't appreciated the move from an operational role to general management. But now, I would say leading a business through the pandemic tests everything you've ever learnt as well as rolling together every management crisis theory into one, from People, HS&E, IT, operational practices, risk management, governance and financials to name a few. ​

4. How has the industry fared in managing the challenges posed by the pandemic and where will the industry be in the next five years?

The pandemic continues to have a seismic impact on the travel industry. With international travel at a standstill and government measures banning international travel, this has contributed to a near shutdown of the sector. Last summer we saw the government introduce measures which included travel corridors. This led to mass cancellations and refunds of such a magnitude, leaving many of the supply chain simply unable to cope with the volume. ​

​We do live on an island, the weather is pretty miserable most of the year so from a leisure perspective, we can see already a significant pent-up demand for when the time to travel is right and restrictions are lifted. With family and friends looking to be reunited, we expect more multi-generational travel and a focus short-term on products to satisfy this change in demand. The industry will also need to provide clarity on what safety protocols have been implemented by the host destination. In five years, we anticipate growth on 2019, as the desire to travel won’t decline. However, there is a responsibility on us all to consider the sustainability agenda as I see the need to provide greater transparency to the end-user, important if we are going to change future behaviours. Business travel is expecting a slower recovery as corporates redefine their future objectives around sustainability, budgets and duty of care. Face-to-face meetings will always be important, and some essential industries cannot operate without, such as oil & gas, and marine workers. Travel Management Companies (TMCs) will play a pivotal role in helping their corporates and travel buyers implement the right travel programme in a world co-existing alongside Covid. ​

5. What changes have you had to make in your working practices?

The last time we were all in the office was the 15th March 2020, post which we have all been at home. Our ability to move quickly and be agile is important. Virtual working will likely stay, hoping for a balanced manner of this moving forwards. Some positive working practices have transpired during the pandemic including improved balance of life and I've noticed meeting punctuality and discipline are much better. I don’t believe we can get away from the need for face-to-face meetings, as they really are beneficial in particular where collaboration is deemed essential, and I am yet to be convinced that we are at our most creative when working solo. The reality is that homeworking isn’t the experience everyone wants for their work life, and for some it isn’t practical because of their home setup. I believe a hybrid role can work moving forwards and we will continue consulting with our people first. ​

6. How have you remained positive during the crisis and looked after your wellbeing and mental health?

The pace and adrenaline have kept me going. I’ve done lots of walking in the weekends and try to take time away from working whenever possible. Encouraging everyone in the business to go for a walk every day to get away from screens. For everyone it is very different, and it has been a case of adapting, trying differing coping mechanisms and spending time with my family. It’s important to not stare at a screen all day long no matter how tempted we may be particularly as our home and work lives have merged! ​

7. What can the industry do to attract and retain high-calibre women?

We have to visibly showcase women in leadership roles. We are seeing more of them now and success for me will be once we can normalise this. We need to showcase what success looks like and know how to positively celebrate women in leadership roles! Showing it is possible gives other women something to aim for. Unfortunately, through the pandemic, we will have inevitably lost future talent for the industry, and as we approach the recovery, we need to showcase the travel industry on a pedestal, as an industry that does present women with many leadership opportunities. ​

8. Do you suffer from imposter syndrome and how do you tackle it?

Doesn’t everyone? I think the higher you set your goals, the more the imposter syndrome creeps in! My view is that a little is healthy, but we need to ensure it doesn’t take over our frame of mind, as it can be toxic and will destroy confidence and stop you in your tracks. As women, we have to go out of our way to help other women deal with this. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy. ​

9. How could we do more in the industry regarding diversity?

We all have a responsibility in recruitment strategies and processes. We need to put correct practices in place, making sure we are taking an inclusive approach. There is no magic wand to this. It needs to be called out and conscious efforts should be made. We want the right people around the table, with different mind-sets, and cultures. We need to ensure we are educating our teams of the power a diverse workforce can deliver to the business, but also to enable us all to broaden our views. ​

10. What advice would you give your younger self?​

Don't worry about what you can't do or why you can't do it. This is really important as it inhibits us and stops us moving forwards. What we don't know, we can learn. Network to your heart’s content. I have found my network invaluable during COVID-19 and this has enabled me to share my thoughts and anxieties during these past difficult months and they have also been there for when I need to let off some steam!

11. What would your three top tips be for women who want to break the glass ceiling?

1. Lots of sheer determination is required.

2. Help women understand what is out there and see what roles can lead you into senior leadership roles​.

3. When you are in your early stage of careers, don't worry. People worry that they are not good enough. Focus on what we can do. Create a niche, one thing you can be really good at. You can't be good at everything.

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