Julia Lo Bue-Said of The Advantage Partnership
Julia Lo Bue-Said, managing director of the UK's largest independent travel agent group, explains what life is like as the head of such a rapidly growing business.
What is it the company does?
The Advantage Travel partnership is the UK’s largest independent business to business travel agent consortium, representing independent travel agents and travel management companies. As a member, our members benefit from improved buying power, business consultancy, marketing support and technology solutions.
Our members are also our shareholders. We are the only organisation of our kind to be exclusively owned by our members. All our members are independently owned SMEs, but as a collective produce over £3.5bn of travel sales each year.
Advantage Travel Partnership has a diverse business model incorporating the membership of travel agents and travel management companies, an insurance company, an insurance broker as well as a majority shareholding in an international travel services business.
What does your role involve?
I am responsible for developing and leading the strategy and vision for the group and ensuring implementation of the key business pillars across the organisation, ultimately providing member shareholder value.
Our diverse business model requires me to think broadly about our future direction, providing leadership and insight into the central team and championing key industry matters.
I manage the communication with my Board and Chairman and am constantly looking out for new opportunities for the company. My role is to ensure I have the right structure and people to deliver the strategy and that my people are supported to be the best they can be.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I am about to celebrate twenty-two years at Advantage – out loud that sounds like an awfully long time! However, I have had quite a few roles over the years. If I go back even further I think my career actually started as a young child. I grew up in a family of self-made entrepreneurs with my father running his own business.
Years and years later and after many sacrifices on his part, I saw how the hard work paid off through nice holidays and a lovely home. This grounded upbringing really helped me to understand the importance of core values that were important to me, which I still hold true today
Fast forward into adulthood I decided early on the travel industry was the sector for me. I had no idea how diverse it was and after leaving college after just one year, I landed a job working for the travel agency WHSmith Travel, who back then was a pretty sizeable chain of high street and in-store agents. Unfortunately, they were taken over by another travel giant, and I was subsequently made redundant.
Very quickly I found another job in tour operation starting off in reservations and working my way into sales and marketing. I really thought I’d found my perfect role and I loved the thrill of meeting sales targets and running campaigns for our partners to support.
I stayed in tour operating for about four years and then an opportunity came along at Advantage as a commercial executive. It was all go go when I joined, the company was much smaller then – with me being the eighth employee, it meant we just got on and made things happen.
Over a period of time, I was promoted to head of commercial until about ten years ago when a board position became available as leisure director and in 2013 I was promoted to managing director.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
I believe the essential qualities are honesty, humility and transparency. A leader needs belief and passion with the ability to take people on a journey with them.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Keeping out of the detail! When you have worked your way through a business your greatest asset is that you understand every aspect of the company. This does, however, have a tendency to mean you get too involved. I am disciplining myself all the time to let go!
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
I do a lot of walking which really helps me unwind but my family are my stress ball – they keep me sane and I am at my best when with them.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was very young I wanted to be a dancer with Legs & Co. I used to watch them enviously on Top of the Pops dreaming I would be them one day. That was one dream I didn’t follow.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
My biggest pet hate is the email culture that people have created. Emails clearly serve a purpose but I see that they have also taken away the ability for teams to interact in a creative manner.
People can hide behind emails which can appear curt and impolite. An email is no different to receiving a letter and you wouldn’t send a letter without any salutations or one-word responses, would you?
We all live in an information overload environment so we need to encourage cultures whereby we help improve communication and relations with our customers and in the workplace.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
I see Advantage as a world class business, delivering products and services which every travel agent and travel management company aspires to belong to.
I see our member shareholder value increasing through creating a model which provides stickiness and longevity for all stakeholders.
A business whereby employees are proud to work for and want to be part of.
Our name becomes synonymous with our values at every touch point of the customer journey – engage, create, deliver, transparency and caring with our customers truly at the heart of what we do.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Never give up. Dream big. Network and keep learning from those around you.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
How fun being in business can be. The sense of fulfilment you will feel when a plan comes together and the incredible people you will meet along the way.