Mark Bowers is CEO of Redfern, which manages business travel for 500 organisations and 500,000 registered travellers. He made his way to Bowcliffe Hall to have lunch with BQ Yorkshire Editor Mike Hughes.
Mark Bowers doesn’t look worried. He is so smartly dressed (tie immaculately knotted, suit looks as if he has just bought it on his way here) that he has me glancing down to check the shine on my shoes within a few moments of us meeting.
I know he has a lot on his mind, but he handles it well. Four years ago his company Redfern Travel made headlines throughout the industry when it was awarded a vast contract to look after travel arrangements for all civil servants. The size of the company compared to the size of the deal made it a surprise move when Whitehall dropped the French incumbents and chose Redfern instead.
That was 2011 and now the contract is up for renewal. Redfern started as a family business in 1937, based in Bradford as it is now. In 1999 the business was sold to Ian Wotton and his colleagues Tony Shaw and Alan Wells. Bowers, a long-time friend of Wotton’s joined eight years ago and moved on to the board in 2010 and the team completed an MBO last year.
“Ian and I had a curry lunch in Bradford to discuss me joining – it took me quite a while to get used to curry for lunch – and I joined about a week later. The travel industry is rather incestuous, particularly for those of us who have been in it for a while, and Ian was one of the key figures and the plans and the innovation we talked about then have all borne fruit.”
Corporate travel is growing in strength again after the recession, when such costs were cut across all sectors. It still has its challenges, but there is a route back. “What we have seen is that during bad times the amount of money people are willing to pay for a hotel room or rail tickets has fallen. In previous recessions that has recovered, but that is not happening this time.
“They have gone to the back of the aircraft and are staying there.
“That may change, but the hotel sector as a whole is doing very, very well.”
There seems to be an inbuilt unpredictability in something like corporate travel, because of its susceptibility to market forces in other areas, but Bowers says the journey can be managed.
“We tend to be able to see trends happening quite early. People travel for business, so if there is a lack of confidence we can identify a bounce-back or a retraction early on. Largely, the industry isn’t led by commission any more, so volume of transactions is very important to us.”
The sector has changed considerably over the last few years, with companies like Redfern growing out of being just a travel agent and harnessing the power of the Internet, which, in turn, has created one of its biggest challenge - people could just do it themselves now and bypass the Redfern model.
“Our way isn’t for everyone”, says Bowers. “But it works very well for people who have largely been neglected, like the public sector. There aren’t many of us who are focussing on this market and those others that are, perhaps haven’t developed the technology at the front end that our customers see online and that make it more process-efficient.”
That efficiency equates to a transaction every three seconds for Redfern. So in the time it has taken you to read this far, on average, Redfern will have completed around 90 transactions. Practically, Bowers says that means each member of staff can rack up around 27,500 each year.
“And that includes people like me who don’t do any work”, he adds with a smile.
The next best annual figure in the industry is around 5,500, so Redfern’s focus on that volume of transactions takes them way ahead of their competition and helps explain Whitehall’s decision to choose them to take on such a game-changing responsibility.
How? “Automation. It’s all about engaging the client to book online, and with large organisations that might involve quite a culture change, and we are very good at that.
“We introduced our first online booking tool in 2006 and we already had automation at the back of it. So we were able to start changing that culture that you are not ringing ‘Mary’ and taking up 20 minutes just having a ‘how was your weekend’ conversation’.”
That means 98% of Redfern’s bookings now happen online, with 92% of them not needing any intervention at all. But when that intervention is needed, the quality of people on Redfern’s end of the phone line can win or lose contracts.
“They are absolutely critical,” says Bowers. “There is an automatic assumption if you are a procurement officer to ask ‘Why are these guys so much cheaper? They must be crap’. “So we have to get over that first hurdle and have the conversation about how we do things and that’s when the lightbulb moment happens for them.
“Then the next challenge for our staff is to support the online delivery with an absolute ‘Dog’s Bs’ of an offline service from highly-qualified consultants. That experience has to match the experience customers get online.”
The seamless mix of online and offline has persuaded CEOs, procurement officers and senior politicians that Redfern is a contender for any size of contract, of any complexity.
Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, gave a gold-plated belter of a quote in 2012 when he told a briefing: “Government contracts don’t have to be, and often shouldn’t be, so big and complicated. Redfern Travel is a great example. We split Government travel into two lots enabling SMEs to bid and Redfern won the contract for domestic travel.
“What’s more they offered a price that is a saving of over 70% compared to current costs - saving us over £20m in four years.
“I want many more Redferns.” You could almost literally take that to the bank and live off it. But it was hard-earned and added pressure to both Maude and Bowers to prove it wasn’t just a throwaway line.
With so many transactions, data capture and interpretation is a valuable asset. Customers can keep track of their spend along with a detailed breakdown of the environmental impact of each travel option. Taxis will be booked to link the various stages and Redfern’s tRIPS online system (The Redfern Intelligent Packaging System) will also tell a client the cost of having a certain member of staff out of the office and allow him or her to sort their expenses.
And if the cost of having the CFO away in Edinburgh for a day looks prohibitive, Redfern will suggest, and set up, a video conference so the journey doesn’t have to take place at all.
Brought up in Harrogate and living in Leeds, Bowers has his own travel plans well mapped out. He takes a city break early in the year, a top-end summer holiday and then a week in the sun towards the end of summer.
“A one-week holiday is a bit of a trial for those around me,” he admits. “Because it does take me two or three days to switch off and then by the time we get to day four, I’m switching myself on again.
“I find that, while I’m away, half an hour a day to deal with emails is enough and frees up the rest of the break. I tried going completely incommunicado a while ago and when I clicked on my emails in the departure lounge coming home there were 2,500 waiting for me. That just negated the holiday, so I don’t do it anymore.”
Other ways of relaxing include cycle rides and food – either cooking it or eating it, despite “being on some sort of diet” and declining a dessert, although I do notice a biscuit finding its way across the table.
With Bowers’ father in sales at British Airways for his whole career and his mother working at what was then BEA, travel was never going to be too far from his plans – which started to take shape stocking the shelves with brochures at a travel agents.
There are interesting times ahead for Redfern, but the captain has his hand firmly on the tiller. Bon voyage.