Flight Centre’s David Fraser steers a new course for the travel industry
Greater China MD sees fresh opportunities for high-end business and leisure travel.
With many Hongkongers winding down for the Christmas break, David Fraser has been doing just the opposite. As Greater China managing director for Flight Centre Travel Group, he and his team have been confirming itineraries and lining up last-minute deals as the seasonal exodus to beaches, ski slopes, adventure playgrounds and culture capitals begins.
Certain destinations and activities are long-time favourites and sure-fire hits. Each year, however, the challenge is to come up with fresh and enticing options that are safe yet exciting, ground-breaking, but not too uncomfortable.
“People are always looking for new destinations and unique travel experiences, so is it important for us to stay one step ahead and seek out undiscovered gems,” Fraser says. “In this respect, the concept of sustainable tourism is important, though getting it right can be a very fine balance. What makes some destinations so appealing is their natural beauty, but bringing in too many people can spoil that. Therefore, the travel industry, governments, NGOs and travellers themselves need to work together to make visits sustainable and protect these locations for future generations.”
Despite the proliferation of online services, Fraser says the Hong Kong market remains quite traditional when booking business trips or the big annual holiday. People want the support of a travel consultant, particularly if planning an overseas trip with multiple stops.
“Next year, we will launch an online booking engine to offer an extra option,” he says. “But most of our customers in Hong Kong prefer personal attention and have very high expectations around service, and that is unlikely to change.”
Fraser’s early life involved plenty of travel as his father was in the Australian army. His family transferred between military postings, before settling in Brisbane, with its typically outdoor lifestyle. There, he completed a commerce degree and qualified as a chartered accountant. In due course, seniority opened the way to a finance role with Flight Centre’s Australia operations. A succession of acquisitions saw him ironing out deals in China and India before being invited – somewhat unexpectedly – to move to Hong Kong in 2006.
“I had been here on what I thought was a last trip and had done all the sightseeing when my predecessor put an opportunity to me,” Fraser says. “I could already see the excitement of living and working in Asia and sensed that accepting the move would be a key turning point in my career. I loved the energy, the East-meets-West culture, the efficiency, and the fact that people work hard and get things done.”
After a short stint as CFO and commercial director for Greater China, he took up his current role and the challenges that went with it. Lately, that has meant guiding the firm’s evolution from travel agent to becoming more of a travel retailer. What that entails, in essence, is not simply selling other companies’ products or services, but creating something distinctive that is not available through online channels or from direct competitors.
An example is the line of “red label” special offers to popular destinations, which can include tickets for the airport express or the equivalent of HK$1,000 in hotel vouchers. There may also be price protection guarantees, with the promise of partial refunds if a cheaper comparable offer becomes available elsewhere in the next 30 days.
“We are quite deliberate in terms of the market segments we focus on,” says Fraser, who describes his own style of management as hands-off and fairly easy-going. “We would rather dominate a niche market where we have a point of differentiation than compete in the mass market space, which has become highly commoditised. That strategy works for us today and we continue to see new opportunities for developing high-end business and leisure travel, as well as other niches which can grow hand in hand.”
With three children under six, spare time is a rare commodity. Inevitably, holiday trips now tend to revolve around beaches and swimming pools, rather than city visits, golf courses or historical sites, but Fraser would have it no other way.
“One of the blessings of having a family is that it forces you to have a better work-life balance and gives you new perspectives on a lot of different levels,” he says. “For example, I am very focused on the kids’ safety and making sure they have opportunities as they grow up. And from an environmental point of view, I recognise we must leave a world and a way of living that is sustainable for them and their children. We all need to take responsibility and work together on that issue.”
David Fraser plots a four-stop course for success
Clients are key “Understand the needs of customers, focusing on areas where the company can build a competitive advantage, rather than struggling against over larger, more established players.”
Maintain quality “Ensure the brand really stands for something and customers can rely on a consistently high level of service. This requires close attention to execution, delivery and all aspects of post-sales service.”
Keep staff on board “Develop a strong company culture and, as much as possible, promote from within. Have a policy for rewards and recognition that is transparent, takes account of both company and individual performance, and shows people they can progress and have a bright and exciting future in the business. It helps to have a system which allows people who start as travel consultants to move up into leadership roles or horizontally into head office or support positions.”
Nurture talent “Make sure there are opportunities for learning and development, so everyone keeps acquiring useful new skills though tailor-made training courses, not just on-the-job experience.”