Gearing up for the global arena

A well-known figure within the South African corporate travel industry, Felicity Meyer is blazing new trails, with a new global appointment. Debbie Badham reports.  

LOCAL travel manager for Massmart, Felicity Meyer, is moving on to new and exciting things. Walmart has presented her with the opportunity to join its global travel procurement team, which is based in the USA.

A seasoned travel professional, Meyer started her career on the supplier side of the travel industry, predominantly working for airlines. She also spent time gaining invaluable experience working for Wings Travel Management before starting her own strategic consultancy business. Thereafter, she was contracted by Ernst & Young, before joining Massmart on a three-month consultancy basis, ultimately taking up the role of the company’s travel manager and launching its own travel division, Massmart Travel Services.

Given her history of making waves within the corporate travel management space, both through her involvement in the GBTA and the launch of new initiatives such as Massmart Travel Services, it comes as no surprise that Meyer continues to shake things up on the local travel management scene with her achievements on the global playing field.

Currently the Walmart travel team consists of a number of different directors responsible for different regions and global hotel sourcing and airline sourcing functions. Meyer will join the team, providing support in terms of integration and communication. “Ultimately the company is trying to integrate its global travel management programme and improve efficiencies through technology,” she says.  “It’s still very early days but I think the company will try to break free from the traditional business travel mould and do things differently – they are looking for out-of-the-box thinking.”

Meyer describes her new role as a “space in which just about anything can happen” because the Walmart team is geared for innovations. While, this will likely create challenges in terms of what to expect, she is enthusiastic about the position’s free structure which is not hemmed in by traditional thinking. “I find it incredibly exciting that we will be looking to do things differently to how they have ever been done before. I will be joining a great team with really interesting views on travel and have the opportunity to work on best practice and improved efficiencies.”

While the local industry often assumes that its global counterparts have corporate travel well under wraps, there are still many issues to be ironed out from a global perspective, Meyer says. “They are also still trying to improve efficiencies through the use of technology.

“Two of the requisite attributes listed on the job description were courage and a sense of humour,” she notes, saying that this really caught her attention.

South Africans are tough; we are not afraid of a challenge and are always ready to make a plan,” she says. A case in point is the latest issue with Eskom and loadshedding. “We simply adapt and find a new way of coping. This makes us incredibly valuable on the world stage.”

Meyer believes the key to building a successful career in travel management is to build a good reputation and have integrity. “It is really all you have at the end of the day.” A significant part of this is to respect each and every link within the travel management chain, she says. “It’s about demonstrating respect for all the collective parts of the travel programme, showing people that you value them and thanking them for everything that they do.”

Equally important is the ability to remain abreast of industry developments. Meyer stresses the importance of networking with peers and remaining open to sharing with and learning from others.       

SA’s first GTP graduate

Meyer has also recently gained accreditation with the GBTA’s Global Travel Professional (GTP) certification. Notably, she becomes the first travel buyer in South Africa, and possibly Africa, to receive this accreditation.

“I consider this to be the greatest achievement of my career,” she enthuses, explaining that travel managers in the South African market have little to benchmark their success against. “In this country, travel managers tend to determine their own sense of direction, but this makes it difficult to truly know whether you are doing a good job or not. The GTP really helps to set a benchmark for professional excellence.”

The primary problem with the GTP is that it is not currently easily accessible to travel managers. Buyers are first required to submit their CV and work experience to the GBTA to gain approval to write the exam. The gruelling exam which consists of more than 200 hundred different questions can then only be written overseas – a task that requires significant time and money.

Meyer took the test in Berlin. “The study material for the exam was incredibly comprehensive, and while in South Africa we often make the assumption that international practice is not always relevant to our context, I did not find this to be the case at all. This very fact gave me confidence that we are on the right track.”

She believes that travel managers need more benchmarking tools like the GTP to ensure they are on the right path and constantly improving. While the GBTA Southern Africa is working to bring the GTP exam to local travel managers, this remains a challenge.

Meyer’s call up to the international arena came before she wrote the exam. However, she says that is was great to have the certification behind her name as she takes this next big step.   

Ground-breaking technology

Massmart Travel Services has implemented a new online booking system for its travellers – the first of its kind not only in South Africa but the world, according to Meyer. The team has been working with Travellinck to develop the new technology to improve service and create greater efficiencies.

Meyer says what is special about the new system is its ability to link seamlessly with the Tourvest Travel Services ticketing system. Massmart opted not to apply for its own Iata licence to avoid all the complications and liabilities attached to conducting its own ticketing, hence the company still does all its ticketing through Tourvest. Now, with its new technology, the company enables travellers to purchase their tickets in real time through a robotic ticketing mechanism that does not require any human intervention whatsoever. “Most corporate booking tools claim to be automated but they aren’t truly fully automated. Thanks to this new technology we now have something that is genuinely automated.”

The system was introduced for the primary purpose of alleviating Massmart’s consultants. Now that the company’s travel can be booked online, the consultants will be free to deal with the more high-touch travel issues.

The system has been designed to be highly intuitive, such that there is no need to spend a great deal of time and effort educating travellers on how to use the new system. “When you as an online user do Internet banking or book your flights online, you don’t first receive a tutorial from the relevant service provider. Our thinking was that our booking system should be completely intuitive in much the same way,” explains Meyer.

In terms of compliance, she notes that while the system is there to help communicate the organisation’s travel policy, it is not there to police compliance. “Our travellers are still able to book outside of policy; however, they are cautioned to please be aware that they are so doing.”

Interestingly, the company’s travellers will not be “forced” to make use of the new booking system and can still seek assistance from Masstravel’s consultants should they prefer. Meyer notes that this is a great way to achieve buy-in from travellers as they have time to become comfortable with and be excited about the new system without feeling they are being forced into change.