High flying Dutchman. Frank van der Post tells Mel Flaherty about the challenges of the airline industry after his years in the hotel business. Frank van der Post says he is a ‘glass half-full’ man but even he finds it hard to enthuse about the view from his office window:
“Well, I can see some trees,” he ventures, a trifle feebly. To be fair, now he is Managing Director of Brands and Customer Experience for British Airways, his office is just five minutes away from Heathrow’s Terminal 5. It would be hard to find a West London vista to compete with the one from his desk at his previous job – as Chief Operating Officer of Jumeirah Group, the owner of ultra-luxury hotels; he looked out at Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab.
“You can’t have it all,” he jokes in his transatlantic yet still distinctly Dutch accent. It’s not the first time he has lived and worked in the UK – one of his first jobs after graduating from Florida International University, School of Hospitality Management, was at the Park Lane Hilton and later he was back in the capital at the Mayfair InterContinenal Hotel. He has lived in about 17 different locations but despite his Dutch roots considers New York home, as that was where his children grew up.
Slightly less glamorous surroundings aside, the serial hotelier has no regrets at all about his then surprising move, almost two years ago now, into the airline industry.
Airlines generally have had a difficult decade thanks to the recession, 9/11, SARS and rocketing fuel prices. In more recent times, BA had additional problems in the shape of the Terminal 5 fiasco and industrial action.
The £5bn merger of BA and Iberia, the Spanish carrier, completed in early 2011, creating the parent company International Airlines Group, also presented challenges. However, the decision to make the jump to his current job, van der Post recalls, “was a no-brainer”. “I thought there is a meaty challenge here and it is good to be stimulated in a different way,” he says.
It was van der Post’s experience in focussing on the customer experience that caught the eye of BA head honcho Willie Walsh. At Jumeirah, and previously for more than 20 years at InterContinental Hotels Group, van der Post had been responsible for operations but also, at various stages, for repositioning brands and establishing them in new territories. As a frequent flyer himself, van der Post recognised the strength of the BA brand but also saw opportunities not only to restore faith in it among those whose perception may have been dented by the company’s recent history, but to make it more relevant to a younger generation of flyers.
“BA recognised that consumer behaviour has changed and that it needed to put the customer at the heart of the organisation,” he says. “We needed to change from being an airline that flies people from A to B to become a customer service organisation for people that happen to be flying from A to B with our airline.”
Such a change required van der Post to not only work on the consumer’s view of BA but, as he puts it, “to get the troops realigned”. In the first three months at the firm, he spoke to circa 1,000 cabin crew and to date has held feedback sessions with almost 500 customers. Some of the results of all this consultation are already in place – senior cabin crew now use iPads on board, loaded with apps they helped develop to give them more detailed and useful information about passenger preferences, flight connections, etc. This enables them to offer a more personalised service than in the old days of printed passenger information lists. Further innovations being trialled or rolled out include self bag tagging, a porter service for first class passengers and improvements to the airport experience.
Some more widely visible examples of van der Post’s influence have included the cinematic ‘Aviator’ television commercial using the ‘To Fly. To Serve.’ tagline.
Van der Post said the moment he proudly realised the extent to which staff had really got on board with the implementation of his vision for BA was when, after previewing the ad to employees the day before its public release, there was not a single leak on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter.
BA’s tier one London 2012 sponsor status is a particularly high profile example of the company’s new direction. Its work with the Games saw the airline transport the Olympic Flame from Athens to the UK, showcase home-grown artistic, culinary and film-making talent under the BA Great Britons banner and pull off, arguably, van der Post’s most audacious piece of work to date – the Home Advantage campaign featuring BA planes taxiing down the streets of London to the soundtrack London Calling by The Clash.
“I am sure you can imagine, when I went to the board and told them we need to tell people ‘Don’t Fly. Support Team GB,’ they thought I had lost it!” he says.
The ad was very well-received by the public, according to various media-watch polls, and van der Post believes it has “done wonders” for the BA brand, making it, in his words, “a little less stuffy and a little more contemporary.” During the Olympics, he says, business travel was down a little but leisure travel was up so the overall effect was neutral. However, forward bookings made after the Olympics have been particularly strong. The current focus is a short haul campaign which emphasises the value presented by BA’s all-inclusive tariff, particularly when compared to the extra charges for baggage and so on that are often the case with its competitors. Van der Post thinks consumers are wising up to differences between value and low cost.
“Purely personally I think: You fool me once, shame on you; you fool me twice, shame on me,” he muses. More importantly, he says, customers’ belief in BA has improved demonstrably as a result of all the work to reposition it, with the company achieving consistent improvement in various brand ranking measures such as YouGov and Brand Buzz. Van der Post will not divulge commercially-sensitive customer feedback scores but does say that the proportion of customers who said they would recommend BA has gone up by 12 percentage points in the past two years. He is very happy with this, but ambitious to grow it further.
“It shows you the resilience of the brand and how people really want BA to be successful,” he comments.
Van der Post says although there are certainly similarities between working in the hotel sector and the airline industry, there is a marked difference in the speed at which major change can take place as airline operators are understandably subject to much tighter regulatory controls, particularly when it comes to aircraft design.
The refurbishment of the 777-300ER planes in the BA fleet, featuring the latest in-flight entertainment technology, is almost complete. Much of the work on the 12 new A380 double decker planes that will be rolled out over two to three years starting next July, plus the 24 Boeing 787s to be introduced from next May, was already done prior to van der Post’s arrival. However, he has been able to apply some of his extensive hotel industry experience to the planes’ functionality. For example, he succeeded in getting the customer power plug point in first class moved from the floor to a less aesthetically-pleasing yet far more practical position on the A380s, so that passengers do not have to put up their trays and bend down to plug in their devices.
It is the people side of the business that has always appealed to van der Post throughout his career. His father had hoped that a spell dishwashing at a restaurant near their home in the central Netherlands would put his son off his desire, borne from a fascination with the workings of the many hotels and restaurants he visited with his family as a child, to enter the hospitality industry and encourage him instead to pursue his parents’ preferred career path for him, as a lawyer. That tactic clearly didn’t work. Even as a teenager, van der Post said he knew he wanted to be the chief of a hotel company and as he progressed to management levels, he says he particularly enjoyed the different levels of conversation he would have throughout a typical working day – from chatting to room service staff to entertaining visiting dignitaries.
A constant mock ‘threat’ over the years to his grown up daughters, one now a micro-financier and the other studying to enter the healthcare industry, was that he would make them pay back any money they had ever borrowed from him by making them work at a hotel he would buy when he gets older. This retirement ‘plan’ is a long way off. Van der Post feels he has a good three to five years’ work to complete his current task, after which he is totally open-minded about what will come next. Given his track record in moving countries and taking out-of-comfort zone challenges, the sky really is the limit.