Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Travel veteran maintains course

After two decades working in the airline business, sales manager's career goals haven't wavered.
Although travel agents still have a major role, says Cathay Pacific's Vanessa Traille, so does direct advertising through digital channels. Photo / Dean Purcell
Although travel agents still have a major role, says Cathay Pacific's Vanessa Traille, so does direct advertising through digital channels. Photo / Dean Purcell

Vanessa Traille has tried to leave the airline industry behind, but she always seems to be holding a return ticket.

Cathay Pacific's local sales and marketing manager briefly flirted with departing when her job with United Airlines disappeared in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the US.

She even got as far as the final stages of signing up to work with a local fashion designer, but it just didn't feel right.

Then a friend told her of a job going in Cathay's offices.

That was in 2004 and Traille, 43, now says she wouldn't work anywhere else.

"When I walked into the Cathay office on that first day it seemed like I'd always been there."

That's not to say she's unambitious. The sales and marketing role she stepped into last year, when her boss Mark Pirihi was promoted to country manager, is one she has had her eye on since attending polytech as a school leaver in the early 90s.

"I remember when I went to ATI [Auckland Technical Institute], a lady came to talk to us and it was Helen Williams and she was the sales manager from United Airlines.

"I just thought: I want to do that; I'm going to be her."

Traille's career goals haven't wavered in the 20-odd years since she first came on board the airline business, but the industry has.

Technology has had a vast effect on the way people buy and manage travel plans.

Even though hand-written, paper tickets are a thing of the past, travel agents are still a key part of Cathay's distribution network, she says.

People might happily book point-to-point tickets to Australia, but once you throw in a cruise starting and ending in different places, a side trip to a beach resort and a couple of nights stopping over on the way home, travel agents can give that extra bit of security around what you're actually booking, she says.

"But travel agents need to provide their value proposition.

"What do they add to the process?

"And I think that is what all the chains are looking at now - how do they provide value to the clients?"

Despite knowing the industry back to front, Traille still books personal travel through an agent. She says it gives her the assurance that if you arrive somewhere and things aren't right, then a solution is just a phone call away.

Travel is so emotional. If something goes wrong it's like the end of the world.
Vanessa Traille, Cathay Pacific

It is often those phone calls that she and her team are dealing with.

"Travel is so emotional," she says.

"If something goes wrong it's like the end of the world."

And when a customer is in front of a Cathay desk at the airport, they don't care whose fault it is, they just want it sorted.

Traille says her job is often about cutting through the noise, making a judgment call and getting a quick fix.

"We don't do anything where it's detrimental to the revenue, it's just all about a service, especially when they're really stuck."

Although local numbers aren't split out, Cathay globally enjoyed strong profit growth in the past financial year, and Traille says load factors out of New Zealand averaged 92 per cent.

For comparison, the International Air Transport Association recorded a global average load factor of 80 per cent for 2013 and Air New Zealand's load factor on long-haul routes was 86.1 per cent in the year ending December 31, 2015.

"We make sure our fare products are competitive," she says.

"We are competing heavily with the Chinese carriers.

"Everyone talks about the Middle Eastern carriers [but] the Chinese carriers [are] adding more and more capacity."

Locally, the drop in the dairy payout is likely to have a flow-on effect on travel bookings.

"Especially when you talk to agents down in the Waikato. When it's good they'll get that last minute, someone will walk in and do a booking - flights, cruise, $100,000.

"When that type of thing slows down or when there is uncertainty around what they're going to earn or they're not spending, that can affect things."

Although working with agents to get bums on seats is a big focus, so too is advertising directly to consumers over digital channels.

It's meant a rapid upskilling for Traille, who admits she had never heard of SEO (search engine optimisation) or SEM (search engine marketing) until six months ago.

Traille says grabbing real estate on Google's front page can cost big dollars and is becoming increasingly hard as more consumers head to smartphones for internet searches.

"[Google] are tailoring the page to be phone size, because now they're saying that a lot of people are not even bothering with the tablet or desktop."

Although her first year in the role will be focused on hitting targets and welcoming the arrival of new A350 aircraft, Traille says in the long haul she could be looking at opportunities in Cathay's Hong Kong headquarters.

Leadership tenure in the local office has historically been long, with something of a "concrete ceiling" for career progression, she says.

Cathay has recognised this and the need to future-proof for leadership roles by providing more opportunity to move around the different offices.

Encouragingly, she says, in an industry that is seen as something of an old boys' club, there are women in senior roles at Cathay, including the director of flight operations.

"I do think about that and I do think it is possible."

- NZ Herald

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