Phil Cameron, CEO of No.1 Traveller, talks about what prompted him to get into the travel business, and how he’s intent on changing the passenger experience for the better…
Growing up, my brother and I were constantly moving around, from country to country, because of my father’s work. I always knew I wanted a career in theatre, but an interest in aviation was almost inevitable. While living in New Zealand as a teenager, I once flew eighteen individual sectors in a month – as wide-ranging as London to LA (on a 747 classic) and Christchurch to Hokitika in New Zealand’s South Island, on a Fokker F27. In these early years I literally felt on top of the world – a junior jetset, experiencing some of the most extraordinary destinations in the world, from seats on some of its largest and smallest aircraft. Especially when travelling alone as a young teen, I was looked after well by the airlines (not quite as restricted as an unaccompanied minor) and hanging on every word pilots would speak, on my frequent trips to the flight deck.
Airports were part of ordinary life, not just the start of a holiday or special trip; but even so there was something mammoth and exhilarating about being at an airport in the dead of night, in the knowledge that I would have travelled thousands of miles by morning – be it LA, Lagos or Tahiti (a regular fuelling stop for 747-200s and DC10s on their way down to Auckland).
In 2004, and well into my career as a theatre producer, a conversation with my entertainment lawyer had lead to me to start setting up an all-business airline. The link for this curious career tangent was that he, as lawyer to Richard Branson, had set up Virgin Atlantic; so not quite the leap of faith it might seem. And for me, it was a more obvious shift than it appears on the surface: selling lots of tickets at the same time every day; pricey seats at the front, cheaper seats at the back, and competing in a highly experience-driven environment. The producer in me felt very at home – and the frustrated, back-seat pilot was loving every moment of learning about the technology, the economics and the scope for delivering a remarkable on-board experience. Even in one of the world’s most regulated environments, there is massive, unexplored potential to improve the passenger journey.
After a year of endless research, a European-wide hunt for funding and the extraordinary efforts of an impressive group of aviation specialists, we had a CAA Operating Licence ready to go, but not the funding. We’d been beaten to it by Eos, MAXjet and Silverjet. What frustrated me most was that these carriers had diluted a fantastic idea by overstretching themselves on capacity, by poorly positioning the passenger experience and by trying to go it alone. The concept works (as has been proved by partnerships with BA, Lufthansa, Swiss, KLM and others) but only on the right scale of aircraft, by delivering what passengers actually want and need, and with a recognised airline code on the boarding pass.
In 2006, with no airline and a strong feeling that it was time to put my largely-successful theatre career behind me, I had a chance conversation with a friend about improving experiences in airports. Five years later, and with the considerable support of our investor, I have the privilege of running No.1 Traveller, where our mission is to make the whole experience of catching a flight better, from driveway to runway.
I set the company up in April 2006 and opened our first lounge at JFK on 01 January 2007 (off the back of the relationships I had developed in setting up the airline), on a shoestring. We took over an existing lounge, changed the carpets, painted a couple of walls and just opened the doors! It was an almost incomprehensible success, that over four years later continues to deliver great service to many tens of thousands of passengers. We now operate four lounges at three airports (JFK, LGW and STN) and will be opening at LHR in August. We also operate chauffeur-drive to the airports and a range of travel concierge services, and have just opened our first Travel Spa and dedicated business centre at LGW.
Whatever we do has to be immeasurably better than what is currently available in the market. Business centres, for example, often just constitute a bank of old PCs in the corner of a lounge, with little more than a slow internet connection. For us, that would literally just be a waste of space. To make a good business out of this, we have to create an environment that attracts the business traveller and gives them choices. The secret to our success is the win-win of creating products that passengers want, that also make us money – a seemingly obvious imperative, but not for most lounge operations, which are operated as loss leaders, not commercial ventures. I see the commercial aspect as a positive driver, not a hindrance, and firmly believe in product-led profitability – so our starting point for our stand-alone business centre at Gatwick was to see what we could offer the user. A simple starting point was to make it independent from the main lounge – still offering computer access to all lounge users, but offering real value to the business passenger by creating a function-specific space, at a better price. We then believed the product was as much about the choice of Mac versus PC (so we’ll be offering both) as it is the choice of food and quality coffee, well-resourced meeting rooms and staff who can facilitate the service and the rest of the passenger’s journey, with our concierge service.
Lounges aren’t all about business travellers though – and we believe that defining passengers as business, leisure or low-cost, for example, isn’t helpful. It may just be that the business traveller wants a drink, or that someone going on holiday needs to use that last hour before they fly to get some work done. And certainly, low-cost travellers are often from more affluent demographics. Because of this, our focus is not on any ‘type’ of passenger, but a product and a willingness to look after our guests on the basis of their individual needs. Our promise is simply ‘Your journey, your way’, which can be anything from some peace and quiet, to lunch, to a game of pool. This approach wins us the referral and return business which has been key to our success.
This also means we can (and must) provide a wide range of products. Our new Travel Spas at Gatwick and Heathrow (designed and developed with Debi Green, formerly Group Spa Director of The Sanctuary) recognise the demand for a wide range of treatments, delivered to the highest standards. Many airports offer express massages or manicures, but our emphasis is on creating an ‘escape’ from the travel process, whether that be for 15 minutes or an hour, because it’s that brief escape that may make someone’s working day or holiday.
Despite recession, the massive and ongoing increase in air travel over recent decades has created huge opportunities for businesses such as ours. Whatever the reason for travel, people are prepared to spend, to improve their experience and take the pain out of the journey – especially when that spend represents good value. Low Cost Carriers have created an add-on culture by making many elements of the journey an additional purchase, and this has been reflected in part by the full-service carriers creating upgrade opportunities at many stages of the journey. Both have created a culture in which we can position our own product (an add-on or upgrade to any journey) attractively to the market – either as a small, affordable luxury or simply as a way of ensuring best use of a passenger’s precious time.
We launched the No.1 Traveller brand at Gatwick just over two years ago and have been the only UK winner in the Priority Pass ‘Lounge of the Year’ awards in each of those years. We’re very proud of this, especially as a new brand which is still building awareness and scale; but the real proof of our business is the number of people who choose to come through our doors. By the end of the year, this will have increased to over 50,000 passengers per month – and our aim is to give each one of those passengers an individual experience which they will want to tell their friends and colleagues all about.