Gulf Air’s incoming vice president of marketing & sales, Lee Shave, explains why the regional carrier’s all-round service standards are a cut above the rest
ATN: How can you differentiate Gulf Air from other airlines?
I don’t know if you can do much in terms of facilities; nearly everyone has a lie-flat bed in business class for example. It’s what you wrap around the product that makes the difference.
We find points of difference and communicate them as strongly as we can.
The Sky Chefs are one key product. I can honestly say the food in Gulf Air’s first class [cabin] is the best I have experienced. No other airlines do the cooking on board. There is one chef and an assistant to eight passengers and there is a chef recommendation every day. It’s dine-on-demand, so it’s flexible. Our Sky Nannies are another point of difference and our call centre is also unique.
ATN: Why is your call centre different to those operated by other airlines?
It operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week, which is pretty cutting edge for the Middle East. Customers can call anytime and make a reservation.
We have just set up a team of 20 who are dedicated to first and business class passengers, as well as frequent flyers. Before, we would just put their calls to the front of the queue. Our plan is that we are on call to first class customers for all their travel needs. Even when these customers arrive in Bahrain or Muscat, I want them to call us with their enquiries, whether it’s booking a car, transfers or a table at a restaurant.
We are trying to build a concierge service and hopefully the customer will think this adds value.
ATN: What challenges are there, if any, in running a 24-hour call centre?
Our biggest issue is with travel agents giving us their contact number, instead of the customer’s contact number when they make a booking. Usually, when the customer calls direct, we take their number, and if there are any schedule changes, we SMS them with the information. However, if we only have the travel agent’s number, we have no way of getting in touch with the customer.
Of course, the customer then thinks it’s Gulf Air’s fault. We need to make sure we provide good customer service.
ATN: How important is the Muscat hub to Gulf Air’s overall business?
Muscat is very important for us. What we are doing there is helping to develop tourism.
Passenger numbers are up 50% on last year since the summer schedule – April to October.
We closed Abu Dhabi and we now have a two-hub strategy. We are aiming for a 50/50 balance (between Bahrain and Muscat). It’s currently 62% Bahrain, 38% Muscat, but Muscat is coming up and I think we’ll get to the 50/50 stage quite quickly. The only problem is the shortage of beds in Muscat.
ATN: Why should travel agents sell Gulf Air?
The fundamental selling point is that because of Gulf Air’s history, it has traffic rights and a network that in the Middle East, is stronger than any other carrier’s. The core product is the scheduled network. To be able to fly your customers around the Gulf conveniently is unbeatable; every one else is still trying to contract the rest of their network. The travel trade is absolutely essential to us – total direct sales is only 3% of our business.
ATN: What about competition from low cost carriers such as Air Arabia?
This is not new. What they have done is stimulated the market to grow. If you look at the UK with Ryanair and easyJet, both carriers have made travel affordable, and the legacy carriers have had to adapt. People who went overseas once a year now go five times weekly. Air Arabia’s market size is relatively small. If your population is one million, 300,000 can afford to be stimulated to travel more often, but the others are people who only go away once a year anyway.
Also, the legacy carriers can match the low cost carriers on price. I make sure Gulf Air is price relevant to the competition, and sometimes we’re cheaper than Air Arabia or Al Jazeera. We had nine Bahraini Dinar (US $24) fares to Dubai last month. We put these on the web, but not the GDS. As an agent, you can book these and charge a service fee.
ATN: Who will replace (former CEO) James Hogan and what is the outlook for Gulf Air’s financial results?
No decision has been made as to who will take over from Hogan. Headhunters are interviewing candidates. Our CFO, Ahmed Al Hammid is acting CEO until someone is found.
We’ve had more passengers this year and revenue is up 6%, but this is not enough to offset full costs. We are going to see a loss. It can be rectified. It’s about pushing harder on our mix of passengers and making sure we are business traveller relevant.
It’s making sure we are their first choice. We are not going to build an international carrier business on the Emirates and Qatar Airways scale. We will have strategic long haul business to feed and connect through our strong Middle East network. That’s our core point of difference. It’s about playing to that situation and doing it well.