As we begin a New Year, we took the opportunity to sit down with our CEO, Mike Cameron, to reflect on the challenges of 2020, learn how Christopherson is currently doing, and get his take on what he sees for the future.
Q: Mike, as you reflect on the last year, what are your thoughts about what we’ve collectively been through?
A: Early on I used a metaphor with our team that enduring COVID-19 would be like driving through the long tunnels in Switzerland where there is no obvious end in sight but you have confidence that that part of the journey is temporary and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been just as confident there will be light at the end of this tunnel. The vaccines have definitely created some visible light.
When the pandemic hit, we had to be decisive, conservative, and compassionate. We immediately made a pivot from our growth strategy to a protection strategy–one that protected our people, our clients, and our customer experience–while also protecting our cash.
Although it has been painful, I’ve had a calm feeling during the past ten months that our strategy was solid, our liquidity was adequate, and we were going to come out stronger and better than before the pandemic began. Fortunately, we are still ahead of the plan.
Q: What did you find to be the most difficult aspects of the year?
A: As a family owned company, we had to reach deep into our souls to accept the reality of what was happening and find solutions that would be as compassionate as possible, but also realistic to ensure that the company would survive. My wife and I had to make the most difficult decisions we’ve made in our 30 years of owning the business. It was gut-wrenching to ask our team members to embrace sacrifices that would impact their personal lives in dramatic ways.
We took decisive action and made the necessary furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts all at once in that first week as the pandemic wreaked havoc in the U.S. We got some bad press for doing so, but we have since been able avoid making any more significant personnel changes relating to the economic pressures of COVID-19.
Decisive action early on also gave us the luxury of steadily improving things over the last 11 months. It allowed us to avoid the alternative of asking our employees to face continual rounds of layoffs or “death by a thousand cuts.” I believe this helped make our team’s morale more positive, and thankfully, we still have more than 50% of our team intact even though our bookings are less than 25% of 2019’s.
Q: How do the challenges 2020 brought compare to previous challenges Christopherson and the travel industry have faced?
A: Previous challenges, including the airline commission cuts that began in 1995, the launch of Expedia (the first major online travel competitor) in 1996, the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the financial collapse in 2008 were nothing compared to last year. We were able to adapt and navigate the other four major challenges with relative ease. In 30 years we never had a non-profitable year or even a half-year until 2020.
That said, we’re prepared to lose money, or as I like to call it, “make investments,” in 2020 and 2021. We hope to be profitable again in Q4 of 2021 and for sure by 2022. In either case, we’re prepared to make whatever investments are necessary.
Q: Did anything positive come out of 2020 for Christopherson?
A: There has been so much positive that came out of our most difficult year ever. We started with a focus on managing the travel crisis, taking care of our people, and stabilizing the business. As soon as we felt confident that we had a solid plan for long-term viability, we started investing in strategies to be leaner, smarter, and better.
To be leaner, we created a smaller footprint with less office overhead. To be smarter, we eliminated costs that didn’t create value and replaced some of the technology we previously built with best-in-class, third-party alternatives. To be better, we began reinventing a better digital and human customer experience.
Q: How does Christopherson stand today as a company?
A: We now have more people working on our team than we had after the initial layoffs and furloughs. We’ve called some team members back, and we’ve also recruited from outside for the digital reinvention in which we’re investing. We still have the liquidity to weather the rest of the storm.
Q: What do you think are the greatest impacts the pandemic had on the travel industry?
A: The most significant by far is the human cost. The layoffs, furloughs, and compensation reductions have impacted tens of millions of people in what was previously a fairly stable, robust industry. There are countries and even U.S. states where travel and tourism was their leading economic driver. It has been devastating for everyone.
Q: What are your goals for Christopherson in the coming year and beyond?
A: Two weeks before the pandemic began, we had just announced a billion-dollar booking/sales goal. Frankly, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch, based on our 30-year trajectory. What a difference two weeks makes! We know we will be back on track soon to reach that goal. We’ve had bit of a detour, but our journey forward will be more secure with us being leaner, smarter, and better.
Q: In your opinion, what should companies do to position themselves for success in 2021?
A: At a high level, don’t forget about the people that helped you become successful and don’t forget about the strategies that made you successful. While many of the cost cuts everyone made were necessary to survive the crisis, don’t assume that they can all be permanent. Some will be because we had to become smarter.
To that point, even travel cuts, which were made for safety reasons and did provide budget-cut benefits, will not likely all be permanent. While we probably won’t see many people traveling for a one-hour internal meeting because Zoom is a much better alternative, when it comes to winning new business, organizations will quickly see the ROI on travel when a competitor does their presentation in person and you do yours on Zoom. We may also find that where some organizations bring their teams together for collaboration, engagement, or performance rewards, and others don’t, Zoom may be a losing strategy when trying to outpace competitors. Ultimately, no one knows how much travel will be forever reduced.
Q: What new opportunities do you think the pandemic opened up?
A: The pandemic accelerated digital adoption. It transformed business forever and created both the need and the opportunity for travel management companies, or any company really, to accelerate and transform their own digital and human customer experience in order to remain competitive.
Those who have the ability to meet that need will be more successful than others. Those who can find the right blend of both a digital and human customer experience service model will grow faster than others. We can no longer do business as usual.