Next up in our Executive Q&A series is an interview with Christopherson’s Chief Financial Officer, Heather Young. Heather shared insight on how Christopherson financially navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and where the company stands now as travel restarts.
Q: It’s no secret that the last year and a half has been brutal on the travel industry. From your perspective as CFO, how did Christopherson’s financial philosophies protect the company through the pandemic?
A: Our owners, Mike and Camille Cameron, have taken a conservative approach to running and growing our company over the past 31 years. Additionally, at the beginning of March 2020, they had just paid off our corporate office building. This meant that as the COVID-19 pandemic began, Christopherson was in a great financial situation with good liquidity and very little debt.
As a company, we also rely on data to drive decisions. Because we review our ticketing information everyday through our data visualization dashboards, we could see travel bookings begin to decline in the weeks that led up to the pandemic being declared. By seeing that change early, our executive team was able to come together quickly and make a solid plan to weather this storm. We have been able to make important decisions throughout the pandemic, faster than many, because we track that key data in real-time.
Q: So as we see the pandemic coming to a close, where does Christopherson now stand in terms of financial stability?
A: We are in extremely good financial shape. We began the pandemic with sharp focus on protecting our cash, our people, our clients, and our clients’ customer experience. By the end of 2020, we were able to shift our focus back to investing in our future, particularly through a human and digital transformation.
Even though sales are still below pre-pandemic levels, we are currently tracking higher than the rest of the industry. We are strategically investing in areas that will allow us to continue being a leader in travel. We are able to make these investments because of our conservative fiscal approaches. We have also utilized the government’s COVID relief programs to aid our stability. Our cash reserves remain strong and we have the financial ability to make these investments for our future.
Q: You mentioned you do a daily review of travel bookings. What are you seeing in terms of business picking up? Is business travel on the upswing?
A: We are definitely seeing business pick up. We said all along that leisure travel would lead the way, followed by business travel. This is exactly what we are seeing. Our leisure travel division’s bookings began increasing in early 2021. That is now being followed with more business travel bookings as well as meetings and groups. We also implemented numerous new clients throughout the pandemic and have been excited to see these new customers begin traveling this summer.
Q: Part of Christopherson’s plan to weather the storm was protecting its people. How has Christopherson been able to support its team members over the last 18 months?
A: We kept a sharp focus on our two company values—1) We create value. 2) We value people.—in all our decisions over the last 18 months. At the beginning of the pandemic, we all experienced the difficulty of making the sacrifices needed to preserve our financial stability and allow us to keep as many people employed as possible. We are happy to report that we were able to reinstate our 401(k) match and restore any pay reductions even before we returned to profitability. We’ve retained much of our staff and have also been able to hire back many of our previous employees as business continues to ramp up this year.
Protecting our teams’ mental health was also important to us during the pandemic, so we made sure our employees had access to programs that provided unlimited access to professional help with stress, depression, financial concerns, family difficulties, and more. We also enhanced our employee benefit package by adding paid short-term disability in 2021, paid bereavement leave, and COVID-related paid leave. We continue to evaluate our benefit offerings for competitiveness in the market and ensure our decisions demonstrate that we value people.
Q: So having gone through the last 18 months, how would you say Christopherson is doing now?
A: COVID gave us an opportunity to make difficult decisions and we have emerged stronger. We spent that first month looking through all our expenses with a fine tooth comb, cancelling or negotiating better terms on anything we could. We learned who our real business partners were—those who were willing to work with us as we navigated through this very unique time. And while business was certainly slower, we used that time to strategize how to increase the value we bring to our clients and the industry.
We are being even more deliberate with where our money is being invested. We are hyper-focused on the design and delivery of our service model and are expanding our product development team. We have an ambitious roadmap of enhancements planned that combine the human and digital experience in a transformative way and will allow us to lead the future of business travel.
Q: Just for fun, do you prefer …
- Window or aisle? Aisle—I hate feeling trapped and I try to stay hydrated while traveling 😉
- Beach, mountain, or city travel? I’m a beach person at heart.
- Salty or sweet travel snack? Sweets.
- Where are you looking forward to traveling next? My husband and I had an anniversary trip to Portugal booked for the fall of 2020 that was cancelled due to COVID. We are looking forward to rescheduling that soon.