Technological expertise is a must for all travel firms today. Lee Hayhurst looks at travel’s ability to compete for the right talent, the challenges and the impact on corporate culture
Three in four UK firms have a shortfall in digital skills, according to a British Chamber of Commerce study of 1,400 companies reported in April.
In the study, 84% of firms said IT skills were more important than they were two years ago, something the travel industry understands all too well as one of the internet’s biggest sectors.
The need to adopt new technologies in mobile, customer relationship management (CRM) and back office to improve speed and efficiency means it is vital that travel firms find the right IT skills.
But with tech giants Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter all investing in huge new London HQs, and the financial sector paying top salaries, can travel compete for scarce talent?
Simon Woods, new IT and digital divisional manager for C&M Recruitment, said the technology skills shortage makes recruitment highly competitive.
Travel can struggle to compete on salaries, but he says good candidates can be found in travel as well as in sectors such as retail and gaming, which have similar customer-facing challenges.
“Financial services can pay 10% to 20% more than travel brands, but they make sure they get their money’s worth,” he said.
“Travel has a reputation as being a fun place to work in, so people will take a pay cut to work in travel.”
Woods said this is often the case for experienced techies who have worked for major corporates and are looking for a better work-life balance.
While people are prepared to go where the work is, travel firms must appreciate most of these potential candidates want short to medium-term contracts.
“About 90% of the candidates I place are contractors,” said Woods. “They are always an asset, but they can be expensive.
“The very best people tend to be contractors because they have such a diverse range of skills, they can move on every six to 12 months.”
Helen Baldwin, group HR director at Cardiff‑based technology developer Inspiretec, said: “You have to have a compelling offering and understand the world of work is changing and the technology sector is leading the way.
“Working nine to five and going into the office each day just doesn’t exist anymore. If you carry on with that attitude you will decline in appeal to the talent that’s coming through.
“The challenge we have is tempting people away from large corporates to work for an SME (small to medium-sized business).”
New ways of working
As well as embracing flexible ways of working, travel firms must provide modern office environments that motivate IT staff, said Baldwin.
“There’s a massive shortfall of skills and that’s a problem that’s going away, so you have to recognise what candidates want. It’s not always about pay,” she said.
Baldwin warned this change has implications because employers must ensure employment terms and conditions are consistent for all staff.
“The last thing you want to do is bring someone new in and undermine staff who have shown you loyalty. You can get this wrong very quickly,” she said.
Richard Calvert, chief executive of coach and escorted tours operator Shearings, admitted it is “tremendously difficult” to recruit technology staff.
The firm is going through a major re-engineering of its technology, building a new reservation system, CRM and back-office platform.
Although it is working with specialist UK technology suppliers, the firm needs in-house expertise to operate the new systems.
“Everyone wants to be more efficient, faster and more customer-centric in their IT systems,” he said.
“The skillset is there but because there’s more demand than supply, you pay a high price.
“The other problem is good applicants tend to be more transient, so it’s how you get that loyalty if you invest in them.”
Calvert said this challenge in a sector dominated by contractors was vital because staff must embrace a firms’ culture and values.
He admits it is a problem Shearings is grappling with, adding: “Every company has its tone of voice and culture it wants to instil in its team. When you have a brand that’s 109 years old, you want to embrace the encyclopedic knowledge that’s already there but complement that with new thinking. Do you pay top dollar when they will be gone in six, nine, 12 months?”
Inspiretec has a mix of staff, from graduates of Cardiff University to those with and without travel experience. Baldwin said sector experience is not a must.
“We can teach them what they need to learn about travel, but they need to be able to write clean, quality code,” she said.
The rise of mobile and apps, coupled with growing consumer expectations, has seen complexity in travel tech “explode”, something Baldwin regards as an advantage.
“The complexity behind the booking journey absolutely amazes technical people when they join. But developers love getting their teeth into those sorts of things and problem-solving.”
Calvert said basic know-how of travel was necessary, but other sectors can be a source of talent.
“Whether you’re in travel, homeware or automative, you need an IT structure that acquires customers,” he said.
He added he would never outsource development to India to save money because “you have to understand the market”.
“For a business with a 66% customer repeat level, you need people to understand the culture of the organisation,” he said.
Calvert disagreed it was a challenge competing with London salaries.
He said Shearings, which is based in Wigan and Leeds, is “fishing in a smaller pond” so has to pay a premium anyway.
But he was optimistic about travel’s ability to attract talent.
“You’re selling dreams across a diverse portfolio and there’s the opportunity to travel. It’s a fantastic sector.
“Given a choice of working in IT for a bank or a travel company, I know which I would prefer.”
Inspiretec moved to new offices in Cardiff two years ago to compete for talent. Locally, it has the likes of Admiral Insurance, GoCompare and Confused.com competing for staff.
Tech wages in the city have risen 13% in a year as the Welsh government prioritises the sector.
Ultimately, Baldwin, is confident travel can punch above its weight.
“It’s got to be better than selling car insurance,” she said.
Average annual salaries for technology roles in travel
|Web designer/web developer||£40,000|
|Head of digital||£65,000|
Source: C&M Recruitment
Average annual salaries for technology roles in all industries
Source: Indeed (jobs advertiser)
Average daily rates for travel technology contractors
Source: C&M Recruitment