BTN's annual answer book for business travel managers.
Qatar Airways' Eric Odone talks:
Qatar Airways has reported significant year-to-date
year-over-year growth in contracted corporate business, and the carrier credits
a good portion of that growth to expanded availability of the Qsuite business
class product. It has been essential in growing business, Americas SVP Eric Odone
said. Odone, who joined the carrier this year after nearly eight years leading
Cathay Pacific's sales and marketing in the Americas, spoke to BTN
transportation editor Michael B. Baker as Qatar's Airbus A350 aircraft made its
first trip to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
BTN: Why do you
consider the Qsuite such a draw for corporate travel?
Odone: It's a
product which is perfect for the business customer. It's important for us to
get contracted and repeat business. We have a team of account managers; we have
a team in Doha that signs the global deals, and we have a local team for local
deals. Ideally, local deals develop into global deals afterward. We've seen
huge growth of corporate business, literally upper-double digits on business
class, this year. Obviously, the comparison with last year and the
blockade in June [during
which Qatar Airways suspended flights to neighboring nations] helps, but even
as the impact lowers, you see a massive growth. [Also, onboard configurations
allow you to] continue work conversations, and when you don't want to, the
window seats are private. [And on the A350], the jet lag is more manageable
because of the level of moisture and the mood lighting.
features do you tout to corporate travelers?
Odone: The Qsuite
is about autonomy and flexibility. The product is one to one, so every seat has
aisle access; nobody has to walk over anybody else. People who want the window
have the selection and proper window access having full vision of the view.
Once you are in the cabin, you have a door that closes. You have a little
button you can press if you want to be disturbed or not. We have dine on
demand. You order the food as you are in the aircraft, and you indicate if you
want to eat it straight away or in five or six hours. You are never forced to
eat when the trolley comes next to you. It's a flat bed. You have a mattress,
pajamas and amenity kit and a range of products in the restroom. You have the
complete autonomy of 4,000 movies and full series on a 21.5-inch screen. You
have power outlets whether it's a multiregion prong or a USB port, so you can
ensure when you get there, all your devices are full. Then, you have the quad
in the middle. That can be customized for two people traveling together with a
certain degree of privacy to two people who can literally have a double bed
together or you can make it into four if you want. It's ideal for families or
people who want to work together. It's basically a first class product. The
only thing it doesn't have is [the typical first class exclusivity of six, nine
or 12 seats]. It's 46.
BTN: How many
aircraft feature Qsuite?
Odone: Most of
the 777s have it. The planes are being retrofitted. Plus, we are getting a new
aircraft every 10 days, and all the long-haul ones have the Qsuite. It only
started December 2017, so it's pretty recent. Now it's out of Dulles, O'Hare
and Houston. We get into Latin America in December. We get into Dallas in
January and L.A. in February. You need a critical mass to be appealing.
Otherwise, you end up where you get it or you don't get it. Both JFK flights
have it now.
BTN: Have you
seen any corporate customers shift from focusing on savings to focusing on
flights are long enough that economy is not really an option when you are over
12 hours, so that's good for us. But the difference I've seen is a renewed
interest in customer benefits and product features. Five years ago, it was
about savings and cost-cutting. Now, all of a sudden, we also want people to be
happy because we're going to ask them to do a lot more once they're there, so
we want them to get there in the best state possible. So for a product-led
airline like us, it's great to see that.
BTN: What is your
distribution strategy? Does the need to sell this product heighten your
interest in the International Air Transport Association's New Distribution
Odone: We don’t
have a focus on cost from a customer perspective—as in, we don't cut on the
size of soap or bread, or no butter, no salt or pepper—but we're very
budget-conscious in terms of costs not seen by the customer. We have a very
strong strategy of selling through our [website]. We have very definitely a strategy
on having a partnership with the right distributors, selling our product. We're
NDC compatible. We haven't done as much as others on that. I was at a
conference and they said—and it made me giggle—NDC is like the drunk uncle you
see at Christmas: Everybody talks about it, but nothing really major happens.
But we are definitely working on that. You don't want to be just a green screen
in front of a travel consultant. You want people to know what they are selling.
In that respect, NDC is incredibly interesting.
BTN: What's the
latest on destination growth?
Odone: This year,
we had 19 new destinations. However, a lot were more leisure focused, places in
Thailand and a lot in Turkey. We're now opening Mombasa, [Kenya], which is
completely leisure. Da Nang, [Vietnam], is probably half and half. Gothenburg,
[Sweden], is definitely business. So there's a bit of both, but there hasn't
been any major feeder destination from the U.S. for us this year. It's mostly
been for other markets.
BTN: What other
near-term goals have you set?
Odone: I've been
in the position for six months, which is not that long. I'm looking at doing
some internal reorg. We have a new position, which is going to be dedicated to
TMCs and do the interface between Qatar Airways and the big agencies. That's a
new role starting in December.
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