"Focus on the things that you are really good at and make sure your customers are always satisfied!"
It's our third edition of the Leadership Corner and we had the chance to discuss with the General Manager of Btravel Online, Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam. 2020 has brought him and his team not only the chance to realize what the focus of his business should be in the Covid19 era, but also a major opportunity for rebranding the entire company.
Nowadays, Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam can be found in his office, building Btravel Online, the new brand for Talma Wholesale, as a brand and as a company that can offer premium travel services to multiple international customers. He believes the travel industry will get back to its peak period, even though its restoration will be a slow one, but the upcoming period will be one to test those who made the right decisions in 2020. He fought to build a strong company culture that will commit to putting in the necessary effort in order to survive and thrive for their customers.
Let’s discuss Btravel Online. If you would pitch Btravel Online, what would your pitch be? How are you different? What is your USP?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: We had the idea of rebranding our product which actually had no name. We were already using IRIX, the previous TBS, in our company and because people were familiar with the software, they thought that it was our brand, our company name. I announced the launch of Btravel during one of our workshops in Kyiv on the 6th of January 2020, and then the pandemic came and caught us unprepared. And so, our thought of rebranding was postponed and the only thing left for us to do was to focus on our new internal organization.
In July we decided to start rebranding the product and, together with my marketing manager, Ms Irina Lorynets, we worked with a software company in Kyiv which designed the product based on IRIX. And now we're delighted that the feedback is amazing. Everyone is really impressed that we have a brand now!
At that time, in the first months of 2020, we never thought that we’ll officially have our rebranded product that year, but on 18th December we announced to all our users and company that Btravel is officially launched. We did not think it’s going to ever be a company, but we managed to do it!
How are we different? I think first it’s the technology behind Btravel, which is dcs plus technology, a reliable and powerful technology that allowed us to be a one-stop-shop and that’s how we’re different from our competition. Our focus is on multiple services: hotels, flights, activities, transfers and car rentals. And now, we are aiming to reopen the packages department as well, but let’s say it’s still on hold, depending on the recovery of the market. Another thing that differentiates us from other - I would say - old school tour operators is that our technology is always new and adaptable. That's how we were able to rapidly shift and reorganize our team in order to stay active.
Maybe our downside is that we have not invested enough in the marketing department before 2020, but after that, we started being heavily active on online platforms – we tried thinking outside the box. This is mainly the big issue – we understand that the industry will recover, we're ready to undertake the upcoming challenges, but it will take time to achieve our aim of expanding our products globally.
I read your interview with the CEO of Elamys Group and I totally agree with his statement that if you continue to do your business in the same way, you’ll be out of the game soon. I would say that even before the pandemic started we decided to dismiss our non-profitable departments, we decided to focus on our core business – we are an online B2B platform, we’re not aiming to be a tour operator per se. I prefer to have - let's say - a virtual inventory where every client can build their own packages.
Let’s get back in time, to March 2020! Every business had to make some decisions, adjust its resources and shift the plans! How did you shift your strategy for 2020? What were the main actions taken in the first couple of months?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: The pandemic caught us off guard and no one thought of the magnitude it will have. In March 2020, when I realized something big has hit us, we started discussing seriously the new strategy we must undergo for our business. We came to a fast decision and, unfortunately, we had to take a dramatic choice regarding our team, but taking it saved the company because we understood that since the country is going into a lockdown and flights were cancelled, there was no revenue stream left for us.
The only things that we knew were that we had expenses, we were going to deal with refunds and that's why we just kept a few employees to maintain the business and assure the required support our customers needed, especially those that had to come back to Israel and not be part of the tragedy outside their home country. We reduced and I would say that the turning point for me was on March, 15 when we announced our decision. I could not believe that we had to put our business on hold for who knows how long.
But I did not want that and the next morning I opened my office, I gave up my salary and said that we'll have to survive, we’ll have to recover!
In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity. What opportunities were out there for Btravel during the last year?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: To be honest, I did not see any opportunity at that time. But as a person who really is the advocate of adaptable businesses, I immediately thought about making some changes. It was time to think outside the box.
We had our Israeli main office, our international operational offices in Kyiv and Rotterdam and one thing we had to do was to move our internal operations to the Kyiv office. We re-started every single process within the company. We had to deal with refunds but decided to first organize ourselves and our mode of operating. That was the main opportunity for us.
Would you change something that you did one year ago?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: Actually nothing. I am very pleased with my decision. It was a decision taken together with my VP, Mr Eran Golan, and I knew that if we’ll re-start some of our internal processes, they would give us the opportunity to build a strategy – and this is how we decided to move on with the rebranding. We worked hard for that, we hired a design company in Kyiv and everything seemed to finally fall into place.
The sustainability of the business is on everyone’s minds right now - how are Btravel’s goals progressing? And how do you see the upcoming years?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: I must admit that I created several business plans and unfortunately I had to throw them away because things have changed many times, really often. We can consider we had a dynamic business plan. In the last couple of weeks, Btravel can see an ascending trend: we managed to set up an agreed business plan for this year.
I expect, if nothing goes wrong and more countries will open up their borders, a recovery for our business, even though there won’t be a full one. For example, in mid-April, we managed to make the same turnover we had last month, so the odds are somehow in our favour. We have requests, even offline requests coming from clients or agents, but I think that my first goal and my expectations for the second half of the year is to focus on marketing and sales to bring more users to the Btravel Online platform.
What are the greatest challenges Btravel Online currently faces?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: I think one great challenge is becoming a strong name that would be able to operate in the local market, as well as in international markets. This is the main target and, at the same time, a challenge for me, for the marketing manager and for the sales department.
We wish to bring back the business and acquire more customers with our platform. Even though both I and Mr Eran Golan are known figures in the travel landscape, Btravel Online remains a relatively new brand that still needs to be grown and built.
What role do you see technology playing in addressing travel recovery?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: I think that the answer is very clear. When I joined Talma in 2012, there was no technology. Now we have it and it has been a game-changer. Without tech, there is no future for the travel industry, it’s the epicentre of all the travel processes and day to day operations. Those who are still stuck in old platforms or even worse, don’t have any tech behind their products will not have any future. And this is maybe our biggest strength – the dcs plus partnership when it comes to technology. Let’s say it’s like a good marriage!
But even though the role of technology is a crucial one and you don’t have the human resource, a good support team or a good management team, it would not work. When I said good marriage, I meant a good partner. And your motto, "we are listeners", encompasses perfectly how a partnership should be. When you work in 50 markets, each market has its own needs and the fact that you are a listener, putting everything on a wish list, being careful to everyone's needs... that is what makes the difference between growth and decline.
How do you see the role of travel professionals in the recovery of the industry?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: I still do think that a travel agent has a role in this market, especially when it comes to corporate clients, especially now when we have all the Covid-19 restrictions, as corporate clients might get lost in the booking process. A good travel agent has knowledge when it comes to getting crucial information on different locations, therefore they still have an impact, a major role.
On the leisure side, I have to admit that technology will become more important in the near future because the majority of leisure travellers has discovered the beauty of fresh and user-friendly platforms and now there are quite a lot of them. As I said, I think the travel agent will have an important role but in niche services, rather than being fully active in the booking process of the traveller. That’s why we invest quite a lot in technology and we strongly believe that it plays a big role in our routine tasks.
On the other hand, the support team will also make the difference. If you have a bad support team, your customers will stop using your services and I would like to take this opportunity to praise our support team which was there when the pandemic started and even now when we shifted our operations to the Kyiv office. They are doing their best, they are passionate, as well as experienced and, along with the right technology, you can't go wrong.
What advice do you have for any CEO today from the travel industry?
Tzafrir Ben-Avinoam: I think it is totally related to what I said before: think outside the box. Nothing will ever be the same so focus on the things that you are really good at, make sure you have a strong reliable tech partner, be close to your team and make sure your customers are always satisfied!