United’s Doreen Burse talks:
- Inconsistent but optimistic corporate travel
- Managing potentially changing points of sale
- Becoming nimbler with route adjustments
Former Marriott sales executive Doreen Burse moved to the
airline side of the industry earlier
this year, taking over as United Airlines’ SVP of worldwide sales on March
1. She spoke recently with BTN transportation editor Michael B. Baker about her
plans in her new role, the latest she’s hearing from corporate customers on
returning business demand and how United customers are approaching contracting
as they prepare to emerge from the pandemic.
BTN: What goals did you set as you started this new
Doreen Burse: The primary goal I had coming in was to
build on the foundation that had been laid by Jake [Cefolia] before me, and by
Dave Hilfman. We have a really strong sales team here that is focused on
the customer, and I want to do all the things that give us customers for life,
not just because we have great product. Companies do business with companies
that have shared values, and United has really stepped up as it relates to
that. We want to do business and get folks where they need to be, but we want
to be the airline they choose because of many other reasons than that.
BTN: What’s your best estimate on the timing of the
return of business travel demand?
Burse: There is a pent-up demand from the perspective
of getting out there and being with their customers, but it is something that
is likely to be seen after the September timeframe. The meaningful increase, in
what we’re hearing from clients, is after the first of the year, when more
budgets are replenished. What’s consistent is the answers have been
inconsistent. Initially, we heard much less travel, and that it wasn’t going to
return to the levels they have been. [As we were] getting into 2021 and beyond,
we’re hearing the opposite. A lot is predicated on borders opening up, vaccine
distribution, no wave of some other variant, but we’re very optimistic. When
I’m meeting folks in persons, which we’ve been doing for those who want to meet
in person, is that there’s nothing like doing business in person and building
relationships to accomplish their business goals. The travel industry partners
we have, we’re asking the same questions, and it’s very similar.
BTN: Are many companies starting the request for
proposal process at the moment, or are they still extending existing contracts?
Burse: Predominantly, we’ve extended contracts,
making sure when people come back, we have them in place to continue to do
business. We are talking to those who maybe haven’t done so much busines with
us in the past and looking at opportunities to be positioned as a strong No. 2
in markets where maybe they’re flying less into our hubs but into markets we
are serving. Mostly it’s been status quo, making sure we’re on the shelf and
extending those contracts and trying to determine with our customers what’s the
best way to measure success when we don’t have a great 2020 historical view to
look at. One of the things I’ve been asking is: Do you have a handle on point
of sale that might have changed? We know that across the different segments of
corporate business, some are more bullish on having folks come to the office.
Some are compensating their employees to travel back and forth, and some are
not. What I’m trying to ask is: Does it change the point of sale? Do you have a
large population that had been based in the Northeast and is now residing in Florida
because they can do what they do working remotely? Has the face of the
traveler, the demographics, changed? Do we need to stay out ahead of where
they’re going to be traveling to and from? The answers have been inconsistent,
and they’re starting to look at that, and a lot of corporations are trying to
put their arms around that now.
BTN: Might that change the way airlines and
corporations approach contracting altogether?
Burse: I don’t think we’ll look at things differently.
It puts more emphasis on that continued collaboration with network planning. If
the destinations change, the question is what does network planning look like,
and do we have the routes to and from where they need to be? My sense is that
we do, and we’re planning accordingly for that as we serve those customers.
BTN: What are your network plans at the moment?
Burse: For international, in May we’re resuming service
from Newark to Rome and Milan [and] from Chicago to Munich and Amsterdam. In
June, we’re resuming service from Newark to Athens, from San Francisco to
Munich and then in July new direct flights from Newark to Croatia, Washington,
D.C. to Athens, and more. I recently interviewed the commercial team, and we
had looked at our network in the past, and the lead time to those changes, and
how much more quickly we’re getting ahead of that. That’s a combination of
cross-functional relations they have with sales and revenue and others to make
sure we’re adding routes where there actually is demand. We have 26 new routes
domestically in May from various cities around the Midwest to coastal beach
destinations like Portland, Maine, and Hilton Head. In the first 48 hours of
adding those flights, we took nearly 5,000 bookings on those routes, so it’s
mostly science but there’s a lot of collaboration to sharing what we’re seeing
and hearing and making sure we have the right options available to those who
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