Making the transition

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Frank Palapies is one of Wings Travel’s newest employees, having joined the company in October as its COO for the Africa and Middle East region. But, he has more than a passing knowledge of the Wings operation, having dealt extensively with the TMC during his time with Amadeus. It was, therefore, a good time for editor Dylan Rogers to sit with Palapies over a cappuccino in Johannesburg, and get his thoughts on Wings and the travel management business at large.

At face value Frank Palapies is a deliberate and thoughtful man, choosing his words carefully and giving genuine thought to any question put to him. That’s in his nature, but it’s also a by-product of years in the corporate world, where processes and structure are very much in focus, arguably affecting just how nimble an organisation can be. Not so Wings, according to its new COO.

“It’s in transition and on its way to becoming a corporate, but it’s still agile enough to react to changing market conditions quickly,” says Palapies. “You’ve got this entrepreneurial decision-making process. The same applies to opportunities – you can jump on them quickly, which is very encouraging.”

Palapies is well-versed in the vagaries of corporate travel on the African continent, and is clear in his mind about what Wings needs to get right.

“From a traveller perspective, something like service around ticketing and response time is not at the forefront of your thinking,” he says. “It’s more around security, and to some extent this is more important than fares or fees. Rather, it’s how you can provide consistency and security levels like a 24-hour hotline for people stranded around Africa.”

Wings has a physical presence in South Africa, Nigeria and Angola, but services all countries in Africa, with customers in the likes of Ghana and the Congo. They are quite cautious about going into new territories, and unlike other big TMCs, steer clear of the franchise model adopted by their competitors.

“We don’t believe in franchising because it’s important for us to control the profit and loss,” says Palapies. “With a franchise, the owner is always questioning this and the return on investment. We also control the service levels and there’s a small group of us who take decisions we know will be implemented. You can’t do that in a franchise environment.”

That being said, Palapies and Wings do have their eye on one African country.

“Mozambique is looking promising,” he says. “There are huge developments, albeit in the early stages, in oil and gas. We will probably need a physical presence in Mozambique to cater for that growing need. Also, some customers that we already serve are changing their head offices. Some are going west to Angola and Nigeria, whilst some are opting for East Africa – most likely Mozambique.”

On the subject of oil and gas, it’s not necessarily a great time to be in that business, what with the global oil price taking a huge dive over the last couple of months. But Palapies has an interesting take on the situation, particularly with regards those potential clients looking to cut their costs to compensate for the drop.

“We see opportunities, not just a threat,” he says. “We also believe that if you can prove that you’re more cost-effective, they will definitely speak to you. Maybe before they had a favoured TMC, but if we can promise a cost reduction, they will listen. There is big opportunity for us, because we have our infrastructure in place.”

Palapies is in no doubt that the travel management business is generally seeing a big push towards more cost-saving initiatives, which is nothing new. But he’s encouraged by the role technology can play in this space, particularly with his technological background.

“There will always be a push in terms of technology,” he says. “You need to streamline your processes, provide ever more detailed reports etc. Previously it was all manual.”

Despite technological advancement, Palapies believes the basics of travel management haven’t changed too much over the past 10-15 years, and currently remain the same. But whatever the future holds for Wings and its industry, he is in no doubt about the road ahead.

“We feel prepared,” he says. “Whatever customer requirements are, we can help them.”