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Sunweb Group on how to successfully survive the Covid-19 pandemic



Sunweb Group: 'In the upcoming months, travellers will remain cautious and stay away from big crowds'

How does Sunweb Group, a valued AXA Partners Business Partner, look back on the year 2020, when Covid-19 was hampering the travel sector? And even more important, how confident does Sunweb feel about the future and the urge to revive traveller confidence? We asked Brenda van Leeuwen, Chief Digital Officer of Sunweb Group and found out that the pandemic means challenges, but that there are also some rays of sunshine over the horizon.

From a traveller's perspective, what in your opinion has been the most striking trend of the past year?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'Well, there was and still is, a lot of information for customers to digest when they want to travel in times of Covid-19. When they planned a trip, they had to take into account the information of the country they were coming from, but also check the regulations from the governments they were travelling to. We noticed that customers wanted to play it safe when booking a holiday and they were looking for a tour operator they could rely on. That’s why we had to make sure all the details on travelling and travel restrictions were up to date on our website. Our content was updated on a very regular basis so that the colour coding and corona measures of our European destinations were transparently communicated. And as the pandemic is still with us, we see travellers dealing with the same challenges as last summer.

Moreover, we also realized customers were looking for information concerning health and safety. They for instance wanted to know if they needed to take a corona test, if they could make use of the buffet in the hotels or what would happen if they got ill between the booking date and the start of their holiday. 2020 was all about informing and reassuring the customers. The information had to be detailed and timely and customers had to be reassured that travelling was safe and still relaxing and a lot of fun.'

The way people were looking for information clearly changed, but did the way people travel also change in times of Covid-19?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'Yes, definitely. We saw three trends in the bookings and the online searches of customers. Firstly, they were much more interested in self-drive. Our customers wanted to go on a holiday with their own car because they felt more in control that way. In case something happened, they could get back home quickly and were not dependent on others. That’s why we made a portfolio with travel options meeting the needs of this traveller target group.

Secondly, our customers were clearly looking to move away from large crowds. They preferred not to stay in big all-inclusive hotels but booked a small-scale accommodation or place where they were safe with their family in their own bubble and away from the crowd.

Finally, it became clear our customers had an appetite for closer-to-home destinations. If something would happen, they reasoned that the distance could easily be overcome. That’s why we closed a deal with Roompot for the Netherlands, a bungalow park where Dutch customers could rent a family bungalow, close to home and away from the crowd as well.'

Do you think these trends will continue in the upcoming months and year?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'We are allowed to travel again in our main source markets, like Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. Some of the lockdown measures are now being lifted, so we see that more people are traveling by plane and self-drive holidays are losing their appeal.

Whether this trend will go on, is uncertain but as long as the pandemic is around, a lot of customers will prefer to move away from the crowds and enjoy their holiday within their own bubble. We also notice that customers want to find out more about travel guarantees. They want to know if they can be repatriated if they book with a tour operator. Or they want information about being insured when something happens.

They have become cautious and more aware of where they book and under what conditions. They want to find out whether they will get a refund or cash-back in case the holiday needs to be cancelled. We don’t believe the vouchers of 2020 are a future reality and that’s why we have already implemented the cash-back guarantee in our booking offers since the beginning of this year.'

Travellers want to find out about travel guarantees and have become more cautious and aware of where they book and under what conditions.

– Brenda Van Leeuwen

Agility and resilience

How challenging is it for a tour operator like Sunweb Group to have an offer, knowing that everything may still be changing day to day at the moment?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'We’ve learned how important agility and resilience are. We learned to act quickly. Whenever colour codes were changing, different key search words were typed in, or customer demands changed, we acted immediately. We realized we couldn’t allow ourselves to lose precious time. There was no time for large steering committees or various meetings, and we soon came to the conclusion that we needed to work in a cross-functional way, with various disciplines. The team dealing with the website, the customer center team, IT, … we were all lined up to react instantly. We concluded that this is the best way forward and that it will determine our future organization. No more little company silos, but moving forward with a cross-functional organizational structure that allows us to react quickly, driven by increasing customer experience and take calculated risks. We learned to be prepared for change and not to stick to the plan if the environment is changing. Also, empowerment of our local teams proved to be important in this respect.'

What is the impact of the pandemic on staff members, for a company like Sunweb?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'The impact was definitely not to be underestimated. For the first time, many of our staff members had to work from home, full time. Our IT development team in Girona, colleagues in our Sunweb offices in Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium were all working from home. That was quite challenging, as we had to provide them with the right equipment and tools and we had to ensure they could connect to our network. We managed to adapt to this new reality quickly and I am proud to say this new way of working is now in our DNA. We believe the future calls for a hybrid model: we will be in the office for events, for socializing and for workshops. Meetings, however, can easily be held digitally. Covid-19 made us opt for a long-term model responding to the new and current needs of our employees.

The impact on our staff, however, also entailed a different aspect: Sunweb is about creating and providing memorable customer experiences, but suddenly, because of the pandemic, our staff had to do the reverse. We had to repatriate our customers. That had quite a mental impact on our staff. But we learned to deal with issues like repatriation fast. We also learned to inform customers on local regulations and measures in a transparent way.

As a result, Sunweb is now a different organization. The crisis management we had to deal with during the pandemic made us look for ways to stay healthy as a company and at the same time look for opportunities to deal with the major changes staff members were going through. Together with our colleagues from HR we constantly reflected on the well-being of the staff, their mental health and made sure staff members could stay connected. As our ‘shop’ was metaphorically closed during the lockdown, we took this opportunity to spend time on the development of our staff and on aligning them with the new Sunweb business strategy for the future. It was all quite hands-on but I could conclude by saying we focused on the employee experience, in addition to our ongoing customer experience.'

Could you say that these changes were a positive consequence of the pandemic, that some things have changed for the better? Or would that be an exaggeration?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'No, that’s correct. At Sunweb we like to look at things on the bright, sunny side. We had to speed up our digital journey and the pandemic definitely accelerated this process. We had to step up and focus on providing more self-service for our customers, on a system that allows for mass mailing and on a more intense use of our app. The pandemic also intensified our partnership with AXA Partners from an insurance perspective. The pandemic clearly brought along some positive things too that I believe are here to stay. Moreover, we learned about agility and to work in a cross-functional way and that has now become part of our new culture, moving us forward.

We hope, like many people, that in the near future, travelling will become more and more possible as we all deserve a holiday to unwind and spend a fantastic time in a splendid location where we can meet other travellers as well as locals. The changes moving the travel sector forward have started and I hope this trend will continue in the upcoming weeks and months.'

Back to the good old days?

Do you think there will be notable differences between travelling within and outside of Europe?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'That is a challenging question to answer, I admit. At Sunweb, we have a pan-European footprint. It is hard to predict the future but from what I see now, a lot of our customers still prefer staying in their own bubble. So closer-to-home destinations, small-scale accommodation away from the crowd or travelling by car. They want to feel secure and safe, and that feeling will last for at least a couple of months, I think.

If customers are planning to travel outside of Europe, the situation might become different as some countries outside of Europe, but sometimes also even within the continent, are still dealing with the pandemic at their own pace. This difference in pace of dealing with the pandemic and how this affects countries within or outside of Europe is something travellers definitely need to take into account.'

You already mentioned a few expectations travellers currently have due to the pandemic, but if you would try to look into a crystal ball, do you think these new demands or expectations will last? Or will customer demands one day revert to what they were before the pandemic?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'I think something will change, maybe not in the very long run, but at least in the medium term, like in a year from now. People will remain cautious. The pandemic is still there and will even stay around, as specialists tell us. We, as citizens of the world, will need to adjust to this new reality. Maybe one day Covid-19 will be perceived like a normal flu epidemic, but for now, with the European corona passport and other measures, people will remain cautious. They still feel the need to be informed about regulations, quarantine, how to be organized, and PCR-testing. Much depends on the dynamics and demands of governments, and Sunweb will always respect the rules and regulations of local authorities to ensure the safety of customers, but as tour operators, we also have an important role to play. At a time when customers are increasingly looking for flexibility, security and guarantees, a package holiday offers the added value that consumers are looking for. We see this also in the increasing market share for organized holidays.'

Are there any specific health and safety measures Sunweb has taken for travellers?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'Yes, last year we installed a health and safety programme for our partners, especially our hoteliers. For this, we worked together with Crystal Intertrek, an agency specialized in health and safety. Together, we defined our own health and safety measures and carried out assessments of hotels and accommodation partners we work with. If travellers opt for one of our hoteliers or providers of accommodation, we can guarantee that the room is clean, the buffet follows the safety measures and the 1.5m. distance rule is respected. We have listed our standards and assess our partners based on these standards.

On top of that, we also opted for content sharing of the pages on our websites with our partners. Also, our app was optimized and a lot of information for our travellers was added. They now have their digital journey at hand.

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget our Holiday Doctor, a co-creation concept we applied and implemented with the help of AXA Partners. As a result of this co-operation, our travellers now have access to medical assistance whenever needed, through the app. There’s no need to ask for local assistance or to rummage through your suitcase trying to find phone numbers. The Sunweb app helps travellers, anywhere and anytime. Thanks to Holiday Doctor, they can have a video chat with a general practitioner, usually someone on the home front.'

During the crisis, we launched Holiday Doctor, a co-creation concept we applied and implemented with the help of AXA Partners. As a result of this co-operation, our travellers now have access to medical teleconsultation whenever needed, through the app.

– Brenda Van Leeuwen

Co-creation with AXA Partners

Can you elaborate on the co-operation of Sunweb and AXA Partners? Does it make a real difference for Sunweb?

Brenda van Leeuwen: 'At Sunweb, we believe in creating memories for our travellers throughout their journey and we want to be by their side whenever they need assistance. Travellers are looking for security and one way of settling this is by means of insurance: cancellation insurance, travel insurance, … AXA Partners has really helped us out here. We have chosen insurance deals from the AXA Partners package that meet the needs of our customers. What I really like about AXA Partners, is the idea of co-creation. The Holiday Doctor was an application we co-created with AXA Partners during the Covid-19 pandemic and we feel that, thanks to the smooth cooperation, there is more to explore in the field of insurance and services. Together with AXA Partners, we can secure our travellers and give them unique experiences and offerings. '

Thank you for this interview.

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