‘We always embrace change because otherwise, you can’t expand’
We recently enjoyed an insightful conversation with Special Tours Wholesalers’ Maria Papathanassiou, a travel industry veteran who gave us her perspective on international expansion, the developments in the sector, the role of technology and more.
Active since 1987, Special Tours Wholesalers is a highly experienced, technologically sophisticated bed bank serving travel agents and tour operators. Based in London and Athens, it provides a seamless booking process, responsive customer service and an inventory of more than 100,000 competitively priced hotels in over 22,000 destinations across the globe.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you wound up at Special Tours Wholesalers.
I’ve been at the company for 17 years now. My background is in IT, which is what I studied – nothing to do with the tourism industry! I started out working here just for a few months while I was getting my Master’s. That proved a stroke of luck; those months turned into years and the rest is history.
I began in the Administration department, where I handled the rates and entered data into the system. Then I helped set up the Contracts department; it was the first time that Special Tours had had its own department contracting hotels directly. I subsequently made a lot of changes to how we contact, contract and negotiate with hotels in order to get more direct products. Along the way, I gradually became more and more involved with other departments and that eventually led to my current position.
What was the jump like when you became CEO?
Our Managing Director oversaw my appointment as CEO because of the way the whole company was contacting me for everything ranging from very small in-house solutions to financial, structural and commercial decisions. In that sense, the role came to me naturally from my team and the company, and the title just officialised something that already existed internally.
Could you briefly explain Special Tours Wholesalers’ business model and how you differentiate yourselves from your competitors?
Special Tours has been in the market for more than 30 years and works exclusively in the B2B space with travel agents and tour operators; we never serve companies or individuals directly.
We have strong competition from some really credible, nice companies, which makes us better, to be honest. Competition pushes you to be better.
Special Tours offers fantastic customer support from really experienced staff who provide very quick responses, take ownership of the situation and always deliver a solution that works in each customer’s favour.
I think that’s something that sets Special Tours apart and which we strive to maintain.
Your services cater to a variety of businesses: are there differences in how you cater to those different needs?
Well, ultimately Special Tours always deals with personalised bookings for hotel accommodation. We do offer some transfers, tours and activities, but it’s only to serve our clients more easily when they are browsing our hotels online. However, in the main, we believe in doing one thing the best that we can.
You noted earlier that the company has existed for 30 years. It has obviously expanded in that period and needless to say, there has been quite a lot of change within the industry in those 30 years too. How has Special Tours evolved with those changes?
The company has changed a lot. We always embrace change, because otherwise you can’t expand; that’s our policy and way of thinking here.
Things were totally different 20 years ago compared to now. We’ve invested a lot in technology, creating our own IT department; we were one of the first companies in our space to do that and we remain one of the few with its own IT department including in-house hosting services and more.
We have always been obliged – although we like doing it, so perhaps ‘obliged’ isn’t the right word – to change our structure according to developments in the market, although we make sure not to fall into the trap of always following what others are doing.
Did you start off as a DMC back in the day?
No, from the very first day, we operated as a bed bank, which was not a common word to use in those days! As a bed bank, we entered into contracts with DMCs and other bigger suppliers and wholesalers. We later started investing more in our direct contracting.
Incidentally, our Operations, Accounts and Commerce departments were all initially based in Greece and in the first ten years, we didn’t deal with big hotels at all.
Going Global is powered by Kantox, so we always ask a question about currency management. How do you view currency in your business model? How does operating internationally affect your business in terms of currencies?
It does affect our business and not always negatively, but it is a tricky thing we have to manage in order not to face losses.
Our Finance department is very experienced and they do their best to avoid risk. They try to pay and collect in local currencies to minimise losses, but we know that’s not a solution that we can rely on forever.
For that reason, we want to set things up technologically within our Finance department, which has previously been left behind with regard to technological advancements, in order to be able to embed solutions like Kantox’s and other internal improvements.
Bed banks deal with a lot of suppliers and currencies on both the buy and the sell side, so FX risk management is certainly important. However, being able to price locally also allows you to be more competitive in different markets, especially against local suppliers.
I totally agree with you and I think that’s the trickiest aspect. That’s where I think you need to partner with experts.
You mentioned technology and always wanting to stay on top of things in the industry. How important a role has technology played for Special Tours?
Technology has played the most important role in our development. Indeed, it is one of our three core areas – alongside customer support and product – that we base our entire structure on and always keep in mind when implementing changes and restructuring on an annual basis.
So, technology has been, still is and will probably remain the most important investment for us. We always aim to be as technologically advanced as possible.
Could you give a couple of examples of your use of technology?
We were one of the first players to launch an online system, which we did in 1992, although nobody logged into it back then!
Still, that was one of the things that marked us out and helped clients to trust us in this area.
To further build that trust, we go to every effort to reply to clients within seconds or even milliseconds via our XML feeds and other connections, so that we give clients the quickest possible response.
Lastly, to finish on a positive note, what do you think is the most exciting development in the travel industry at the moment?
Personally speaking, I think that the most exciting change over the last ten years has been the ability for every individual to access all the information they need in order to have the best possible travel experience for them specifically. Everyone can now see maps, study reviews and comments, view photos and compare rates. I think all of that has really changed the whole philosophy in the sector.
And from your perspective as the company’s CEO, what’s exciting for Special Tours at the moment?
We have a lot of plans to expand the company to more countries and source destinations. The most exciting challenge at the moment is how we can do that without sacrificing the quality of our services, while also dealing with a fast-changing market in which things are very different compared to what we were used to even two years ago.