How Sarah Clark is leading an international travel company through a pandemic

How Sarah Clark is helping manage an international travel company through a pandemic

Sarah Clarke

The start of 2020 couldn’t have been stronger, I was leading a passionate team across Australia and New Zealand at the world’s largest adventure travel company, surpassing set targets for the biggest January in the company’s history. We were on track with future goals to balance purpose and profit, supporting local communities while taking customers on the trip of a lifetime.

Come February and March, the rapidly changing environment couldn’t have been further from our predictions. Countries began closing borders leaving customers stranded, airports shut their doors and we were on the brink of a pandemic.

Quickly, the company had gone from turning over almost half a billion dollars with more than 450,000 customers in the last 12 months, to focussing on survival. It was the start of a long and challenging journey, and the biggest professional challenge I’d ever faced.

Focus on what is within your control

Before Australia went into lockdown, the priority was getting over 3,000 customers back home as borders and airports continued to close across the globe, while also suspending our customers’ future trips.

In a crisis situation, especially one of this scale, no one can predict what will happen. Intrepid was set up well, and the team was prepared for many situations which enabled us to move through the early stages of the pandemic. Having a well-trained, flexible team, crisis communication procedure, and a cloud-based environment were essential for weathering the storm.

 

Clear parameters was also something I learnt that helps a team focused when the world around them is in chaos. Like most businesses, our teams were working remotely with different home circumstances from homeschooling to isolation. Having some direction and focus from work helped create some normality. The outside environment cannot be controlled, but it’s your responsibility as a leader to ensure your team is set up and focussed on the areas that can be controlled.

Over communicate

In moments of change, it is important to over communicate. When people aren’t in their usual environment, especially virtually, it’s easy for things to be misconstrued or missed which is why I focussed on communicating each message in a variety of ways including a feedback loop. If you don’t know what your team is feeling then you won’t get the best performance and you ultimately are failing at your job.

None of us had led a team in a virtual environment through a pandemic so I had to learn that along the way, but basic principles of leadership always apply.

In a moment of monumental social change, and with our team facing huge uncertainty, I felt it was equally important for me to provide them with some consistency and routine.

I prioritised regular individual catch ups, weekly and monthly updates with the wider region, and bi-weekly CEO company sessions as well as social catch ups in an effort to replace Friday night drinks. We also introduced ‘corridor conversations’ to listen to a day in the life of our colleagues, a simple office routine that was missed in 2020.

Diversity of thinking

The rapidly changing environment and uncertainty meant we needed to have calm, clear and diverse thinking. Being part of an experienced global executive team, who trusts and supports each other meant we were able to make smart decisions together which were communicated and executed throughout different teams across the business.

This diversity also makes us a better business. Intrepid has team members from more than 65 different nationalities and from all corners of the world. We are also a B Corp, which means we balance purpose and profit.

In the crisis, we were able to turn to our core values to guide our decision making and thinking. It’s something that I will remember for future situations, to pull yourself away and get a wider view. To have customers at the core, think cross-department, through the eyes of different genders, ask the team their perspective, and keep global thinking at the forefront.

Leverage your network, collaboration not competition

I’ve worked in different global travel businesses throughout Australia, the UK, Canada and the US. But when Covid struck, everyone in travel was grappling with similar challenges, with their own unique circumstances.

In those moments, I found it valuable to reach out to my broader network. This was a chance to check in with people on a very human level, ask about their challenges and to get feedback on my own.

This also led to redefining what competition means in travel. Pre-covid there was a healthy dose, where now, the focus is on collaboration, as that is how we will come out of Covid-19 stronger.

For Intrepid, we’ve gone as far as investing in and sharing free tools with other companies such as our decarbonisation guide and open-source animal welfare toolkit as travel will only emerge from this crisis successfully if we use this pause to collectively address the biggest threats facing our world. We want other businesses to take what we’ve learned about responsible tourism and carbon management and use that knowledge in their own businesses.

Find your creative thinking space

Intrepid quickly identified that domestic travel and hyper-local experiences would bounce back first and wanted to be ready as soon as our customers were.

During autumn 2020, I led a global working group that was tasked to create, develop and launch a new local travel product suitable for locals in our markets around the globe. We needed to prioritise our customer source markets, utilise existing systems and platforms and launch within six weeks with zero marketing dollars.

This was a challenge that I faced as I managed a team all the way from Tasmania where I was lucky enough to spend lockdown. During the frantic weeks around the Local Travel project I found huge value in taking time out to just walk along the Hobart waterfront. This is where I had the space to think creatively and where my ideas could evolve – away from the day-to-day crisis.

Now, as the pandemic continues, creative thinking space is even more important. As we transform as an industry we need visionary leadership. We need dedicated, passionate and motivated teams to deliver the future of travel.

The travel rebound will be fierce. When it is safe to do so, people will travel. To explore, to make new connections, to experience new cultures.  This is needed now more than ever before.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox