A Day In The Life of An Operations Manager

an interview with Tony Howes

WE CAUGHT UP WITH OPERATIONS MANAGER TONY HOWES…

With over 40-years of experience, Tony is one of the longest-serving members of the Gray Dawes family. As you’d expect from a career that began all the way back in the 1980s, his journey within the business travel industry is a story waiting to be told – decades’ worth of highs and lows from volcanic eruptions to the birth of the internet.

In this article, we chat to Tony about his day-to-day responsibilities as an Operations Manager, his first experiences as a travel agent stamping brochures, and a lung-busting mountain climbing experience…

 

Tony Howes

Operations Manager, Tony Howes

Hi Tony. Tell us a bit about your career as an Operations Manager

I didn’t really have a career before Gray Dawes! I’ve been at the same company since I was 16-years-old…

“This is now my 42nd year in the industry. I literally started straight from school, stamping brochures in a high street travel agency. That agency was a nice family run company and now, over 40 years later, I’ve come full circle and work for another family run company on a much bigger scale.

“The first company I worked for were acquired by Chelsea Village Travel, which was the holding company for Chelsea Football Club. That was a really interesting period in their history; Mr Abramovich, the Chelsea FC owner, came in with his own travel people which led to us being acquired by technology company PMP Associates. Seven years later, that company was acquired by Gray Dawes.

“So I’ve got a huge amount of experience in the industry. Of my 42 years I’ve been a manager for over 30. I’ve seen everything that the travel industry can throw at us, including recessions, the financial crash, the volcanic eruption in Iceland, and obviously the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s never a dull moment.

“I look after an Operations team of about 22 people in London called Team Whiskey. We manage the travel of some huge fashion brands, including some of Gray Dawes’ biggest and most prestigious accounts.

“There’s also a very wide portfolio of clients based in the manufacturing, retail, and finance industries. It’s really varied. In the last year or so, we’ve set up a new team to accommodate all our High Touch VIP clients coming from the finance, law, and asset management sectors. It’s very demanding, high-pressure, and growing all of the time.

I also recruit for the team. I’ve taken on more people in the last two years than I’ve taken on in my previous forty years in travel put together!

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray Dawes was fantastic and only a small percentage of operational staff were made redundant, especially when compared to the 50-60% cuts made by some of our competitors.

“Everyone predicted that the travel industry wouldn’t recover after COVID until the third quarter of 2025. But this turned out not to be true; as soon as people could start travelling again, our operations teams were working just as hard as they were before the pandemic.”

the average age of an Operations Manager

%

of Operations Managers in the US are women, or approximately 125,000.

%

of Operations Managers possess a Bachelor’s degree or higher

Statistics above taken from Zippia

Tell us about a typical day-to-day as an Operations Manager

“The first thing I do in the morning is check in with my team leaders and my supervisors. Together we look through what might have happened while we were away.

“We scour the out-of-hours requests to make sure that there weren’t problems with any of our clients overnight such as checking in to the hotel, particularly as a lot of our High Touch clients check in online.

“I try not to get too involved with the day-to-day bookings, but  I’m a very hands-on manager and I feel compelled to get in the trenches and get my hands dirty with the troops. I think a good Operations Manager needs to know how to do what your staff can do and understand their challenges.

 

 

“I generally attend a lot of meetings, usually related to the acquisition of new business. These are mainly for clients based in London. I represent the Operations team on these business calls, but also for internal calls between the implementation or sales teams. 

“Sometimes I head out of the office to attend business meetings which is really cool. I like getting out there and meeting people – I find people interesting.

“But every day in the travel travel industry is different. It’s a very dynamic, very fast-moving environment, and Gray Dawes is the same as a company. One day is never the same as the next.”

After 42 years in the industry, how much has your role and day-to-day changed?

“When I first started in the travel industry, the booking process was very different than it is now. 

“If you wanted to book flights, you’d go to the GDS, if you wanted to book a hotel, you’d go to another site; everything was disjointed. Now we’ve got our PORTAL platform which back when I started was the Holy Grail for travel agents – a one-stop-shop to book everything.

“It’s much better for transparency and integration – all of our clients use the same system that we use when they’re booking their travel. It makes everything easier.

“If I’m being honest, I was a little bit sceptical when these things first came along because I thought: ‘I’m a travel agent, I’ve been in this industry for years and years, and now I’m sitting here pointing and clicking and filling in boxes. Anyone can do that.’

“But there’s the travel experience side of business travel which still requires the specialist touch. As an Operations Manager, there’s also the people management side of the role. You’ve got to have empathy and be all things to all people. My door is always open.

“Probably the biggest change is the arrival of the internet. It’s been over 30 years ago now, but before everything was accessible online people wanting to travel would have to visit a travel agency or try to figure everything out themselves.

“Because of the internet, everyone thinks they are a travel agent.

“People think that because they can book online they can find things cheaper than you. That’s all well and good until something goes wrong on their trip. A big part of my day is monitoring bookings and providing support. If something goes awry, what procedures or protections do you have to navigate it? When push comes to shove you start to see the real value of a good TMC.”

What advice would you give to those looking for a career as an Operations Manager?

“If you want to be an Operations Manager, it’s not just about knowledge…

“There’s always such a lot going on in business travel and it changes so quickly so you don’t have to know everything. It’s all about staying flexible and being responsive to new challenges.

“It’s like owning a shop in a way. The shopkeeper always has to keep on top of his stock and learn about everything they are selling. Our stock is the entire world. You can’t possibly know everything, but you need to know where to find it in a pinch.”

“Operations Management is a 24-hour job

“I always tell my team and clients that they can contact me any time of day or night. I never turn my phone off;  it’s even by my bed when I go to sleep so that if something happens during the night they can get hold of me.

“It’s been like that for me since the old days when we were a much smaller travel agency. Back then, our 24-hour service was just me and a mobile phone. That was it! 

“Now we have a huge global operation at Gray Dawes – we follow the sun and have an ‘Always On’ philosophy so it’s much easier.”

And finally… tell us a bit about more yourself.

Where’s your favourite place in the world? 

“When I was 21, a couple of mates and I bought a couple of one-way tickets and went backpacking for 2 years. We ended up in India, then China, and took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing back to Moscow which was amazing.

“Then about 2 years ago, my daughter and I trekked to Everest Base Camp. It was 15 days of getting up at 5:00 am, feeling sick because of the altitude, and hiking uphill for 7 hours. I think I was the oldest person by about 20 years! But it was one of my proudest achievements and I got to spend quality time with my eldest daughter.”

Any hidden (or not-so-hidden) talents?

“Yo hablo español!” My mum is Spanish and my name’s actually “José Antonio”.  I use Tony cause it’s easier for people to pronounce here. When I go to the Gray Dawes Conference I’ve got “José Antonio” on my nametag and everyone says: ‘Is Tony not coming?!’

“I also do lots of running.  I’m just about to do my 33rd half marathon;  I do about 2 a year and I’ve also completed 6 marathons. I train about five days a week when I’m preparing for a race. I tend to do one just after February because that’s when all of your mates have stopped going out drinking and you can lose all the Christmas weight.”

 

Tony and his daughter at Everest Base Camp.

What’s your favourite food and/or drink?

“Since I’ve been working in London, I’ve become a bit snobby about my beer. I like a nice pint of IPA – Neck Oil is probably my favourite – but I also love a nice, single malt.

“With my Spanish ancestry, seafood paella is one of my favourite things in the world. I love Spanish omelettes too. I’m a human dustbin. I eat anything! Though at the moment it’s all brown pasta and brown rice –  got to fuel the marathon training somehow!”

A  BOUTIQUE GLOBAL SERVICE FROM REAL PEOPLE WITH A PASSION FOR TRAVEL

 

Tony is a great embodiment of the Gray Dawes Travel focus on delivering an outstanding, personal touch to business travel. Click HERE to find out more about our unique High Touch service.

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