Flying high

The corporate travel sector is bouncing back, and ISON Travel, led by Helen Cannon, is supporting professionals with all their needs

The corporate travel industry bore the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, enduring unprecedented challenges. Widespread lockdowns and travel restrictions halted journeys, conferences and meetings; airlines faced a sharp decline in demand; and professionals were forced to navigate a landscape transformed by remote collaboration and digital alternatives.

The sector’s resilience was pushed to its utmost limits, but thankfully, it is now on the path to recovery. In fact, according to projections from the Global Business Travel Association, worldwide business travel spending will reach pre-pandemic levels in 2024.

Supporting professionals with their travel arrangements is pivotal for Surrey-based ISON Travel, a corporate travel management company, in contributing to the revival of the industry. The team of experienced consultants deliver a programme designed to bring exceptional value to business, negotiating the best rates on behalf of companies and private clients – from exclusive airfares to hotel rates with added complimentary benefits. “We pride ourselves in providing exceptional service combined with the latest in travel technology,” says founder Helen Cannon. “We recognise that travellers need our support any time of the day or night, and for that reason, we operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

Helen embarked on the journey of founding ISON Travel in 2013, following nine years dedicated to raising her five children. “My youngest was about six months old and I felt ready to get back into the workplace,” she shares. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to find a role or employer that would offer the flexibility I needed to balance my family and work life, so I decided to start my own business.”

Helen’s professional background was rooted in experiential marketing, events and brand development yet her passion for travel remained steadfast. She explains how a chance encounter with a friend who worked in the travel industry led her to see an opportunity to start a high-touch, client-driven travel company. “I’m on a mission to enable everybody to do the job they love, regardless of their personal circumstances, because I realise, like me when I started ISON Travel, many people need to work flexibly around their family,” states Helen. “I make a point of hiring people based on their expertise and skills alone, not how many hours they can work or where they can work from geographically.”

The travel sector faced a severe setback during the pandemic, presenting considerable challenges for ISON Travel. Undeterred, Helen and her team confronted these adversities head-on. While many competitors resorted to staff layoffs or permanent closures, Helen’s foresight, coupled with prudent financial management over the years, allowed ISON Travel to weather the storm. In a bold move, she chose to invest in her team, retaining them for as long as possible. “I was totally confident that travel would return, so much so that I even hired people from those competitors that were closing down,” Helen explains. “Whilst this seems like a risky strategy, I wanted to be ready with the best team of travel consultants when the industry bounced back. As a result, ISON Travel was one of the first companies in our sector to reach and then exceed 2019 turnover levels.”

In today’s corporate travel environment, Helen recognises that finding the best fares and prices for customers has become increasingly complex as the channels that suppliers use diversify – both in terms of volume and variety. “Our challenge is to keep our people well trained and knowledgeable, and to provide the latest technology to make sure we always have access to the best prices.”

She adds that companies are now heavily focused on managing their carbon footprint, and the easiest and most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions is to ensure all travel bookings are made through a single source. “That’s where we step in. We have technology that allows us to advise travellers of the potential carbon emission of a journey and offer alternatives (planes to trains etc). We also provide companies with options to offset or eliminate through sustainable aviation fuel or carbon credits.”

On a personal level, confronting the fear of potentially letting down those who rely on her represents one of Helen’s most significant challenges. “The responsibility of being an employer, accountable for my team, their families and my own, is immense. I overcome this by leaning on my close support network, always striving to have a balanced approach to risk and reminding myself to take a deep breath and be brave. I think we can all be 10% braver!”

Helen’s bravery, as a business owner, has certainly paid off. In just three years, ISON Travel has expanded its global footprint and grown from 13 employees to more than 70, catalysing the initiation of a new project called “Fit for Growth”, which revolves around a comprehensive reorganisation of the company’s structure and the expansion of its management team.

Helen elaborates on this: “We’ve rolled out a company-wide performance programme, ensuring job descriptions are clear and accountabilities are aligned with our overall objectives. As a small team, you tend to wear many hats, but when you grow, there comes a point where each function needs its own expert responsible for its delivery. I’m most excited about this because we’ve been able to promote employees and give them the training and support they need to be successful. The people who have joined us in senior positions from outside the company are mostly interim and here to coach us and show us the way so that employees have that career progression opportunity.”

Furthermore, ISON Travel has just launched a new online booking tool integrated with Microsoft Teams, which Helen describes as a game changer for clients who have executive assistants (EAs) and personal assistants (PAs) booking for travellers. Excitingly for the team, there will be lots of new releases from this platform over the coming months. “In other news, we’ve recently hired our first cohort of apprentices and graduates, who are doing really well,” adds Helen. “Working in the travel industry is a real joy and it’s not a career path that is particularly advertised to school leavers or graduates. I’d encourage anyone to consider a career in travel – it’s fun, rewarding and opens a door to seeing the world!”

Steering ISON Travel successfully through the pandemic, and growing, stands out as one of Helen’s proudest achievements. Beyond this, she harbours a fervent commitment to reshaping the workplace paradigm positively – demonstrating that success doesn’t hinge on adhering to a conventional nine-to-five, five-days-a-week schedule.

Her advice to business owners and entrepreneurs centres around the strategy of attracting and retaining top-tier talent by accommodating employees on their terms. This involves providing a flexible work environment where individuals can opt for part-time arrangements, work remotely or from an office, and even take breaks to handle personal responsibilities like the school run. “You do have to be slightly more thoughtful when working in a team where not everyone is around all the time, but this flexibility will pay dividends for attracting talented employees and fostering loyalty and productivity.”

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