Apple Leisure's Alex Zozaya on riding out 'the perfect storm'

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When Apple Leisure Group held meetings with partners and travel advisors in Chicago and Philadelphia this month, much of the talk focused on the "perfect storm" of complications from its merger with Mark Travel and issues such as sargassum in Mexico and headlines about tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic. Senior editor Jeri Clausing talked with the company's executive chairman, Alex Zozaya, about the challenges as well as the recent appointment of Alejandro Reynal to succeed him as CEO.

Q: You knew going into the merger it was going to be difficult. But did you have any idea what was really in store?

A: No. The merger was a lot more difficult, No. 1 because it was in the middle of these outside challenges such as the situation in the Dominican Republic, the 737 Max situation, the sargassum issue in Mexico, the safety issues, Airbnb growing dramatically this year.

But also for us, I think with the integration of the Apple and Mark systems we underestimated a lot of the complications we would have. Creating one culture out of two groups that were very, very strong competitors for so many years is not that easy. And so, the bigger we are, the more complex it becomes.

Q: You recently appointed a new CEO. Is that a response to the complications?

Alex Zozaya
Alex Zozaya

A: It's totally unrelated. Part of my contract was that I would transition to chairman. I didn't want to be part of the day-to-day anymore. And this process has been actually going on for a year and a half, so before the merger.

Now, of course, having this new CEO should accelerate this transition. I think that Alejandro is very, very capable, particularly in some of the challenges that we have on contact centers, technology -- those are his areas of expertise. But by no means having a new CEO was a reflection of anything that was happening in the business. But it's also good news to have someone who brings this talent and capability to help us transition more smoothly to the next phase.

Q: Does passing the baton now indicate you think you have cleared the biggest hurdles?

A: Yes, I think we have. Again, the technology hurdle is ongoing. We are never going to get to the point that we want, because when you think you are getting there, they are already moving forward. But we are committed to investing money in technology and to having a team savvy enough to adopt new technologies going forward.

Q: Was a key characteristic you were looking for in a new CEO that he be technologically savvy, given that he has no travel experience?

A: The experts in travel, we have them in-house. It wasn't the expertise or the know-how in the travel industry that we were looking for. It was more someone who was willing and able to lead, a good leader for the next 10 to 15 years.

Q: And that's where you saw the biggest hiccups?

A: Yes, in the short term, that's where we have been struggling: with the integration of the call centers and the technology, having one common platform for all the companies.

Q: Looking back, have you ever faced a year with so many crises at once?

A: You know, we tend to forget the bad news. We tend to forget that there was a crisis. But every year there's something. And if you really go fact-check year by year, you will see that there are many years that have been a challenge. Yeah, this year has more than one, but by no means is this the worst or the most difficult.

Q: Do you think things will be back to normal this time next year?

A: There is no normal. Normal has changed. It's evolution. So no, we won't go back to peaceful times or to normal.

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