Doreen Burse, United's new senior vice president of global sales, joined the airline from Marriott in March, just as U.S. domestic travel started to surge. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke with Burse last month about her plans for positioning United as the Covid-19 pandemic slowly abates as well as her plans for working with travel agents.
Q: You joined United right as people began flying again en masse. How do you seize upon that and what role do travel advisors play in your plan?
A: The most important thing to do is to try to stay ahead of where most folks are traveling to. So, the leisure market has been strong. We've adjusted our routing to be going to and from places that folks want to travel to. But I also think, as it relates to travel agencies, it's making sure that I continue to reinforce the great work that's been done by the previous team, reinforcing how important those agents are to our business. They really help keep travel moving. Travel today has gotten very complex, when you think about the testing that might be required or vaccine requirements and those kinds of things.
Q: Does that make the agent community more important than before?
A: I'd say that the agencies are as important as they've always been. I'd say that the way they are leveraged and utilized looks a little bit different. Before, it was, "Talk to me about the destination. Where do you recommend that we go?" Now it is, "We know that we want to head here because it's open. What do we need to know before we travel? And what do we also need to know about getting back to our origination point." I see the agents as the extension of the sales team. The role looks different, but they are equally as important as they were before, and we want to keep reinforcing that.
Q: Airlines typically want sales to be in direct channels when possible because it increases margins. But has there been any shift in leisure agency share during the pandemic?
A: I don't have those answers at my fingertips in terms of the mix in share. But in terms of direct versus indirect, I can tell you, in worldwide sales, we are agnostic. We want to sell the way the traveler wants to buy. So, if that agent is an extension of a corporation, and that's how they want to book, that's great. And the same thing for leisure. We want to make ourselves easy to access based on the way the traveler actually wants to buy from us.
Q: How big is your sales force compared with pre-pandemic?
A: As with most companies, there was a reduction commensurate with the decrease in volume. But the approach we've taken is kind of a "no customer left behind." Whether that is a different deployment, or different uses of technology or self-service portals and those type of things, we tried to make sure that everyone was covered. And it's one of the things we speak about on a regular basis, which is, as business comes back, are we in position to take care of the customer in the way that we need to and in the way that they want to be taken care of. It's always top of mind.
Q: Has United made changes to commission structures or contracts during the pandemic?
A: In the few weeks that I've been here, I've seen things remain pretty status quo. In many cases we've extended agreements just based upon the fact that there's not good history from 2020.
Q: Any final message for travel advisors?
A: I see them as an incredibly important part of our business. I don't only want United to be someone that folks want to travel with. I want to be the airline that they want to sell. That would be my message. One of the things that we've announced is that we are creating a travel agency advisory board that is going to include a cross-section of agencies, including our leisure partners, as well. It's really formalizing the relationships that we have today but bringing it into a different kind of forum that allows for even greater two-way conversation.