MD of booking agency Inntel Douglas O’Neill has charted a unique course for the Essex firm. Since taking over the controls of the family business, he has piloted it to new altitudes while remaining grounded in family values.
The aviation industry’s loss is the meeting industry’s gain regarding the captain of the good ship Inntel, Douglas O’Neill. Born in Scotland, O’Neill moved to Colchester at the age of three. His first choice of career after university was to become a pilot with British Airways.
“In the final interview waiting room, I found the other five candidates all reading Flight magazine. When I missed out, I realised that, for those who had made it, flying was a lifelong passion rather than simply a desire, as it was for me. This taught me an early lesson – as an owner/manager of a business you have to have a passion for what you are doing rather than just worry about how much money you are going to make.”
Early working years for O’Neill included a stint in a chocolate factory, where he gave away free samples in order to create an audience for the product. “This taught me both the need to create an interest in what you are doing to maximise the available opportunity, and the need to have something new ready to introduce when interest in the product wanes.”
His professional career kicked off as a London-based solicitor, specialising in offshore tax and trust advice. Despite the precision involved, O’Neill makes many business decisions based on gut instinct. “Perhaps too many – but many of these decisions have turned out to be right. Much of what one thinks is gut instinct is actually knowledge you’ve gained along the way.”
He moved into the family business in 2001, as business development director at Inntel, a booking agency started by his father.
“Initially the business was called Execotel but Expotel objected so it changed to Inntel.
“The business came about because my father would often have travelling sales people come into the hotel and ask for recommendations of hotels in other areas. He realised there was a gap for such a service and started Inntel from our front room.
“Initially there were five phone lines coming into the house, which was packed with guidebooks in those pre-internet days.”
Early clients were Hewlett Packard (who had an office in Colchester), McDonalds and Rolls-Royce.
“We were the last people to hold a central British Rail contract before it split into 40 different companies, so we actually benefitted because instead of just having the two major clients, we ended up with 41,” says O’Neill.
Moving to Essex, O’Neill brought some of the corporate practices from the capital to Inntel and says his biggest surprise was finding how long £10 lasted in Colchester compared to London. “There was a big contrast in environments, working practices and cultures,” he says.
In 2003 O’Neill became MD and, in 2012, he bought the company.
Inntel now employs over 100 staff at its headquarters in Feering, Essex, and turnover is £50m. Clients include three FTSE top 20 companies and Inntel completes over 300,000 transactions annually.
O’Neill’s philosophy is to look beyond the short term: “My goal is to provide customer service and make a profit, but there isn’t the great driver to make a profit at the cost of customer service that there would be if I was answerable to investment shareholders. The drive for profit can sometimes over-reach the drive to provide customer service.”
O’Neill was recently elected to the GBTA Europe Meetings Committee and he was chair of the ITM Meetings and Events Working Party.
In his spare time O’Neill enjoys marathon running, 14 to date, and completed the Scottish Coast to Coast in 2013 and 2014. Many of these activities are to raise money for local charities.
Key contracts he flags as milestones in the business include some in the rail industry and BT, both early wins that helped move Inntel to a different level.
Lloyds Banking Group and The Law Society are more recent big account wins. Clearly he is keeping his hand in with his past career in the case of the latter.
O’Neill says his biggest disappointments have come from instances where business is almost secured, the client has been told everything, only for all the knowledge and ideas put in to answering the brief to be used by another agency. “It’s happening less these days, but it’s still very frustrating,” he says.
“Inntel once re-tendered for a piece of business we already had. I eventually found out that the rival agency that won had claimed they were buying Inntel (not true) so would have the client’s business anyway!”
One regret he admits to is not doing more marketing of the brand at an earlier stage and says he should have invested more earlier. “I now know a lot more about the importance of marketing,” O’Neill acknowledges.
Other O’Neill tips for would-be agency entrepreneurs include: “Never stop believing that you will succeed. There are lots of hurdles along the way but keep going. Be unique, watch your cash flow and stay focused.”
He believes sectoral consolidation has been beneficial, with rival agencies merging or being acquired. And he believes there is a greater recognition of benefits agencies can deliver. “Today the process through which our services are purchased are conducted more professionally, via RFPs etc. and there’s much greater awareness of other priorities such as traveller tracking. Venues now have to meet a number of criteria – not just price – to win business.”
Financial models have changed from the days when commission was the agency’s only income stream. “Today, corporates’ recognition of the value of the service Inntel and its competitors provide is highlighted by how common transaction fees, management fees, hybrid fees and commission, rebate and cost sharing models are,” O’Neill says.
Asked to pick out other suppliers or agencies that impress him, O’Neill says: “Sundial Venues focus on what is important and have an unerring attention to detail. They are very family orientated, focused on delivering the right thing. They have remained true to their beliefs.
“I also admire agencies that keep true to their promises. I admired BSI because they were a very credible agency and didn’t play the kind of games that some practice.”
How would he sum up Inntel’s USP?
“We seek to reap the long term benefits and allow account managers time to understand each client in depth. The average Inntel client contract renews three times.”
Asked which client had given him the greatest satisfaction over the years, O’Neill picks out FirstGroup, “the first significant client I won for Inntel”.
“We have helped shape how they operate, and learned from them in return,” he says. “FirstGroup has deployed commercial models which have taught us a lot about flexibility. They have also regularly changed their procurement managers so we’ve had to learn to change our approach regularly, too.”
When choosing an agency, O’Neill’s advice is that service should always be the first level of qualification.
“Corporates’ focus is no longer solely on rate. People are prepared to pay for what they perceive or define as value, whether that be in terms of savings, Duty of Care or good service.
“Cost is still important but needs to go hand in hand with the service. Good service is what defines our industry and what we should be recognised for.
“The market has moved away from a single ‘one call sorts it all’ proposition to a realisation that HBAs do so much more, like creating and managing preferred supplier programmes.”
His view on strategic meetings management programmes is that they bring a more formalised structure to the management of meetings spend, but should never be over-complicated. “We try to keep it simple. If a client needs an SMMP structure, they should expect it to take around two years to get it working properly and to reap any real benefit.”
In terms of where corporates’ meetings procurement priorities will be in five years time, O’Neill believes there will be a reduction in the number of UK mid-market hotels, and that there will be a greater disparity between the executive and budget ends of the market. “There will be a new generation of agents such as airbnb who will bring more choice to the consumer – and more opportunities for start-ups with innovative commercial models.”
He also believes companies will aim to reduce their internal meeting spaces and cut back on meetings spend. The outcome of the meetings that remain will be more focussed.
“There’s already a greater recognition of the different factors in the success of a meeting, such as room type, venue, food, delegate profile and so on. There’s more awareness of the different types of venue and meeting experience, such as the selection of a specific room type to suit the purpose of the meeting. This is all part of corporates’ determination to drive more Return on Investment through a better Return on Objectives.
Some say Inntel is the last of the big independents?
“Although there are only a few, truly independent big agencies left, the next generation of large independents is just around the corner. Major corporates and government have recognised the importance of companies that are independently owned.
“Staff in organisations that were swallowed up in previous takeovers are now forming their own specialist agencies. Remaining independent for 30 years is not a badge of honour for Inntel – it is recognition that the business has transcended generations successfully by retaining all the benefits that go along with independence, such as company culture and focus on customer needs ahead of shareholder returns.”
O’Neill believes Inntel’s senior leadership team and ownership structure has meant the company has been able to focus on the services that are important. “We have also been able to invest in the business throughout the recession without concern for shareholder/equity returns,” he adds.
The biggest challenge, he says, is getting buyers to recognise the benefits – financial, environmental, risk management – of managing their meetings more effectively.
“We must never stop educating buyers how easily cost avoidance and compliance can be achieved. Innovation is moving rapidly in the meetings management sector and corporates should start reaping the benefits now.”
If O’Neill could change any one thing about the way meetings are supplied or purchased it would be to find a more tangible ROI measure on the outcome of meetings which could be used to promote awareness of the value of meetings and why they take place.
This was first published in the March issue of CN.