Image Credit: World Travel & Tourism Council and Gage Skidmore (changes made)

Is Michael O'Leary the Donald Trump of the Travel Industry?

A new season brings new challenges and requires a new strategy

– First published on Tnooz (now PhocusWire) January 2017 –

Let’s play a game I like to call “Who said this: Donald Trump or Michael O’Leary?”

1) “The Beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” (who?)
2) “I think I’m Jesus, a prophet in his own time.” (who?)
3) "If global warming meant temperatures rose by one or two degrees, France would become a desert, which would be no bad thing." (who?)
4) “It’s freezing and snowing in New York - we need global warming!” (who?)

Think about it for a minute; the answers are pretty obvious. But, one cannot help but notice the uncanny resemblance between the statements of these two men, lending authority to O’Leary being branded the “Donald Trump of the Travel industry.”

Both men carry authority and business acumen; both take risks; both speak their mind and both court controversy as a marketing strategy. But it remains to be seen whether Donald Trump and Michael O’Leary have the wisdom to forge the appropriate culture to meet the needs of the next challenge.

The challenge facing Donald Trump

As we near the President Elect’s inauguration, those of us beyond the shock of the election results now hope (against hope) that the tactics employed to gain the office will change to execute the office.

The problem with slim majority victories is inheriting a divided landscape. Much has been said about America as a divided nation, and Trump’s campaign was marked by exploiting that division: in versus out, us versus them. His litany of incendiary remarks was a tactical marketing strategy that positioned him amongst loyal voters seemingly concealed from the media’s watchful eye and polling data.

Now, having won the presidency, his greatest challenge is to lead a fragmented people. A large part of his role (hopefully) will be using his position to bridge the gap and build trust: leadership evinced in healing and unifying a nation. Sacrificing the bombast would be a welcomed first step.

The challenge facing Michael O'Leary

Similarly, Michael O’Leary has used coarse bravado and a touch of the outrageous to dominate news feeds and social media, and cast the short haul airline as the leading low cost carrier in Europe.

Michael O'Trump

A personal favourite of mine was in 2009 when he told the BBC that Ryanair were considering installing “a coin slot on the toilet door, so that people might actually have to spend a pound to spend a penny in future.” He continued to fuel the furore with, "I don't think there is anybody in history that has got on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound."

For the following week, the outcry of “Ryanair is Cheap” dominated headlines. It is the language of the people. What happens when you search for “cheap flights”? Inevitably, Ryanair is the result.

The charge to use the toilet was never implemented and eight days later Michael O’Leary impudently remarked, “It is not likely to happen, but it makes for interesting and very cheap PR.” Undoubtedly, a stroke of marketing genius.

The problem is once a company penetrates a market to become the recognised leader, the vision must broaden to accommodate new expectations. Conducting business like the cheeky underdog becomes disingenuous.

This was no more evident than in 2013 when Ryanair were issued two profit warnings. People were willing to pay more to avoid flying with Ryanair. The people had voted with their wallets, and shareholders demanded change. Ryanair’s refusal to enculturate with a new breed of traveller was unbecoming of a leader of industry, certainly with a brand that now has aspirations of becoming the Amazon of Travel.

The stark realisation of a brand that was failing to communicate with its customers precipitated the systematic deconstruction of a facade built around O’Leary’s machismo.

2014 saw the beginning of a marketing makeover and the launch of O’Leary 2.0 - the Michael O’Leary you would consider to mind your children.

"Now we need to address those repeat flyers and say look, better on-time performance than ever, better customer service, we're addressing those issues you wanted to address … We're listening to you. We're responding to your needs." Michael O'Leary 2.0

The new role of the Ryanair CEO might be characterised by bridging the gap between the brand and the traveller or the future traveller.

With a vision to become the Amazon of Travel the bar has been raised for Ryanair, albeit the stakes are a little higher for America/Civilisation/Earth with Trump’s finger on the button. The analogy is clear, the challenges that face a leader are different from the challenges of becoming a leader.

The Next Step

Will the Donald Trump of the campaign, be the Donald Trump of the Oval Office? Even if Donald Trump wants to change, will the people of America allow him to be anything more than the brash tycoon we witnessed on the campaign trail? It’s a conversation for 2018.

Can Ryanair truly transcend the personal brand of their CEO? All the signs point in that direction: website, app, social media, acquisition of a new fleet of planes. But taking the next mountain will require more than efficiency. It will require a fundamental shift in understanding what travel is for the next generation of traveller, and aligning the culture of the brand with their values.

Ryanair is a leader in the What and How of travel, but it is the Why of travel that creates loyalty, and this is where Ryanair is vulnerable to travel brands like Airbnb

Airbnb have forged a culture that champions innovation and best-in-class customer experience. Spearheaded by a team of Millennials without the bureaucratic baggage (pun intended) that has dogged the airline industry, Airbnb’s vision is global and seeks to service every moment in the customer’s journey. Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky spent this Christmas on Twitter, dialoguing with customers, inviting suggestions for 2017. Airbnb have profound understanding of the Why of travel, building narratives around journey, connection, local experience and transformation.

It remains to be seen if Airbnb can scale their new product Trips, but their ethos of connecting with the traveller certainly provides a useful template for Ryanair or any ambitious airline seeking to own more of the customer journey.

. . .
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