by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations MCI and Vice President, Ovation Global DMC
Remembering the Days of the Old Schoolyard
I was always good at rote learning. I found it easy in school to memorise quotations from Shakespeare, formulae for maths class or lyrics to songs. I can still remember chunks of Julius Caesar (“Yon Cassius has a mean and hungry look”), can rattle off the formula for solving any quadratic equation and can sing my way through most of Buddy Holly and the Beatles. All these things were absorbed and stored up in my memory bank years ago without, necessarily, being understood at the time. Throughout the intervening years I’ve been able to delve back into this rich repository of wisdom and to draw inspiration and light from such fragile fragments as Wordsworth’s “The Child is Father of the Man” (from “My heart leaps up when I behold”).
As an 18 year old major in English Literature I really had no idea what Wordsworth meant. It seemed like another limp-wristed, fanciful notion of the romantic movement that the poet belonged to. However, almost 30 years of fatherhood later I’m beginning to grasp what he was on about. Children naturally out-perform adults across a variety of human behaviours. Their preternatural guile and instinct is untrammelled by philosophy’s concept of reasonableness or by society’s understanding of fair play. My daughters have always outmanoeuvred me in any negotiation using every emotional trick in the book, including, variously, dilating pupils and free flowing tears. The child is indeed “Father to the Man” and here are some business lessons in achieving competitive advantage from the schoolyard of my own childhood.
I realised at a very young age that knowledge was power and in business today it still is. Knowledge, in the schoolyard, covered a broad range of categories: your retention of facts – Could you name the entire Arsenal squad? What age was Pele when he first played for Brazil? – your “street smarts” – Did you know who to trust? Did you know when to talk and when to stay silent? – and your academic ability – Did you ace your arithmetic and history tests? If your breadth of knowledge covered all these bases then you rose in the popularity and credibility ranks. In business today, working as a Destination Management Company, knowledge is the indispensable foundation upon which your advantage over competitors is built. You’ve got to “out-know” them if you’re to prevail. And today it’s the same combination as before. If you’re to stay #1 DMC in your destination then you need a balance of factual knowledge (How many rooms at the Westin? Is the National Museum available for functions?) intuitive knowledge (Can you “read” your client and decode what he’s NOT telling you?) and all round smartness (Have you figured out how to best deploy your team and resources for maximum return?)
In the analogue schoolyard of my childhood, speed, in all its expressions, was a great differentiator. It could have been physical speed, that is, the simple ability to out-run your school friends and cross the finish line first. Or, indeed, it could have been speed of response / delivery / come-back, that is, your ability to deliver the definitive, slam dunk, cutting riposte in a schoolboy verbal exchange. Speed was a greatly prized KPI that had intrinsic value in all contexts right down to being able to announce triumphantly in a silent, task focused classroom “Finished!” And, of course, it’s not different today. The digital era in which we live makes speed more of a sine qua non for clients. It’s now something that they absolutely expect and, in its absence, something that they’re least likely to forgive. Thankfully the digital era makes it more possible for DMCs to deliver the speed of response that clients now demand. Digital communication plays a huge role in this but so too do customised technology platforms like VIPER. Designed by DMCs for use by DMCs, VIPER simultaneously allows for in-depth personalisation and customisation of content while drawing on a rich archive of previously stored materials.
In my schoolyard friendly people always had competitive advantage. Open, approachable kids who made it easy for you in a conversation and reached out across the entire classroom were always in high demand. Everybody wanted to connect with the kids whose laughter and jokes were inclusive, unifying, team orientated. You could cover up deficiencies in items 1 and 2 above by being warm and friendly, sincere and genuine. It’s no difference in business today. If you make it easy for people to do business with you then this can already be an immense competitive advantage as so many organisation get caught up in process and protocol and lose sight of the human interaction. Friendly DMCs who put people and relationships first will always prevail.
When I was in school “brand” was what cowboys did on the butts of cattle. Yet, strangely, much of the way that successful, popular guys disported themselves in school was continuous with best practice in contemporary brand positioning. The kids with competitive advantage always had a certain “look” and that “look” was rigorously consistent. It may have been the way they cut their hair, or the fact that they always wore Wrangler jeans. It may have been the books they read or the expressions they used when they talked. Either way it recurred like a leit motiv in their lives and became their defining characteristic, their identifying shtick, their personal brand. It’s precisely the same with businesses, big and small. Businesses achieve competitive advantage because they work from a core brand proposition which is rooted in vision, mission and values. As SMEs, many DMCs may not have invested time and effort into capturing and expressing this “brand” in an easily readable way. It may be there but, perhaps, not in evidence. This is a mistake. All businesses, regardless of size, must devote time and money to giving life and dimensions to their brand as this is a crucial co-ordinate in the matrix that constitutes competitive advantage.
Padraic Gilligan is Vice President of Industry Relations at MCI and Vice President of Ovation Global DMC, MCI’s destination services division.