China market ready for takeoff

by Nicole Wong

Florian Preuss, general manager, Virgin Atlantic, Hong Kong

Airlines are gearing up for phenomenal growth on mainland routes

Major airlines have certainly taken a series of hard knocks in the last few years. Mention, though, the potential of the China market and the eyes of senior executives brighten, their speech quickens, and their expressions become more animated. Well, it would be hard not to get excited! New airports are being built; regulations are being eased; newly affluent Chinese tourists are clamouring for extra flights; and the country is enjoying an unprecedented surge in business and leisure visitors from overseas.

No airline would want to miss out, least of all Virgin Atlantic, the UK-based company which has used a unique blend of entrepreneurial spirit, good service and marketing flair to establish itself as a highly regarded international carrier. In predicting a bright future for the air travel industry in China and throughout Asia, Florian Preuss, general manager for Virgin Atlantic, Hong Kong, points out that the new opportunities being created will bring with them the need for change.

"The presence of low-cost airlines will make the sector very competitive and remind us to keep our own cost structures under review," he says. "Also, many customers in the US and Europe are now using the Internet to buy plane tickets and travel packages and that trend is spreading to Asia. Changes in the pattern of sales and distribution are altering people's perception of air travel."

One effect of these changes is that Virgin has had to readjust some of its recruitment priorities. Computer skills and a good general knowledge of IT systems are now seen as an important attribute. "The systems used by airlines are specific to the industry and training is provided for all staff," explains Mr Preuss, "but a basic understanding of the latest in technology and of key business applications is an advantage for any candidate."

The next decade will be an exciting time for the airline industry

Creative approach

The company has already made a name for itself by breaking into new markets with an imaginative and determined approach and, not surprisingly, similar characteristics are looked for in new recruits. "We certainly value creativity," Mr Preuss confirms. "It may not be a specific requirement, but it is a preferred one. We generally look for people who can think out of the box and are not afraid to make decisions."

Individuality, in fact, is a shared characteristic among Virgin's employees and, they believe, is the basis for the strong team spirit within the company. Another common trait is a taste for adventure and the willingness to embrace change. This is especially necessary for new joiners who, in junior positions, are given the chance to rotate between departments and job functions as the best way of building all-round experience. "We always encourage people who have excelled in one role to look for openings within the company and take up new challenges," Mr Preuss adds.

The majority of employees based in Hong Kong, including cabin crew, will have the opportunity to transfer to different departments like sales and marketing, or to other offices in Virgin's expanding global network. Adaptability is often cited as the key to success in the industry and is emphasised in corporate training programmes. These always explain cultural differences and how to deal with them.

Tough competition

At present, much attention is focused on Australia and China, with the latter country representing a market of unlimited potential for the industry. However, with Chinese carriers set to provide stiff competition, establishing an extensive network will be no easy task. "We obviously have plans for growth," Mr Preuss says, "but Chinese airlines are also aiming to expand both domestically and internationally, so all of us will be fighting for routes and for passengers. The next ten years will be a very exciting time and service standards may make the difference between success and failure."

As a British carrier, Virgin currently flies from London to Shanghai and Hong Kong. The frequency of flights is set to increase and the company has plans for routes to several other mainland cities in the medium term. Mr Preuss foresees a much wider range of choices for business and leisure travellers. "There will be new destinations added," he says. "Lower ticket prices, special promotions and better services are all on the way."

To be prepared, Virgin recently conducted a recruitment campaign for frontline staff, corporate salespeople and new faces for the back-office team. A business-related degree and professional qualifications were required for jobs in accountancy or finance, but other than that, the focus for most positions was on language proficiency and previous work experience.

"Nowadays, anyone interested in joining our sales team should be fluent in Mandarin and, if they have lived in China, that is a definite advantage," says Mr Preuss. "The air travel industry used to be relatively static, but factors like economic cycles, terrorism and the current fuel crisis have totally changed that. The challenge now is to deal effectively with all the ups and downs and realise there is no status quo. For that, we need people who can think imaginatively and adapt to any situation."

Aiming high

  • Individuality and creativity are characteristics of the company and its employees
  • Job rotations and internal promotions are positively encouraged
  • Competitive environment keeps service standards high
  • Great potential seen in the China market
  • Language proficiency and computer skills looked for in new recruits

Taken from Career Times 12 November 2004
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