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Adventure in Motion: David Cox

Still owned by the McGeary family after almost 100 years, APT Travel Group has trekked to the top of its industry. In a candid interview, CEO David Cox reflects on the power of innovation and the value of customer insight.

Australians are known for their love of traveling. Perhaps living on an island continent makes the idea of going beyond borders so enticing, or maybe it’s the plethora of amazing destinations at home that keeps people moving.

Emerging from a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic has also played a role in the travel plans of Australians. It’s likely a significant factor in the jump in Australian travel budgets leading into 2024.

This wanderlust has imbued Australia’s travel sector with an impressive spectrum of operators willing to take people to the furthest corners of the globe. While self-guided travel has been made increasingly easy by online travel booking outlets such as Expedia, many Australians still value the expertise and access provided by dedicated travel companies.

One of the oldest of those is APT Travel Group. A survivor of many crises beyond even the COVID-19 pandemic, APT Travel Group boasts a wide and far-reaching portfolio of destinations and options for those with the travel bug.

How APT Travel Group has persisted and thrived since its start in 1927 is something CEO David Cox has given quite some thought to. After all, it’s up to Cox and his team to drive the company’s march forward through innovation and ingenuity, two factors the brand has in surplus.

“You’ve got to keep pushing,” Cox tells The CEO Magazine. “You can’t stand still because the customer’s not standing still.”

A Tour Through Time

Australian Pacific Tours (APT) Travel Group took its first steps in the 1920s, when a Melbourne cable tram strike prompted a young mechanic to take action. Bill McGeary came to the rescue of stranded commuters with a homemade bus.

The move was at once innovative and ingenious – two pillars of the company that would emerge from McGeary’s decision. It was also successful, and McGeary invested in more vehicles to meet demand. Eventually, Bill’s son, Geoff, pushed into the burgeoning travel market with air-conditioned coach trips to far-flung domestic destinations. As the decades rolled on, APT Travel Group branched out overseas and into the luxury and cruise ship sectors.

Today, APT Travel Group is still family owned, but its offerings span the world. The company has carved out a formidable reputation in the luxury travel industry, offering guests five-star experiences in every corner of the globe. APT Travel Group’s ocean, river and rail journeys have set new standards in both luxury and adventure, while its choice of destinations have taken travelers off the beaten track.

“You can’t stand still because the customer’s not standing still.”

Keeping so many plates spinning would be a tall order for even the most seasoned executive, but Cox says staying in a perpetual state of learning keeps him grounded.

“I still consider myself a grad, always learning,” he says. “When I was a young grad fresh out of uni looking for work, I went for a few roles in travel. APT called me and told me that although I was their third choice for the role, I could start immediately. So I kind of got in by default.”

The position required Cox to move around the company constantly.

“I was in finance, I looked after hotels, I was in the office in Alice Springs, then in Los Angeles when they opened an office there,” he says. “I’ve done just about every job in the business. I think having that background holds me in great stead in that I’ve seen what works and what hasn’t.”

Star Power

Travel is a business of many layers and complexities, and so-called hard and fast rules tend to bend when the wind blows. “Getting too specific means missing the bigger picture,” Cox says.

“You really do need to have a very general take. When it comes to making decisions, my career has been constantly moving to all the different parts of the business taking on new projects, which is what has kept me engaged and energized.”

One of Cox’s most momentous decisions was to give a second chance to one of APT Travel Group’s lesser-known brands, Travelmarvel, which offers four-star comprehensive inclusion packages on a separate tier to the five-star luxury and global destinations for which APT is renowned.

“Travelmarvel was a small product range that didn’t get a lot of airtime,” he recalls.

“When it comes to making decisions, my career has been constantly moving to all the different parts of the business.”

“There’s a 30 percent price difference between the two brands, but the product’s still backed by the APT machine. It was an interesting branding exercise. It felt like this four-star segment had huge potential for growth. I thought it could have been much bigger and more successful than it was.”

Seeing Travelmarvel’s underperformance as a challenge, Cox put up his hand.

“We grew it from A$20 million to A$200 million [US$13 million to US$134 million]. I think that success probably gave me the confidence to believe I could take on the CEO role.”

Hanging in There

Having started with APT Travel Group almost four decades ago, Cox says the company’s combination of constant change and corporate culture is what’s kept him there.

“I’m one of those people that’s stuck it out for a long time,” he says. “When I started, the main APT tour was Perth to Darwin by coach. That tour doesn’t exist today. There’s constant change in terms of the products and the direction of the business.”

Over the years, APT Travel Group has expanded its offerings in pioneering ways.

“We were really the first to take people into the outback,” Cox says. “We packaged up a whole lot of Canadian experiences to suit what Australians wanted to do and put them together, that was a huge program. We were the first to innovate in European river cruising. It’s embedded in the culture that we’re always looking for the next big thing – and we usually find it.”

Providing choice and flexibility in a way that’s not confusing to its clientele is, he adds, key to success in the travel business.

“They have to understand your product offerings,” he says. “Innovation is crucial and we’re proud that we’re good at it.”

“Innovation is crucial and we’re proud that we’re good at it.”

Throughout its lifetime, APT Travel Group has also made several acquisitions and worked with many partners to make such innovation possible. Internally, the opportunities have come thick and fast, including the biggest of all – the recent pandemic. When it arrived in early 2020, it proved to be the ultimate test for the industry’s players.

“We could see we had to get through it, but I knew we would because we’re a strong, family-owned business that’s smart enough to know how to invest in the business and ride out the tough times,” Cox says.

“The platform was there, the brands were there, the product was there; we just needed the market to come back.”

Armed with a powerful sense of confidence that APT Travel Group would be back bigger and stronger in the wake of the pandemic, Cox went for – and won – the position of CEO when it came up in July of that year.

“Nobody knew what was going on,” he remembers. “The rules kept changing daily. How long would this go on for? Nobody knew. It was new ground to make decisions.”

Cox knew that making big decisions amid the unknown meant backing himself with experience. “It wasn’t easy and at times utterly debilitating – we had to cut 50 percent of our staff – but you had to make the calls for the long-term health of the business,” he explains.

“My style’s quite down-to-earth and tell-it-like-it-is.”

The life preserver during this time of hardship was, Cox says, communication. “As I was having to talk to so many people and let them go, they’d say to me, ‘We feel sorry for you having to do this’. It was remarkable,” he says.

“In a funny way it spoke to our culture. The remaining staff had to work only 60 percent of the time, and they did it because they had such a connection to the business. We kept that up by communicating constantly. We told it like it was, and that was crucial to most of them sticking it out and seeing it through.”

What developed as the pandemic wore on was a culture based on clarity of communication and sharing between management and staff. “Whether that’s through newsletters, town halls or simply walking around the office and talking directly to people,” Cox says.

“I really feel that we’ve enhanced that. My style’s quite down-to-earth and tell-it-like-it-is, and that seems to have resonated with people in a time where there wasn’t a lot of certainty.”

Coming Back Stronger

When the business came back, it did so in two phases. Domestic travel was first – a fitting development given APT Travel Group’s roots. “That’s where we began, and we’re super strong as Australia’s largest tour operator,” Cox says. “That really came back strong and helped the business significantly.”

When the airlines started flying again, the international business soon followed. “We knew we had the products, the relationships and a strong customer base, all of which helped us massively.”

Cox found that the pause had helped APT Travel Group to come back stronger. “In the tough times, you’re focused on cost control more than sales, and that’s when you regenerate the business more around better processes and lower cost base,” he says.

“Then, when the volume of sales comes back, you’re positioned better than you were before because you question everything. And of course, pre-pandemic, were we doing everything perfectly? No.”

APT’s longtime legacies – its endurance and its family ownership – also helped give its staff confidence during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.

“We’re coming up on a hundred years of business, and being family owned there’s confidence that the backing is there in the long run,” Cox says. “We play the long game. We’re not making short-term decisions for the sake of it. We know the family’s committed to the business going on for as long as it can.”

The history of APT Travel Group is one of the company’s brightest positives, he adds. “Many of the major tour operators that started in the Australian market have found their way offshore, but the McGeary family haven’t,” he says. “It’s a huge plus.”

“The growth we’ve had has been based on strong partnerships.”

The family connection also makes a big difference when forging partnerships. “Globally, we work with many partners and actually have many long-time employees,” he says. “A regular change of faces makes relationships harder, but we’ve been able to foster personal relationships in some bigger public corporate entities. The growth we’ve had has been based on strong partnerships.”

While the pandemic was among the worst situations APT Travel Group has found itself in, it gave Cox and his team an insight into how its partners handled such an event.

“We saw how they behaved, and we were able to show them how we handled it. We buckled down, did the right thing for the customer and our partners, and made sure they had the confidence that we wouldn’t cut and run.”

Push to Play

But a company’s actions stem from its leader. In the travel sector, the leader’s influence has many ramifications not only for the business’ staff, but customers as well. “If you’re going to be a good leader in the travel business, you need to be able to read the market, which is not always easy,” Cox says.

“You’ve got to know your customer, you’ve got to have the product the customer wants and you’ve got to back those winners and put the marketing resources behind what you believe is going to take you to the next place.”

That means keeping an ear to the ground and an eye on the horizon, especially given the ever-changing nature of travel. “We’ve got a huge product team and people on the ground in those regions who are always searching for either the exclusive thing or the next new thing,” Cox says.

“If you just roll out the same old thing, you’ll get left behind. You’ve got to embed a culture of innovation. I can’t remember a time when we released a product that was the same as the previous year.”

“If you’re going to be a good leader in the travel business, you need to be able to read the market, which is not always easy.”

While it isn’t easy putting new spins on familiar destinations year after year, Cox says it can be done with the right attitude in place. “You’ve got to keep pushing,” he says. “You have to have processes in place that actually ask how we can make it better. The customers are more demanding every year, they’re more knowledgeable.”

Some of APT Travel Group’s greatest innovations aren’t even the inclusions on the tours, but different ways of doing things, whether that’s a particularly informative app or an unexpected method of transportation.

“Our customers know it’s not easy to get to see the right places at the right time. That’s our expertise. They’re putting their trust in us that we’re the experts and we’ll take them to the right places,” Cox notes.

A European program that visits five countries in 14 nights must be done in a way that strikes the right balance between sightseeing, understanding and relaxation. “Sometimes people forget that, ultimately, it’s about going on holiday,” he says.

Consulting Customers

This clear-headed view of the nuts and bolts of the industry is a key aspect of Cox’s leadership style, which he says also involves openness, pragmatism and more listening than talking.

“If you’re making decisions, you need to be able to articulate why,” he says. “You’ve got to build trust and take educated risks.”

Unsurprisingly, Cox’s role also involves a fair share of travel.

“You’ve got to build trust and take educated risks.”

“I’m away three or four months of the year,” he says. “And of course, wherever I go, I can’t help but observe what’s happening either on tour or with other people. I’ll talk with customers, and when I get back I’ll talk to the product team from that region and throw in my suggestions – some of them good, some not – and let them run with it.”

Cox says it’s crucial to have a direct line to customers in his line of work.

“There’s a lot of noise about the latest trends, about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. It helps to counter that with local knowledge. If you’ve been to a destination and you know the thing people enjoyed the most was being pointed to the local cafe, that’s worth quite a lot.”

But there’s a price to be paid, he admits. “It makes the business much more complicated. Coming up with more choices is a constant challenge,” he says. “Then each year, you review how many were taken up, you drop some and put more in. It means a set-and-forget model can never work.”

Secret Sauce

Although APT Travel Group takes its customers all over the world, it never forgets its roots. “We make sure you’re getting the local experience wherever you are, but at the same time, when you go back to your room, there’s Vegemite or an ice cold beer if you want it,” he says.

“The majority of our customers are Australian, so we’ve preserved that relaxed Aussie flavor, but we understand people are over there to be immersed in another world.”

“We have to make our product stand out in a sea of sameness, and if that was easy to do, everyone would be doing it.”

When a new project is in the works, it’s focused around APT Travel Group’s Australian customer base in terms of marketing.

“We have to make our product stand out in a sea of sameness, and if that was easy to do, everyone would be doing it,” Cox says. “That’s the secret sauce in this business, being able to come up with a position that says, ‘Here’s why you’ll come with us, because we’re different in this way’.”

The biggest change to the industry in that regard has been the increased knowledge of that customership, which makes it even harder to find something totally new. “When I started in the industry, everybody booked through a travel agent,” Cox says.

“These days, travelers will do some research online. They’re accustomed to choice and flexibility, and you have to provide them with a way to tailor their trip to meet their needs. But what we find is that when people are spending A$20,000 [US$13,400] on a holiday of a lifetime, they still tend to talk to a travel agent. People are savvier and there are more online bookings, but there’s still a respect for the expertise.”

Persistence Pays

If there’s one lesson that can be applied to all of this, Cox believes it’s to keep trying.

“When I was trying to relaunch Travelmarvel, I was initially told no. ‘No, don’t worry about that. No, no, no.’ But if a good idea gets knocked back and still holds cred, keep putting it up. One no is not enough. You need to get four or five if you think it still has merit,” he says.

“In the end, they said, ‘All right, let’s give it a go’. Don’t walk away.”

It was a similar story when APT Travel Group first branched out into European river cruises. “The owner, Geoff McGeary, had the idea to run European river cruising long before it was anywhere near the size it is now,” he says. “It took three or four years to become a success. All we could get at first were a few loyal past passengers. Today, we’re carrying 20,000 people. You’ve got to let some ideas gestate.”

But there are some ideas that must be left to rest. “We had a product out of Darwin that I thought was a fantastic offering. It was an incredible experience, but we just couldn’t sell it,” he explains. “It’s a treasure people are missing out on, but it didn’t fly. So stand your ground, but back the right idea because some of them will never go.”

Cox believes 2024 will be the year APT Travel Group finally reaches pre-pandemic levels of business. “It’s going to be close,” he says. “We’re also focused on 2027, which marks our 100th anniversary. That’s a big deal for all of us, and the McGeary family is so proud to get there.”

On a personal level, however, Cox says he’s dedicated to rewarding those people that stuck with APT Travel Group through the hard years.

‘We have a regular management meeting where we discuss the topic of recognition. A personal thank you to a member of our team, to acknowledge when they have gone above and beyond has real substance,” he says. “We like to highlight it, our people like to hear it, and it makes a connection. It is a very powerful thing.”

Another source of personal satisfaction comes from developing the next generation of APT Travel Group executives. “If I could do it, anybody can,” he says.

“We have a yearly intake of grads and we move them around the business. They’re the leaders of the future.”

To that end, Cox brought back the graduate program that initially acted as his gateway to the business.

“Over the years that program had gotten lost, but I’ve restarted it,” he says. “We have a yearly intake of grads and we move them around the business. They’re the leaders of the future.”

The other, less obvious reward Cox still enjoys after nearly four decades is sharing in the customer’s satisfaction. “I always think about how lucky I was to fall into an industry where we can deliver people’s holidays of a lifetime and we hear how much they love it,” he says.

“We hear about how they met other people on tour and made friends for life. It’s a privilege to be a part of that. Yes, I get to go to some fantastic places and have great experiences, but meeting the customers and hearing about their journeys, that’s my highlight. If you just take the time to listen, you hear some incredible stories.”

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