Spotlight On: Sam Willan, StudentUniverse


Tell us a bit about your role and how it supports the business?

As GM of StudentUniverse’s International Markets, I oversee our UK, Australian and newly launched Canadian businesses – keeping the markets aligned to our global strategy, whilst taking advantage of localised opportunities for growth. Having a global footprint is an incredibly important part of our future growth plans – being able to support our customers wherever they are in the world, as well as bringing our core value proposition to a wider group of students and young travellers.

What has been your career highlight to date?

Without a doubt, overseeing the restructure and transition of our UK business into a profitable part of the global StudentUniverse business. A very challenging and at times difficult process, but a great learning experience and one we’ve not looked back from since.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Whilst it’s not a piece of advice I have been given directly, it’s taken from Bob Iger’s autobiography (ex-CEO of Disney). “You have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly. If you don’t, then the people around you don’t know what theirs should be – time and energy get wasted”. Essentially, clarity and focus are key to keeping everyone aligned and rowing in the same direction.

If you were not working in this sector what other industry would you have pursued a career in?

I always wanted to be a sports physio, until failing AS-Level biology put pay to that idea. Aside from a brief stint in recruitment, I have never worked outside of the travel industry and can’t imagine it being any other way!

What are the emerging trends within your sector and have these changed since Covid-19?

Covid has been an accelerant for many trends already taking hold – the shift to online and digital preferences is well documented – but the sad demise of STA Travel and the erosion of the high street model demonstrate how quickly that is happening. The online travel market has historically been fragmented but as we emerge from the pandemic, I believe we’ll see a defragmentation of the booking process, as consumers shift back to the security of packaged or multi-product bookings with a single agent. OTAs that innovate within this space – making it as easy possible for customers to book online with the security traditionally offered by the established high street names will be the ones to win.

What is coming up for your company in the next 12/18 months?

We’ve been pretty busy in the last 12 months, launching StudentUniverse in Canada as well as our new youth travel offering, Flyaway, in the USA. With a smaller competitive landscape and a whole heap of pent up demand – you’re going to see StudentUniverse becoming a lot noisier as we emerge from the pandemic. We’ll be more focused than ever on our vision of building the world’s largest student and youth travel marketplace, so expect plenty of new products and services.

What compelled you to join the board of BETA and what are you most looking forward to achieving?

The pandemic made me realise the importance of having a unified voice and representation. As individual businesses, we may sometimes see each other as competitors day to day – but we all have a duty to work together to protect our industry. By joining the BETA Board, I hope to be able to play my part in advocating, lobbying the government and helping to drive the requirements we need to thrive going forwards. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to build back better after this is all over, and I am incredibly excited to be able to play a part in supporting businesses of all sizes to grow in the months and years ahead.

As an association what one thing do you think we have done that has made a real difference to our members during the crisis?

For me, the weekly member updates have been excellent – with so much to digest and rules changing daily; to be able to have a filtered and highly relevant snapshot has helped to stay focussed on the things that really matter. Whilst we’re fortunate to have a large parent company and the resources that come with that, I think that the legal seminars and support in accessing government support has also been a lifeline for many smaller businesses.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on our industry, what is the one thing that you have learnt personally or professionally during this time?

Both professionally and personally, to be accepting of the things you have no influence over. Whilst you can’t change what is happening around you, you can control your attitude and how you respond to it. For someone who loves to be in control of things, once I accepted this – I found it a lot easier to deal with most situations.

What are your crystal ball forecasts for the period ahead and how quickly do you think your business can recover from the pandemic?

We know from speaking with our customers that the pent-up demand is unprecedented. Where restrictions have been eased, most notably the US and Australian domestic markets, we’re seeing numbers already getting above pre-pandemic levels, which is a indicative of the demand we’ll see once international travel can return at scale – especially in the youth and student segment, who we know to be the most resilient travellers. Whilst none of us can truly predict what happens next (remember when we thought it would be all over in 12 weeks?) – I am confident in being back above pre-pandemic levels globally before the end of 2021, with strong growth in 2022.

How do you think Covid-19 will change our industry (if at all)?

Whilst we need to adapt to ongoing regulatory requirements and incremental changes in customer booking and travel habits – this is nothing new. Fundamentally, the key motivators that power our industry will remain. Young people have a desire for new and unique experiences, to understand other cultures and to make a difference to the world. Whilst covid is undoubtedly a generation defining event, we know from experience that major global events (9/11, GFC etc) have never been a long-term hindrance to the desire to travel, and I believe that this time will not be any different.

Find out more about BETA Board member StudentUniverse here

Published 01 August 2021