Karen Hutchings Appointed As Strategic Advisor For SilverDoor: An Exclusive Interview

Karen Hutchings Appointed As Strategic Advisor For SilverDoor: An Exclusive Interview

Karen Hutchings Appointed As Strategic Advisor For SilverDoor: An Exclusive Interview
27th March 2024

Karen Hutchings is a renowned leader in business travel and global mobility and has been an influential voice throughout her more than three-decade long career. With an impressive list of accolades under her belt, Karen recently left her role as Global Head of Travel, Meetings & Events at EY after 11 years to start her own business, Cobb & Hutch Consulting.

SilverDoor’s Pauline Houston sat down with Karen this week to catch up on all things travel and mobility; what’s been keeping her busy in 2024, what’s on the horizon for our sector, how businesses can future-proof their travel programmes, and the announcement of some breaking news…

Watch or read the full interview below to find out:

  • How can businesses win the war for talent?
  • How can companies best meet the expectations of the modern business traveller?
  • What is the key to a sustainable future for the travel industry?
  • How has the role of the travel manager evolved in recent years, and what’s the next big thing in business travel?
  • How it’s felt being new kid on the block again, and what advice she would give her younger self!



Follow with the full video transcription:

Pauline Houston (PH): For anybody who's been in business travel for more than five minutes, my guest today needs no introduction. I'd like to welcome to the sofa today, Karen Hutchings. It's lovely to see you.

[What’s Karen Hutchings been up to in 2024?]

Karen Hutchings (KH): So, Karen Hutchings has been [in] avoiding the winter that's for sure, [um] so I've spent three months travelling.

[Um] one just to highlight was the dog sanctuary that I wanted to support in India. [Um] I always said when I left EY (Ernst and Young) that I needed to keep my connectivity with India. [Um] several of the team members were based there and I just grew to love the people and the place and so, having the fix of the dog sanctuary being based there, meant that I could keep that connectivity.

[Um] interestingly, I actually did a little bit of EY client work as well, just for a couple of days, that sort of broke me in gently to getting back into the work world, and [um] and so now I'm ready to start, though, with three different projects that I'm involved with.

[Um] so, it's been out there already that I'm going to be working with HeadBox, and that's a meetings and events technology company. [Um] you'll hear it first here now, I guess, that I'm going to be working with SilverDoor. [Um] and then there's another company that I can't actually talk about them yet because it's not been made public.

But I realised, though, that whilst I adored working at EY as the company and especially the team, I needed to challenge myself all over again. And so, I set up my own consultancy company, Cobb & Hutch Consulting, which by the way has a logo of a goat, which for those that know me and Brian, my goat, will understand why he's featured very heavily in the logo. But I just realised that I wanted to do something different, [um] bring back some time for me as well, so I'm not necessarily going to be working full time. Although, that said [um], there's a lot of opportunities out there and, if they're all as exciting as SilverDoor and HeadBox, then who knows what else I may do.

[Why did you decide to work with SilverDoor?]

KH: Well, it's interesting, SilverDoor is the first serviced apartment company that I actually ever knew. So, when I was the Commercial Director of BSI (The British Standards Institution), I actually met Stuart (Winstone) then, which would have been 2009, so Stuart I apologise but I'm aging both of us now. [PH laughs] But I think though [um] so, from that point of view, I've always known about SilverDoor. [Um] I then was a client to SilverDoor actually, so I implemented SilverDoor apartment service in AIG (American International Group) that was in Citibank, and then in EY. I obviously wasn't so directly involved with EY [um] DJ (Darren Jeacock) was very involved with that, but it certainly was a service offering that was out there that was pretty untapped actually in all of those organisations. You may have taken advantage of serviced apartments through the relocation companies, but actually there's so much more opportunity for them.

What's been really interesting, and what I've noted post-pandemic, is everybody got pets. Everybody suddenly wanted to travel with their pets. And, whilst hotels are waking up to it, they've actually not woken up to it quite the same as the serviced apartment space, and so that's really something as well that we noted that people wanted to travel with their pets they got through the pandemic. And so, I think, you know, when I think about [um] the serviced apartment business, it's still fairly untapped. You know, you look at a spend on serviced apartments versus the total accommodation spend, there has to be more alignment opportunities there. And, I know we've had policies at the companies that I've been at before where five nights or more should be in a serviced apartment; is the reality that it is that much though? And [um] and what could that create more opportunity in this space? So, I think as we all sit within often in procurement as travel buyers, travel leaders, the demand then on savings and what you can deliver becomes really key. Airlines, hotels is fairly mature from a negotiation perspective, but actually the opportunity to challenge how accommodation is purchased looking at alternatives, I think then this creates a massive opportunity for the industry in general actually.

[Is technology improving? Or is it still behind where it needs to be?]

KH: I think it’s mixed. [Um] I think there can be smoke and mirrors out there around what is available and what isn't available. I think the reality is, is that the workforce is getting younger all the time, and so the expectation of the workforce is to be able to do things from a technology-based perspective: so, to be able to be self-sufficient, to be able to go online, for example.

I think there are tools out there that enables that. [Um] I think, though, when you think about a relocation of somebody, it becomes very personal and so then there needs to be that handholding. So, I think this space has a fine balance around how do you incorporate technology to make things efficient, but how do you deliver the service? And I think any company out there needs to balance both of those elements. But, the reality is, though, is: the younger workforce are looking at how do they make things online, through their phone, or however it's done that way efficiently, and that's going to be critical for any company to be able to deliver that type of option.

[What’s the next big thing for business travel?]

KH: I mean, I think it's interesting. The war for talent is real [um] and that's in many places across the globe, and some companies now actually see their travel programme as being a reason why somebody may want to join a company. And so, if you think about that fact, then the role of the travel manager and their influence on an organisation has become much broader and much bigger.

[Um] you know, we [we] always had a measurement that, you know, if somebody leaves the organisation it would cost around 60 to 70,000 dollars to recruit somebody to replace that person. So, if you can make their lives easier, more attractive when they're with a company, then that's a significant saving because you've got retention going on. And in many companies where they have significant travel programmes, then that's seen as a reason why people want to stay with an organisation.

And then the other one would be the impact of sustainability. So, the carbon emission reductions that multiple companies are setting targets on – whether it be 2025, 2030, 2050 – there is significant emission reductions being targeted. What that's created is the need for much more visibility of data. [Um] and, so I know, you know, as an example, SilverDoor have now brought in some standards around how they can quote on what potential requirements there are of the apartments that you represent, so that there's visibility of that. But that is being demanding much, much more.

And I think the challenge around that is, whilst air travel gets the most visibility of emissions, it's not actually the biggest producer of emissions but it's the most visible that people can talk about. So, as it stands at the minute, that is really being targeted, so if people aren't traveling so much, they're not staying overnight so much. It's having a general impact on the business, so we are still seeing a reduction in total volumes.

I think lobbying by everybody on sustainable aviation fuel becomes key [um], you know. I [I] love this industry, I've been in the travel, meetings and events business for all of my career and – I'm not saying how many years that is, but it's a lot [KH laughs] – and [um] and I don't want to see it disappear. But, on the other hand though, when some companies have carbon emissions related to business travel as a high percentage, the only way they can deliver to the goals of their companies is to reduce the volume when sustainable aviation fuel [is] isn't there. And so really, as a collective, everybody in the industry and the corporates need to be pushing to get that, because then that will mean that there's not going to be this restriction being put out there because it's visible. That's the only reason, because it's visible [um] to reduce travel.

So, I mean for me though as well, and I guess there's one final one would be GenAI (Generation Artificial Intelligence), ChatGPT, and all of that – the impact of that I think is bigger than anybody anticipates. And I love it, I think it's the most fascinating area of business at the minute. [Um] and anybody that doesn't know about it, you're going to get left behind, absolutely get left behind. And I never thought five years ago that I would be known as a champion of RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and GenAI, and I don't know whether I'm a champion of it, but I know a lot about it because I've gone out of my way to learn about it because I see how much benefit it can bring [um] in an enhancement of a service. And I think that's what people forget: they think that all of this technology is taking jobs away, but actually it makes jobs easier, but it enables you to service your clients much better. And so, if people remember that, then they won't be so scared of it either.

I've said a lot of things there, but, you know, there is so much going on and I think, isn't this why we stay in the industry? Because it is moving and changing so much and really why I challenge myself. You know, somebody said to me about ‘go and run another travel programme somewhere’ – I was approached about a couple – if I was going to run a global travel meetings and events programme, I would have absolutely stayed at EY because, in my opinion, the team I had there was the best. We were regarded as one of the best programmes out there, but that's not what I wanted to do any longer, you know. And so, I think we just mustn't be afraid to challenge ourselves.

[What do you think you’ll get involved in with SilverDoor?]

KH: It's been very strange being new kid on the block, that's for sure [KH laughs], I've not done that for a little while. [Um] and, so yeah, I've had a complete brain dump from many, many different people. And [and] and I said to Stuart, I said: there's such a service mentality from the team as well and that really came through very strong. And if I think about my lives and, you know, in all the corporates I worked at, I was always in corporate services. And interestingly though, when I arrived at EY, my job title to start off with was Travel [Travel] Procurement Leader and I'm like ‘oh no, no, no, no, no, hang on a minute, I am not a procurement person’. And actually, 80% of what we did as a team was run the service. And so, my title actually at that point then got changed to Travel Services Leader, which was much more appropriate, because we negotiate the contracts as a travel leader and then they're in place for a number of years. But dealing with the service, figuring out how you make the experience easier, simpler, better for employees is crucial, and that's what I've seen’s going on at SilverDoor actually, you know, that whole service mentality.

So, I sort of knew that from when I'd met Stuart initially and went from BSI, because BSI historically was exactly the same. But it was really lovely to see that again, and it is about how do you make programmes a reason why somebody wants to work for a company. And that I can see what goes on here, you know, certainly at SilverDoor. And so then, though, it’s about, how do we use the technology that's out there to make the experience even better, to offer even more to the travellers or the guests that are going to be staying somewhere? How do we enhance even more what they have? And so, with my [my] day and a half, nearly two days already [um], that's sort of where my head's at that I can see. But [but] it's lovely, I have to say.

It's been so exciting doing something just so brand new [KH laughs] and I'm going to go through it again next week actually because I start then with [uh] one of the other companies I'm working with. And, yeah, I never thought at my age I'd be new kid on the block [KH laughs].

PH: Over and over again, yes.

KH: [KH laughs] Exactly! Exactly.

PH: Well, thank you for that. And [we] obviously we're looking forward to [to] working with you and everything that you bring to the table, your extensive experience. So, I'm going to end this on a lighter note. So, if you could wind the clock back to your younger self, just coming into the industry, what would be the one bit of advice you would give your younger self? What would that be?

KH: So, I think it would definitely be about not worry about the small things. [Um] I used to always think I needed to be in control of everything, and sometimes lose sight of the fact of what the [the] main things were. [Um] I liken it to being a little bit like a rottweiler, and now I'm like a rottweiler with a bad hip basically, [KH laughs] you know, I [I] sort of limp a little bit. But I think you can get wrapped up in everything, and you really can't do everything, you know. And so, I would say for me is focus on the really important things [um] and – like I used to say to the team – is that let's just pick our battles, sometimes we may just need to let things go and that's okay. [Um] we don't need to think that we can fix everything, and so that's absolutely what I would have told my younger self, yeah.

PH: Okay, well I wish I'd been given that advice – yeah, likeminded. Well, thank you Karen for joining us today, as always a pleasure, and I look forward to working with you.

KH: Thank you.


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