Wings Travel Management, the global specialist TMC for high-end corporate businesses, as well as companies in the oil and gas and marine industries, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year
Wings has carved a niche in the market over the last 25 years for managing complex travel and support services for customers globally, in particular to developing markets and high risk destinations. Founded in 1992 in Johannesburg, the company’s global reach has grown from one office and a handful of staff to span North America, South America, UK/Europe, Africa, Middle East and Asia where the company has 14 wholly owned and managed regional operations. Today Wings Travel Management employs almost 400 people around the world and has a global turnover of GBP £250M.
Founder and CEO Tony Sofianos has been instrumental in spearheading Wings Travel Management’s global growth and positioning the company as experts in providing high-touch bespoke services to clients across diverse sectors, such as the energy, marine, security, specialist finance and engineering industries, where travel is a critical part of their business model.
Wings’ story began in 1992 when, with a strong entrepreneurial streak, a love of business and US$3,000, Tony Sofianos established Acropolis Travel in Johannesburg. Business was primarily leisure travel in the beginning, booking holidays for family and friends in the local Greek community.
But Tony Sofianos spotted a gap in the local South African market for providing niche business travel services and in 1994 began operating as Wings Corporate Services. A leading global management consulting firm became Wings’ first corporate client after Tony positioned an office right next door to the firm’s Africa headquarters in Johannesburg.
In 1996, Tony first discovered his passion for the oil and gas sector and was the driving force behind courting and winning business from large multinational oil and gas companies, initially in West Africa before setting his sights on the rest of the globe. At this point, Tony recognised that in order to serve the oil and gas industry effectively, as well as expand in the worldwide corporate sector, a global presence for Wings was a prerequisite.
In 1998 Wings Corporate Services expanded in South Africa with a new operation in Cape Town. That was followed by the launch of WingsNaledi in 2000, a specialist division providing travel to public sector entities. Further growth in South Africa came in 2003 with the launch of an operation in Durban to better serve the marine industry, after Wings acquired Global Marine Travel.
International expansion began in 2002 when Wings established a London operation. Next came Houston, Texas in 2006 with the acquisition of marine specialist, Scandic World Travel. In the same year Wings also acquired Travel Alliance in London, a 30-year old traditional TMC, to further cement Wings’ operation in the UK capital. More expansion came in 2008 with an office in Aberdeen in Scotland, followed by Dubai and Angola in 2010. The company rebranded as Wings Travel Management in 2011; expanded in Brazil in 2013 with the acquisition of V7 Viagens; and opened an operation in Lagos, Nigeria in 2014.
In 2015 Wings acquired 40-year old Johannesburg-based Michelle’s Travel, one of the leading and longest-established independent TMCs on the African continent, in order to pursue a strategy of growing Wings corporate client business after the down turn in the energy sector.
In 2016 Wings acquired Travelnet Stavanger in Norway and also commenced doing business in Saudi Arabia. In the same year, Wings acquired London-based Grosvenor Travel Management, giving the TMC a consolidated UK annual turnover close to GBP £100M. This strategic takeover has significantly strengthened Wings UK presence and laid the foundation for the transition of the global headquarters to London. In 2017 Wings will officially commence operations in Singapore enabling the TMC to provide complete support to the needs of clients in the Asia Pacific region.
From the outset, Wings’ commitment to travel risk management and traveller safety support has been at the core of the TMC’s operations due to the nature of its clients’ complex and often hazardous travel needs.
Tony Sofianos, CEO, Wings Travel Management comments: “Our 25th anniversary is a significant milestone and we are proud of our humble beginnings, our unique and niche business model that has evolved over the last two decades, and our exceptional staff that continue to deliver unsurpassed value to our clients around the globe and around the clock. We are also very proud of our strong South Africa heritage which has formed the backbone of Wings for the last 25 years and has given Wings its entrepreneurial and tenacious spirit.
“South Africa will always be an important market for Wings and currently accounts for a significant percentage of our global activity of GBP 250 million annually. It is also supported by approximately half of our global work force of close on 500 employees who continue to defy difficult odds in the face of major challenges in the African oil and gas space, and yet continue to grow.
“However, as a global niche business we cannot rest on our laurels, particularly since the downturn in the energy sector,” continues Sofianos. “We need to constantly reinvent and focus our business in other sectors and in other markets. In order for Wings to adopt a more global and sustainable strategy, I firmly believe that London is better positioned, for various reasons, some economic and some practical, to support this strategy. For example, it currently takes me approximately 24 hours to fly to Houston versus a direct flight from London of just under 10 hours; saving a massive amount of time. In line with my relocation commencing at the end of this year, London will solidify its position as our global corporate headquarters over the next 12-18 months and South Africa will remain our strategic Africa Middle East (AME) regional hub, incorporating Angola, Nigeria, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“Whilst my relocation to London will be triggered at the end of 2017, I will be commuting heavily back and forth from South Africa until my family moves over permanently at the end of 2018,” explains Sofianos. “Thereafter, I envisage spending around seven to ten days a month in Johannesburg and Africa, actively involved in our AME business. In fact, in an odd way, I will be spending more time in South Africa then than I currently am and often tell my friends, it will just be easier to do so!”.
Sofianos proudly summarises: “South Africa and Africa are one of our key strengths. Wings Travel Management was born here and we will proudly continue to retain our position as leaders in this market growing year on year.”