Arabian Adventure

Read on for a profile of Leigh van Zyl, country manager for wings based in Dubai, part of the expanding middle east region for the company.

Q You have been working for the company since August 2014. What attracted you to the job, and persuaded you to move away from a large competitor?

A At my previous employer I was dedicated to one of the largest oil and gas (O&G) clients. Through the years on this account my passion for the sector grew. Wings were known for their speciality in the energy sector and when I was given the opportunity to move I grabbed it with both hands.

Q Are you a veteran of the business travel industry and how did you get into it in the first place?

A I started my working career in banking. My previous TMC was one of my clients and I was approached by them to take a position in their exchange division. It was in this position that I started working in-house for the client mentioned above. The travel division of the TMC approached me to move from exchange control to travel, remaining in-house. I started in key account management and was eventually promoted into the business management role which included operations and strategic management.

Q Describe your responsibilities as Country Manager at Wings.

A My position covers a number of different areas but I am ultimately responsible for representing and managing the relevant business areas and Middle East markets. I am responsible for all strategic and client relationship management of the regions’ clients plus global account manager for one of Wings’ largest O&G clients. I am also involved in the planning, initiating, developing and implementing of business development activities on a regional basis. I implement and manage the operation’s budget, working hand in hand with one onsite accountant and the rest of the team in South Africa. It’s basically full management of all the business areas for one operation.

Q You’ve moved countries for the Wings job. How was that experience, moving from Jo’burg to Dubai and how different are they from each other, in terms of living and working?

A I was given the opportunity to move to Dubai for a project back in 2015. I had been to Dubai about 20 years ago when the landscape looked very different. I arrived in Dubai not knowing what was awaiting me and driving down Sheikh Zayed Road I felt like I was in a scene from the movie The 5th element. I had also moved out of South Africa in winter and straight into Dubai summer. I knew if I could survive the summer with its 50 + (feels like 60) degree temperatures and stifling humidity, that I would be here to stay. The biggest challenge was on day one as some three hours after arrival I had to collect my car and drive a left hand drive car on the opposite side of the road. I also very quickly learned that if you miss one exit on the freeway you will be driving for an extra 30 minutes in the wrong direction before you can turn around. Let’s just say, I got to see Abu Dhabi a lot faster than I had planned. I was fortunate to have a strong friendship base already in the UAE so settling in was made very easy. Doing business in Dubai is very similar to what I am accustomed to in South Africa, although it can be very legislative. The biggest difference is how diverse the cultures are both within your own team and business in general, where there are over 200 nationalities residing in Dubai. The Emirates expat population is very large, but despite this the business culture roots remain largely based on local values and traditions. One of the most important principles I had to apply was to be flexible, understanding and patient as very often things can take a lot longer to finalise. Relationship building and networking is vital in the working world and verbal agreements carry significant weight.

Q How do both places stack up in terms of maturity in business travel management? Do companies there already use self booking tools, corporate cards, mobile apps? Are they into personalisation of travel policies etc etc?

A The region is definitely moving in the right direction and embracing travel technology. There has also been a positive shift is the use of corporate and travel lodge cards. Recent analysis in the region has shown up to 30 – 40% of clients have shifted from terms to credit card. With regard to SBTs and online, market surveys recently indicated that although around 70% of the total travel market in the Middle East was still processed through traditional offline, the balance is being done either through supplier direct online or through online travel agents. Currently a very small portion is being facilitated through mobile direct apps but these numbers are predicted to double in the next four years. Large companies follow the same global practices with regards to personalisation of travel policies and procedures. Clients remain very cost driven and are always driving for the lowest fees. Common practice for the small to medium size clients is to compare costs against at least two competitor TMCs as well as online before giving the final approval to issue so we’re kept on our toes!

Q What are the challenges you face? Is it a blank canvas?

A The region remains very price sensitive and therefore the drive from the client to continuously reduce fees has an ongoing impact. I continue to believe in an overall value proposition with focus on consolidation and total cost of ownership rather than individual fee by fee analysis and this is what we really need clients to buy into. With Wings Travel Management expanding even further globally, our ability to collaborate and consolidate leaves us with endless opportunities.

Q Do you manage to switch off when you leave the office behind? Do you have any interesting hobbies/pastimes?

A Hobbies are driven by seasons in UAE. During the cooler winter months I try to be outdoors as much as possible. So hiking, cycling, snorkeling and diving; basically anything that is impossible to do during the scorching summer months. Oh and of course the traditional South Africa braai (barbecued meats) at every opportunity. On the flip side, summer is when I move my training indoors into a gym and pretty much binge-watch all the movies and TV series I can. Trying not to melt is a hobby all on its own during our hotter months.

Q What’s next for Wings in the Middle East?

A I think our expansion into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia marks exciting times for the company.

For more information on Wings in Dubai please contact Leigh at or tel +971 (0) 4 440 7500.

Article first published in 2018 in Wings’ BLUE magazine. To subscribe click here

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