As one of the very first travel agencies ever to open its doors in Dubai way back in 1977—Arabian Air Travel had built up a solid reputation in the market with five offices located across the country and a strong portfolio of loyal clientele — 60% of which had stuck with the firm for over 15 years.
But times have changed in the world of travel management; and after almost 40-years in the business its traditional way of doing things were suddenly looking very outdated and the company was struggling to keep up with modern day trends. It was time for a fresh way of thinking.
Step in Khaled Ghubash — the UAE national with a background in private equity and finance, previously worked at investment company Istithmar Capital, part of Dubai World. While his family already owned a 50% stake in Arabian Air Travel; last year Ghubash took the decision to buy out the other partner, take full ownership and set about implementing some sweeping changes to the business.
Ghubash explains that it was the challenge of the task ahead that excited him most about the project: “My background is in private equity and what we did was to turn companies around but on a bigger scale. We would buy a company, change the management, improve efficiencies, improve productivities and then we exit in the future. I wanted to apply something similar here but without the exit part.”
But why take on a struggling travel agency? Ghubash says he could sense a huge potential in the business that just wasn’t being properly exploited.
“Personally I didn’t come into this because it’s a travel business. I do love travel, but it was because I believed in the potential of the company. It has a long history, but I didn’t believe it was being pushed in the right direction or being directed the right way so we decided to buy the other 50% share and take it to a new level.” new name, new look
The first item on the agenda was a name change. Following a complete re-branding process Arabian Air Travel re-emerged as the new-look ATS with a new image, logo and colours too. Ghubash explains that ‘Arabian Air Travel’ was felt to have too much of a ‘local’ feel, conjuring up images of ‘old Arabia’ rather than the fresh, modern feel the company was going for.
“People always linked the name to a small local firm and we wanted to abandon those images. We wanted to change the idea of us being a traditional travel agent located in old areas of Dubai, to becoming a modern company with global presence.
“With our new name — ATS, we can go anywhere in the world — China, Qatar or the US,” he says, hinting at his ambitious expansion plans.
A dramatic management shake-up followed, resulting in the recruitment of an entirely new leadership team — including general manager Saleem Sharif, an ex-ATS employee who left the company to join Dnata in Abu Dhabi, where he was head of sales and operations and was also responsible for introducing HRG to the market.
Staffing has been a major priority, says Ghubash. “We have headhunted the team and brought them all in from agencies of repute. This means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and can get started in a positive manner. Our whole look and feel changed and the way we do business has changed.”
According to Sharif it’s been a process of complete transformation for the company, which had been suffering from crippling staff turnover prior to its re-launch and was stuck in a rut.
“We were never flamboyant in the market. We were a very traditional agency. We had a very traditional name and we did things in a very traditional manner. But we needed to keep abreast of changing times.
“In the previous three years we had 50 people who left the company. We have arrested that trend and in the past two years no-one has left. We have implemented a proper management structure — it is totally different from how business is normally done in this industry in this part of the world.
“Now we are even getting a lot of CVs from people at some of the top agencies wanting to join us.”