After launching the business at the age of 18, Christina Lawford’s ability to identify opportunity and spot trends has seen DiamondAir’s growth take off over the past 27 years. “Two factors were important to that growth,” says Christina. “The first was our ability to get approved airside access at Heathrow and the second was taking the business international to meet the demand of our global travellers. Our core Airport Concierge product now operates at 600 airports worldwide, with our Platform Concierge and Airport by Invitation running alongside.”
A challenge like no other
Having built the business from nothing and faced the tremendous impact that both 9/11 and the ash cloud had on the air travel industry, Christina felt confident in her ability to steer DiamondAir through anything. However, nothing could prepare her for the impact of COVID-19. “We went from having 60,000 bookings a year in 2019 to just 14 in April 2020,” she says. “This has been hugely challenging. As well as being sad to see the impact on the travel industry, it’s been personally hard. I’ve never had to make people redundant before – the business has always been a job creator – and suddenly I had to cut 50% of my workforce.”
When faced with a challenge, Christina admits that her normal response is to find the opportunity. “I’d usually draw on my entrepreneurial spirit, be quite excited and look at where we could go. But this situation felt so bleak and so uncertain, that it was difficult to do that at first.”
The experience of operating with a skeleton team, with many staff initially furloughed, however, meant that everyone had to muck in and that need to multi-task offered Christina the creative spark to adapt to the new normal.
You need to think creatively and look at your overall strategy and see where you can make improvements and where you need to restructure.Christina Lawford, Founder, DiamondAir
Deep dive identifies opportunity
“It gave me a chance to really connect with the team and the business again and forced a deep dive into all departments, which really meant going back to basics. We know that travel will come back, but we don’t know when and that uncertainty means that you can throw your five-year business plan out the window. However, you need to think creatively and look at your overall strategy and see where you can make improvements and where you need to restructure.”
Christina’s deep dive saw her identify three key changes that the business would need to absorb and adapt to. The first was that the majority of DiamondAir’s business was in the business travel sector, which was likely to undergo a slower recovery. By pivoting the company’s sales and marketing to target the leisure market, Christina was able to broaden the audience for her services. “We also identified that if people have to travel, there are huge benefits and value in them moving quickly and safely through the airport, rather than having to wait in queues, so emphasising those aspects of our concierge service over the convenience and luxury aspects became more important.”
As a board member of the British Travel Association, Christina was looking to the future of the travel industry as well as DiamondAir and is an advocate of the Test for Travel campaign. “Rigorous testing, at both ends of a journey if necessary, is the key to building confidence and getting people travelling again,” she says. “We have utilised some of our under-used office space at Heathrow to implement PCR COVID testing. It provides us with a new revenue stream and also benefits the wider industry.”
By doing the housekeeping and making sure the basics are right, we’ve been able to spot where we could adapt so that we’re match ready for the future.Christina Lawford, Founder, DiamondAir
Facing the future with confidence
Throughout it all, HSBC’s support has been crucial. “They’ve been with me all the way through,” says Christina. “From access to CBILS to having the assurance that if things got worse before they got better, HSBC believed in my plans and would be there.” The sense of everyone pulling together has also been a key factor in being able to meet the future with confidence, says Christina, from her landlord supporting adaptations to her team mucking in.
“By doing the housekeeping and making sure the basics are right, we’ve been able to spot where we could adapt so that we’re match ready for the future,” says Christina. “As a business and as a person, I’ve learnt that you can face your fears and use your creativity and instincts to get you through. Whoever said that you should never let a good crisis go to waste was right. If you don’t use it to take things forward and improve how you operate, then you’ll have wasted the tough times.”