Travelogix Presents…Monique Mardinian

Travelogix Presents…Monique Mardinian

Today, we are privileged to release our 17th Travelogix Presents interview with none other, than Monique Mardinian, Founder and CEO of Canada’s Encore Business Travel and Zii Technologies.

With Travelogix recently securing Encore Corporate Travel as its inaugural launch customer in the North American market, we thought it would be a good idea to meet the woman behind it all.

Monique recently made the hop across the pond to attend the special Manchester edition of our famous Client Assembly, and we’re thrilled that we were able to grab some time with her for this growing interview series.

Sit back, grab a coffee, and enjoy.

The Background

Monique studied actuarial science before taking the reins at Encore Corporate Travel in 1987. It was during her studies at university that she fell in love with the travel industry.

Coming from a working-class background, Monique worked her way through university at a travel agency in Canada.

Monique said, “It hit me like a ton of bricks that this is probably the coolest sector ever! I didn’t know what corporate travel was, and why would I? I grew up in a working-class home – I had no concept of corporate travel.”

Monique excelled at Maths. She used data and analytics to create powerful and interesting insights within the world of actuarial science. Would this skill set be transferable to travel?

“I discovered how policies and processes were all based on the varying needs of multiple corporations and thought to myself – if I can apply what I learned in the world of data and statistics, I have something real to offer the travel industry.” Said Monique.

After realising that problem-solving was somewhat of a strength in this exciting new industry, she set about embarking on a career, and at 22, that’s some ask.

Monique decided that buying an agency was the best way forward – so picked up the phone.

“I picked up the Yellow Pages (in a time before Google even existed!) and started calling agencies in Canada. I think one of those agencies was AMEX!”

“I finally came across Encore Corporate Travel and quickly understood that there was an opportunity here. The owners at the time wanted to sell, so we made steps to acquire the agency.” Monique said.

It’s certainly pretty wild and somewhat gritty at 22 to have the gumption to see an opportunity in an industry that you have little to no experience in and seize it.

But perhaps that grit was taught to her by her soon-to-be mentor, Mike Sisto, the Financial Controller at her soon-to-be client at Ericsson in Canada who educated Monique to “challenge everything”.

“He challenged me on every single proposal I brought to him, there was debate, and there was learning, but above all, there was trust,” Monique said.

An honest and heartfelt chat with a bank then took place where she was asked to present a business case to secure the $60,000, she needed to get things moving.

It was a more vocal business plan with Monique admitting, “You’re just young and full of energy and enthusiasm. I think that 90% of people, at the time, would have had the same approach as I did.”

Monique’s entire strategy was built around the customer, around their needs and requirements. An ethos that remains close to her heart still to this day.

Monique said, “I wanted to help organisations manage their travel budgets, and I knew that the travel agencies at the time were just distributors for the airlines, the car rental companies, and the hotels. They weren’t managing corporate budgets, policies, and procurement.

When the bank manager (fondly remembered by Monique) asked her where her business plan was, Monique replied, “I just told you my business plan!”

He took a chance and gave Monique a call a little while after their meeting.

She secured the agency on 17th January 1987.

Encore Corporate Travel: 2023

Most TMCs in 2023 are thriving, I think that’s a fair generalisation. Hangovers from 2020-2022 are long gone with Encore’s numbers thumping those of 2019.

Monique says, “We are up 35% on the numbers we saw in 2019 and still growing – which is phenomenal.”

Travel demand is something that has been on the rise for most corporates, and Monique saw this trend early on and in turn, up-staffed the business significantly.

Monique is also a proud female business owner and sees this as a USP for Encore Corporate Travel. She told me, “I think organisations are looking to support their initiatives in equality and diversity.

“There are a lot of women in the industry, but at the leadership level, there are very, very few.”

143 Problems

In 2018, Monique founded Zii Travel Technologies. A company that was born out of frustration.

“You know how you innovate? You do so because there’s a problem you want to solve, and the problem that I wanted to solve was around third-party tools for travel management.” Monique tells me.

After sitting down and studiously looking at the problems that face the TMC community, Monique unearthed 143 problems.

“Before I retire, I want to solve these problems,” she told me.

For Monique, 143 was the magic number for her to invest in a piece of technology that would set about solving these many problems. Monique wanted a piece of tech that addressed these problems and enabled her customers, and their teams, to properly service the corporate; the traveller, the administrator, the manager, the finance team, the procurement team, the executive assistant – I could go on.

“There is the meat and the sandwich. They’ve got pressure on both sides, and we wanted to make it easy for them, or much easier than it currently is.”

Zii Technologies was born.

Monique launched her SaaS business with no knowledge of the tech world. She wasn’t an engineer or a computer programmer, but she had enough business experience with 36 years in the bank to know that if you want to solve these perceived problems, you do it for the happiness of the client and the internal teams around you.

“I learned pretty quickly about software as a service and figured out what you have to do to build that sort of business!”

It was after chatting with her CTO that she truly started to unravel this solution.

Monique said, “The initial task was that I wanted Zii to be multi-country, multi-currency, multi-language, multi-entity, and TMC and OBT agnostic.”

For context, many countries only operate with a certain online booking tool and the content has nothing to do with the GDS. Monique wanted that kind of “flexibility.”

She said, “That’s why we made every single component stand-alone and be able to function independently, and everything in the application is a feature flag – we can turn it on, or we can turn it off.”

“You have no idea what you’re going to encounter when you embark on such a project but in October 2019, we went live with our first customer on a prototype.

“Out of the 143 problems we started with, I think we’re at 129.”

The Why

Here at Travelogix, collaboration and innovation are central to how we march forward and continue to push the envelope. We’re a decade in and remain strong market leaders.

I wanted to learn more about Monique’s thoughts on things like collaboration and partnerships more broadly in the business travel space.

Monique said, “In the travel industry, businesses are just a collection of people. You are impacting people’s lives; be it corporate or leisure, it is unmistakably personal.

“The way I built the business was by having very close relationships with my customers. If we could understand what they want to achieve, and how they’re going to achieve it, then we could be a true partner and provide them services and solutions that meet them where they are.”

A sentiment we couldn’t be more aligned with here at Travelogix. The development spotlight sessions we hold every two years at our client assemblies are planned in line with the needs and wants of our global customers – it’s how we have evolved with such a loyal customer base.

Opportunities & Challenges for 2024

2024 should represent a year of opportunities, and of course challenges, for the travel community: advancements in AI could see betterment in processes and procedures, it could change the landscape of user experience for good.

Sustainability is getting even more of a foothold in the sector with many more green-leaders playing their part in an ever-evolving industry.

Also, personalisation and duty of care remain high on the agenda for corporates, and rightly so.

We asked Monique what challenges she thinks could face the broader travel/business travel industry going into 2024, and beyond.

Monique said, “I feel the travel and business travel sector is somewhat all over the place. However, this does indeed mean there are many opportunities for bright minds and startups to step in and shake things up – to make things as easy and intuitive as shopping on Amazon or using an iPhone. But let’s be honest, these ‘fixes’ are pricey.

“Zooming into business travel, we’ve got to remember that no matter how snazzy our tech gets, at the end of the day, it’s the human touch that counts.

Again – keeping people at the very centre of Monique’s “why”.

She continues, “It feels like we’re so caught up in gadgets and apps that we can sometimes overlook good old-fashioned customer service. It’s almost as if we take it for granted, and that’s not right.

“And now with private equity guys getting cosy in our space and tech getting all the investment love, we can’t lose sight of what matters – the core values of a company, how they treat their customers, and what their leaders stand for.

Conversely, we quizzed Monique on the opportunities that could lie in wait for the travel/business travel industry in 2024.

Monique said, “The very disarray I talk of in the travel/business travel industry is actually its golden ticket. It’s a patchwork quilt of opportunities for those ready to roll up their sleeves and get creative.

“There’s a whole playground for fresh faces and startups to leap in and make their mark, bringing the kind of simplicity and genius to booking a trip that we get from swiping on our smartphones.

“Think about it – all this technology that seems to be tripping us up is actually laying down a red carpet for innovation. It’s a chance to redefine what it means to travel for work, making it as smooth as streaming your favourite series. And because the human element is being a bit overlooked, there’s a massive opening to lead with service that genuinely wows people.

“Plus, with all the new investment flooding in, if you’re someone with a knack for blending cutting-edge tech with a heart for service, you’re not just filling a gap – you’re setting a new standard. It’s an exciting time when the values and vision of a company could become the standout feature that transforms a regular business trip into an extraordinary experience.”

Who. Then What.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins. This is a must-read according to Monique. Learning the reasons why links back to her fondness for holding people at the centre of everything she’s involved with.

The book studies how and why organisations go from good to great. Only 11 companies were identified by Collins and these 11 companies were then analysed further.

Monique said, “When Jim Collins did his research, he wanted to understand what those companies had in common and why they were different from all the other organisations that didn’t make the list of 11.”

“The key lesson is first who, then what. It’s about the team, and a team doesn’t happen just because you put a bunch of people together. I met the team at Travelogix, and It was a recipe I witnessed in you guys; all the ingredients make the next ingredient better.”

Looking back to when Monique first started in the industry, I wanted to learn more about her drive and her motivation.

She tells me, “I wake up every morning and want to have an impact on someone’s life, and that’s true of vendors. You know how we worked very hard with the team at Travelogix. It’s about partnerships, and without our vendors, we would not have the business we have today.

“Without our employees, we wouldn’t have the business we have today, and without our customers, we wouldn’t have a business at all.

“But it’s really the individual. If you bring it down to the individual, it’s doable. If you bring happiness to all the individuals that you talk to every single day, it becomes like a collective movement of making the world a happier place.”

To end

This is a remarkable tale and one that comes with grit, determination, entrepreneurial spirit, and courage. Monique is and should be, an inspiration to all who wish to conjure up something worthwhile, something that will impact others and be centered around one thing – people.

Whether it is solving problems for corporate travel buyers (143 of them) or banding together with her team through the pandemic to ensure that togetherness didn’t fade – all that she does is for the betterment of people. A very altruistic way of life indeed.