Laurent Sculier: “Avis Budget expects Summer travel to bounce back”
Since the start of this year, Laurent Sculier has been Avis Budget’s Managing Director for both Western and Central Europe. That expanded role reflects the rental giant’s changing position and ambition: leaner, and even keener to serve its corporate customers. “An old Avis slogan says: ‘We try harder’,” says Mr Sculier. “That’s still true.”
Laurent Sculier (pictured, right) joined Avis Budget in 2005. In 2017, he was appointed Managing Director of Europe’s Western region. Since 1 January, he’s also MD for Central Europe. That puts him in charge of Avis Budget activities in France, Germany, the Benelux, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland.
“Due to the pandemic, we’ve had to let some people go. In that sense, my new role also is a signal to our teams: it shows we’re also serious about reducing management layers at the top,” says Mr Sculier. It’s a signal with an important message – to customers as much as to staff: “Our systems now are leaner, more cost efficient and faster to take decisions. When the recovery kicks in, we’ll be in a good place to serve our customers with the right products, the right network and the right teams.”
With vehicle rental still reeling from the pandemic, was this a good time to take on an expanded role?
“Yes, absolutely, because the only way is up (laughs). You have to look on the bright side. We’ve been through a lot these past 12 months. We’ve made a lot of tactical decisions. We’ve ensured that we can operate safely. We’ve pushed our digital customer journey. So even though the crisis was really tough, it’s pushed us to accelerate a number of changes we had in mind anyway, but perhaps weren’t pursuing fast enough.”
People are still travelling less. How do you see the market evolve this year and after?
“This year is a bit of a crystal ball exercise. We weren’t expecting to go back into lockdown for the Easter holidays (as France and many other European countries have, ed.). We hope that after this lockdown, there will be a recovery towards the summer. We're very encouraged that the roll-out of vaccinations will be fast enough to ensure people can travel safely, starting somewhere between May and July.”
“We are hopeful that we will see some travel returning for the summer season, mostly driven by domestic customers: we expect most French to stay in France, most Italians to stay in Italy, etcetera. Because if something happens and the rules change overnight, you don’t want to be too far from home.”
“We think corporate demand will come back slower than domestic travel demand. Video conferencing and remote working will continue to a large extent for now until companies feel comfortable having their employees travel again which will be reliant upon vaccine distributions.”
“Despite these challenges, what is clear is that we are ready for business to rebound. It is even possible the summer season may last a bit longer this year: people who couldn’t travel in May or June may want to do so in September or October; the result may provide an encouraging period of recovery. But time will tell.”
Considering their different rate of recovery, are you saying the Leisure market is now more important for Avis Budget than the Corporate market?
“Both markets are important to us and we still have a good share of our business coming from corporate accounts. But we expect leisure business to recover sooner than our corporate segment, as we anticipate some pent up demand as people are permitted to travel again. And we believe corporate demand will return as companies feel comfortable having their employees travel as well.”
“After the crisis, even if business travel recovers a bit slower, we’ll keep developing more targeted options for corporate accounts, with the right flexibility on mid- and short-term rentals. We have a very flexible cancellation policy, having waived all cancellation fees on rentals in Europe up to 24 hours in advance of the rental date. We also have a very good safety pledge, designed with the help of medical professionals, specifically to assure our customers that their car has been cleaned with proper protocols. We are also continuing to digitise the rental process and that benefits the Corporate customer as much as the Leisure traveller.”
Let’s talk image. As the name suggests, Avis Budget is at the budget end of the spectrum. Will that play to your advantage as we come out of the crisis?
"Our Avis brand is a premium brand that provides premium service to our customers. Our Budget brand is the brand that services our more thrifty consumers. In fact, we have a number of brands that can cover most of our consumers mobility needs."
“You know, in the 1950s, the Avis slogan was: ‘We try harder’. That was an important message to our employees and our customers, as it says, we’re number two. It’s a humble message, which is still true today even in our 75th year of operation. We still try harder. We’re not here to brag. That’s not in our DNA. We have a toned-down image, but we’re a trusted partner. We know how to do things. How to address this crisis. Our funding is secure. Our cars are safe. Our sanitary protocols are tight. And we have the right car for the job.”
“Our core business is: Almost anywhere in the world where you need a car, we have one for you. The price will be right, the quality will be high, and the process will be safe. But I think you’re right: that message will now appeal to people who are inclined to go for a premium brand before the crisis.”
Avis Budget promises a rental car wherever its customers need one. Does that mean you’re developing into mobility providers – as lease companies are doing, for example?
“You may know we own Zipcar, the world’s leading car sharing network. I personally led a two-year Zipcar pilot in Paris and Brussels. At the time government support for mobility alternatives was very limited in France and Belgium, but what is clear is that wherever in the world it does make sense, we’re in touch with smart mobility and car-sharing.”
“Our car rental offer I see as complementary to other mobility solutions. If you’re in a big city like London or Paris, renting a car might not be the best solution to get from A to B. Car-sharing, public transport or biking may be more appropriate. But if you travel between cities, that’s where I think car rental has a role to play.”
So you don’t see Avis Budget as a player on the last-mile market?
“While we may not be in that area today, that does not mean we won’t some day or that we haven’t expanded our reach in other areas such as package delivery and light commercial vehicles, ride hail, and car sharing to name a few.”
What’s your take on electrification? Do you actively push it, or simply provide it when and where customers ask for it?
“We try to lead the market a little bit. In France, we have about 150 EVs, which is typical for our electric fleet in a major country. That’s not a lot, but on top of that we have 2,500 hybrids. We expect the number of EVs in our fleets to increase fast, as OEMs have CO2 targets they need to reach.”
“Electric is a good way to drive in suburbs and cities. But there are two challenges. The first one is convincing customers. The second is infrastructure, which still isn’t well developed. So we’re boosting consumer confidence. And we’re working with providers to build infrastructure that will raise that confidence. I think it will take a year or two before EVs are a ‘normal’ product that people don’t think twice about renting.”
Do you have any preferential deals with energy providers?
“We’re talking to most providers. Total, among others. We’re also talking to relevant authorities about installing charging points at airports and train stations. And in our own locations we’re rolling out more and more charging points.”
“Long-term, we want partnerships with energy providers that will give us access to large numbers of charging points. Short-term, we have an agreement with ChargeMap. We give our customers a ChargeMap card, which they can use at any charge point in the ChargeMap network, which is probably the most mature provider on the market right now.”
Final question: if you’re talking to a corporate prospect, what do you tell them about Avis Budget’s USP?
“We have the largest global network of locations around the world and can provide our world class technology and service for all corporate needs. We have proved that we are leaders in the industry through our unparalleled ability to navigate through this pandemic and are poised to take advantage of opportunities as travel continues to return. We look forward to being a continued trusted partner for any company’s future mobility needs.”
Image copyright: Avis Budget