It’s a time when senators, mayors and congresspeople are dropping out of public service, CEOs are stepping down at an unprecedented rate and leaders are abdicating their positions in droves—overwhelmed by the extraordinary demands of the times. The person who stepped into the leadership position at Delta Vacations, however, is eager and plucky.
“I can’t think of a better time to be joining than the last couple of months,” she told me. “There’s so much opportunity on the horizon to really create a strong connection with our customers and our travel advisors. Now this is going to be the fun part.”
Kama Winters became president of the wholesale vacation packager on June 21, after the previous president, Jennie Ho, was promoted to vice president, in-flight field operations for Delta Airlines, the parent of Delta Vacations.
Winters was previously director of product retailing at Delta. Her relationship with Delta dates back to 2005, when she worked for a partner company. She joined Delta in 2016 and has served in a series of roles, including CRM and retail performance marketing, and product merchandising and content strategy.
“I’m a glass-half-full kind of person,” she said. “In my mind maybe it’s the best possible time [to take on the role of president].
“In the last couple of ‘quote-unquote crises’ that we’ve had at Delta, I have been fortunate to be in a new position. In that situation you have an opportunity to learn fast. For me, it’s born of necessity, but also it’s a great way to learn parts of the operation that you may not have thought to inquire about early on if things were running smoothly. So, I think it really helps to start from that position of understanding.”
She started her last role at Delta when some technology shutdowns affected operational systems and left some people stranded for days. Being in charge of CRM and outbound communications in the midst of a five-day shutdown, she learned more about rebuilding the systems than she would have if things had been running smoothly. She’s looking at the problems of Covid in the same way.
Path to Recovery
Winters joins Delta Vacations as it is pulling out of an unprecedented trough. The year 2019 was “a banner year,” she said, and 2020 was on track for being another one.
“We were at the precipice of that promise,” she said. “We had a record profit-sharing celebration, then 2020 panned out to one of worst years ever.” In 2020 the company had more cancellations than bookings.
As business picks up, Delta Vacations has had to deal with a convergence of crippling issues. There was a sudden, unpredictable unleashing of pent-up demand and greatly increased complexity of travel management, at the same time as there were staffing shortages.
“We have had some staffing challenges within operations,” she said. “That’s where got hit the hardest. When we had early retirement and early voluntary leave packages, we lost over 50 percent of our staff. Delta Vacations didn’t do any involuntary departures. But staffing those roles back up has been a challenge in the current environment.”
Jobs that require specialized knowledge are the hardest to fill.
“With any of those specialized skill sets, it’s that much harder to get people,” said Winters. “It’s really about specialized training. There are several different strategies we’re looking at. The biggest is just being more nimble in hiring, training, and this concept of virtual work force management. We’ve never had a virtual call center before. We had everyone in our call center of operations. We’ve had to get very innovative through this process and look at other ways to staff people in other parts of the country.”
The company is also trying to move travel advisors to digital channels, when appropriate.
“We’re working on enhanced self-service capabilities,” she said. “What that means is that instead of a travel advisor having to call in to make an update to a reservation, they can do it online through the World Agent Direct system. We’ve focused on enhancing some of that technology, so it takes some pressure off call centers and they don’t have to take as many calls.”
With the increased risk and unpredictability of travel, calls are longer.
“They have a lot more questions,” she said. “There’s more complexity in travel. That means there’s a longer handle time.”
At the same time, there was a sudden release of pent-up demand. The increased volume “came back way faster than anybody anticipated,” she said. “We all went into this thinking it would be suppressed for quite some time. But people got sick of staying home pretty fast and they were ready to get back out there.”
The increased stresses forced DV to re-evaluate its operational systems, to try to rebuild them for increased flexibility and agility.
For Winters it was a trial by fire.
“Never let a crisis go to waste,” she said. “We’re so excited for everything we learned through these processes. It helps us build back as a stronger vacation provider. We’re doubling down on that focus for the customer experience, insuring that, because customers have more questions, we ensure that they have all the information they need to feel more confident in their travels.”
A Bright Horizon
Looking ahead with cautious optimism, Winters says 2022 is looking strong.
“We continue to keep an eye on the case counts,” she said, “as those tend to be in line with consumer demand.”
The first half of 2021 was strong, and then things slowed down as the vaccination rate hit roadblocks and the Delta variant (no relation) came on the scene.
Delta Vacations is “pretty bullish on next year’s opportunity and outlook,” said Winters. But, of course, there are no certainties in the travel industry. Areas to watch are continuing surges of cases of Covid, and the uncertainties surrounding the economic recovery.
However, for now, the bullish predictions stand. “Based on where we’re at,” she said, “based on what we can see in the crystal ball, if you will, and based on the downturns we’ve seen throughout 2021, we feel really confident about 2022 so far.”
It’s been a time of strengthened bonds and appreciation for those who have stuck together through the crises.
In 2019, before the pandemic, Delta Vacations launched a new tagline: “Go beyond the flight.”
“I don’t think anybody could have realized at the time how much that would serve as a North Star to us through these past couple of years,” she said. “What it meant is that it’s not just about doing what we do every day. It’s not just about the physical vacation that’s beyond the flight itself. It’s really about going above and beyond for our customers, and for each other, in delivering the most amazing experience possible. And that is what guided a lot of the decisions we made as we tried to build a more resilient product.
“So, we’re really using that as our core: How do we deliver that concept even as we move out of the pandemic? It’s something that I think really helped us to cement more our brand purpose. Now that we’re moving into a place that’s a little more stable and feels more optimistic, to me that feels like a really powerful place to be starting from.”
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.