Profile: Christian Cull, comms director, TUI

The travel industry is facing an uncertain future, but TUI comms director Christian Cull is well prepared, finds Danny Rogers.

Christian Cull
Christian Cull

Christian Cull may look familiar to you. It could just be his naturally affable, rugged looks. But more likely you have seen him on the BBC's Watchdog TV show, defending his travel firm in the face of snarling presenter Ann Robinson and a pack of disgruntled holidaymakers in the public gallery.

It has been a tough gig for Cull, whose first appearance on the consumer affairs show came just three weeks after joining TUI last autumn, from a similar comms role at the broadcaster BSkyB.

Now, in January, he finds himself thrust into the peak season for selling holidays; the time of the year when travel companies traditionally fight for consumer attention and discover the health of the market for the subsequent 12 months.

Even before Cull joined, Watchdog had gone undercover in the summer to resorts operated by TUI. At the time of writing, Cull had appeared twice on the show, where he faced a testing time thanks to hotel health and safety problems.

Cull smiles. 'Read any management book and it will tell you to keep a low profile in the first few months of a new job. But for the brand I'm representing you can't duck the issues. You need to be prepared to go on TV and say sorry sometimes.'

He has certainly been doing a fair bit of that, having also twice appeared on BBC Radio 4's consumer affairs slot You and Yours in recent months.

Cull, 43, is well qualified for such work. He trained as a journalist before stints in comms and marketing for brands such as Waitrose and Heinz, which often found themselves in the spotlight. And one senses he enjoys the adrenaline such crisis management offers.

Of course the role at Europe's biggest holiday firm - incorporating Thomson Holidays, First Choice and the ThomsonFly airline - is much more than that. Cull sits on TUI UK & Ireland's mainstream board, reporting to managing director Dermot Blastland, and runs a team of 28 comms and sustainability staff.

'I'm enjoying putting a comms operation together,' he stresses. 'It's only two years since Thomson and First Choice merged and, with 18,000 staff here, internal comms are as important as anything.'

One imagines Cull is an effective manager, thanks to his approachable charm and obvious intelligence. Equally he has developed the inevitable corporate nous. He is noticeably careful and 'on message' with his language.

This may be because he is just back from a three-day strategy meeting with the board. He talks about the 'dynamic' travel industry and the 'open, welcoming' people therein. He also points out how important it is for a company like TUI to have PR and marketing executives on the board.

Beyond the cliches, Cull is right. Despite being in the business of selling dream purchases, the travel industry has been characterised by too much emphasis on short-term sales and the shifting of 'product', rather than long-term brand and reputation building.

With Blastland, marketing chief Tim Williamson and now Cull, the firm has a young team at the helm - under the ultimate guidance of respected group CEO Peter Long - that appears to be healthily focused on strategy.

Cull also recognises the macro issues facing a 21st century holiday operator: how it will serve the fast emerging markets of China and India; and how it can temper a substantial carbon footprint.

'We need to operate efficiently,' he concedes, pointing to the pending delivery of the greener Boeing 787 long-haul fleet, 'and we need to be much tougher on suppliers, such as hotels, to reduce emissions.'

It is some time since TUI took a lead on industry and ethical issues, but there are signs it is beginning to do so. In a moment of candour, Cull says: 'In some ways it helps to be new to the industry because I can bring a fresh approach.' This is significant. Another of the travel industry's weaknesses in recent years has been a dearth of ambitious talent drafted in from outside.

So, with such a remit, does Cull have any work-life balance? The question elicits a smile that says it all. 'I have two kids and spend most of my home time taking them to rugby or chess,' he says after a pause, and then drops in the fact that he manages a 10k run every week.

At a recent industry conference Cull was indeed spotted taking an early morning jog along the Barcelona seafront. Impressively, he later hosted a big lunch event, and was still talking enthusiastically to journalists into the wee hours in the networking bars. Welcome to the travel industry, Christian. It is going to be the trip of a lifetime, with some bumps.

 

CHRISTIAN CULL'S TURNING POINTS

- What was your biggest career break?

This latest one is a great opportunity in an exciting industry that is new to me. Developing my role at Waitrose, and then moving to Sky, were also both fantastic.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Loads of good people. Tina Fotherby and Keith Simpson at Nexus, and Nigel Dickie at Counsel, really developed my PR career. Mark Price at Waitrose gave me great insight and a licence to roam. Matthew Anderson at Sky provided vision and energy. There are others whose kindness, generosity and willingness to share have been a great help.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Step beyond your initial brief at any opportunity. Challenge yourself to get involved in areas about which you know nothing. Study in your own time if needs be, to show your breadth and appetite.

- What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Show how you can fit into a team as well as shining as an individual. Be confident, but wear your learning lightly. Listen well.

CV

2009: Communications director, TUI UK & Ireland

2007: Director of customer communications, BSkyB

2001: Head of press, PR and publications, then marketing director, Waitrose

1999: Associate director, Holmes & Marchant Counsel

1998: Account director, Nexus Public Relations

1997: Special projects editor, The Grocer magazine

1995: Features editor and news reporter, Value Retailing (now Multiple Buyer & Retailer)

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