It’s 8.30am on a drizzly Friday morning when Russell Amerasekera bounds
into the hotel lobby with the kind of chirpyness only a former package
holiday rep could muster.
The bubbly 33 year-old travel PR man has come a long way since his rep
days and is now more likely to be seen coaching Airtours’ chief
executive on his presentation skills than leading the Hokey Cokey round
the hotel swimming pool. In the last two years Amerasekera has jumped
from the top PR posts at Thomas Cook to Airtours-owned operator Going
Places and as from July, will take on an upgraded communications
director’s job at the UK market leader Thomson.
His eyes light up at mention of the latest switch to Thomson which books
30 per cent of the UK’s 8.5 million package holidays every year. ‘Very
few travel companies are interested in senior level PRs who have
influence at board level,’ he says of the job heading Thomson’s newly
merged internal and external communications division.
Despite his cuddly, bespectacled exterior Amerasekera is fiercely
ambitious and once, as a student, harboured the ambition of becoming one
of the UK’s first black politicians. Instead he was lured by the
‘glamorous concept of travel’ and has been hooked ever since.
Now, he talks of his ‘frustration’ at the failure of the travel
business, a relatively young and entrepreneurial industry, to appreciate
the power of PR, despite the vast amount of media attention it attracts.
But he predicts this will change as holiday companies begin to focus
more on the company brand.
‘The old style two-week holiday with a reasonable hotel and beach has
gone. Consumers are demanding more for their bucks,’ says Amerasekera.
‘The travel industry is now beginning to realise the need to use the
brand to compete.’
Despite Amerasekera’s obvious relish at the chance to lead Thomson into
battle he retains a down-to-earth attitude towards the business after
hearing it from the punter’s mouth. ‘Only when you have stood there at
four in the morning waiting for the Glasgow flight to come in or sat by
the pool discussing if people paid pounds 199 or pounds 299 for their
holiday can you understand what you are marketing,’ he says.
This ability to cut the crap is not lost on The Daily Express consumer
editor Paul Crosbie. ‘He understands the audience he is talking to and
the fact that on a daily paper you need information fast and he doesn’t
baffle you with marketing speak,’ says Crosbie.
Travel Weekly associate editor, news Jeremy Skidmore agrees: ‘He won’t
give you any rubbish but can supply you with a quote on company policy.
It’s as good as speaking to a senior person in that company. He is
basically a good bloke and a good laugh without being an idiot,’ adds
Amerasekera chuckles when I relay the quote. He prides himself on his
off-the-record relationships with journalists where a tip-off can by
traded for the opportunity to promote the brand. He also believes in a
no-nonsense approach when dealing with senior management. ‘It’s about
being able to walk into the chairman’s office when he is with someone
and say ‘Sorry I know you are in a meeting but this one is tight,’ he
Amerasekera talks of his passion for ‘information broking’ or ‘getting
information and working in between people’ but it is the cause of
wariness among some of his colleagues
Sometimes PR professionals want to know more information to trade than
they need to know,’ says Airtours’ sales and marketing director George
Marcall in a comment which speaks volumes about how PR is perceived
within the travel industry. ‘It’s better to know about the story up to a
point. If you know too much then you start to trade.’
However Marcall expressed regret at losing Amerasekera - for whom a
replacement has yet to be found - recalling his ‘charisma’,
‘comfortable style with people’ and ‘red blazers and multi-coloured
socks.’ ‘He’s the kind of character you would remember,’ he adds.
Despite his affable eccentricity, Amerasekera is deadly serious when he
says that travel companies need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ over
their public image. He also says he intends to be on the board of a plc
in ten years’ time - given his track record, I believe him.
1986 Overseas representative, Thomson
1988 Press and PR executive, Thomson
1991 Head of communications, Going Places
1996 Director of communications, Thomson