For a man who admires superheroes like Batman and Ironman, Spencer Lee has the right spirit and the zest for life to take on the challenging job of making sure everybody can fly.
When you tell Spencer Lee that he has a dream job, he would tell you that the dream is really in making it possible for everyone to fly.
“I feel touched to see families at the airport with three to four generations of passengers flying together,” said Spencer, AirAsia’s Commercial Director who is responsible for driving sales to fill the plane.
Even though he gets to fly to all kinds of destinations to ensure the commercial viability of products and services, Spencer considers this to be a tough part of the job.
But in his 13-year career with AirAsia there hasn’t been a dull moment as he finds everyday an amazing experience just by being a part of the group culture that pushes boundaries, flying to destinations beyond Malaysia and Asia.
Colombo In My Heart
Spencer has found many personal landmarks during his work trips and he firmly believes that travelling is part of growing and helps open minds. He finds every destination, no matter how many repeated visits, presents a different experience each time.
“I have travelled to Indian cities more than my Indian friends. I am amazed by the culture and food there and seen how some destinations have changed since we first flew there such as China. At the end of the day, it’s all about experience,” he added.
His fondest memory is destination Colombo, Sri Lanka. “Back then when my boss wanted to launch in Sri Lanka, I thought to myself, isn’t there a war going on there? My wife joked, ‘Your boss really hates you!’”
“We were brand new and I got the team together. Four hours later we landed in Colombo. As we settled down–from the airport to the hotel–we experienced great food and hospitality. We were the first (airline) to arrive after the war. I will always have Colombo in my heart,” Spencer said.
With a dream to return to European destinations one day, Spencer and his team are focusing on developing more services and products for this region for now.
Their latest routes are to Nha Trang and Phu Quoc in Vietnam, Sihanoukville in Cambodia and the launch of Silangit (Lake Toba) in Indonesia.
The Dream Team
“We can look at Asean as our playground as we connect dots to improve air connectivity. AirAsia has huge presence in China, India, New Zealand and even Honolulu in the US. Once we have expanded our market, we will help people (businesses) to grow. And tourism is a big economy all around the world.
“Because of these connections one can have breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, a meeting in Singapore, dinner in Thailand and back to Kuala Lumpur in just a day!” he boasts.
To have a dream team to work with, from bosses to staff, does not come about without challenges. While the company environment and culture are conducive for doing their work, developing the right people to handle the jobs is a test. “You can have the best technology but you need the people to make it work.”
On that note, he is quick to attribute some successful products and services to suggestions by staff and crew. And that the management is open to receiving feedback and suggestions from lower ranking staff. “Our cabin crew are our best brand ambassadors. They give us insight to what product to offer next with feedback from passengers.”
He acknowledges and appreciates the Allstar staff who started working for AirAsia when they were very young. Their culture is based strongly on a high sense of belonging and ownership for the company and being a part of its journey.
As a result of this, the company is able to progress to the next phase of growing the digital technology of the company focusing on data analytics, financial services, technology and digital content.
In growing their digital businesses they provide travellers with a complete travel experience. Big data will be an important focus as they continue to innovate to meet the rising expectations of travellers today. Their digital services include AirAsia BIG Loyalty, BigPay, travel360.com, OURSHOP and ROKKI.
ROKKI is AirAsia’s in-flight entertainment and connectivity platform offering guests free entertainment, shopping deals and internet access on their mobile devices.
Spawn A Winner
Spencer reiterated one of his mottos, “it’s never about the brand, it’s always about the people.” He also admitted that there were also some failed destinations.
“If we get it wrong, we will apologise and come back to try again,” adding that part of AirAsia’s success story lies in being consistent. Sharing some early experiences Spencer said it was important to create the right ecosystem and find the support for their ideas.
“Sometimes you have to be thick-skinned as well to keep selling your idea and be consistent in selling who you are. I surrounded myself with smart people whom I can learn from especially young people who keep up-to-date with technology. “Success does not follow silo. You cannot stop learning. Even though we may get things right we can still improve on it,” he advised.
Being a new kid on the block, so to say, in the aviation industry logging in only 16 years compared with other airlines, competition and strong leadership kept the budget airline at the top of the game.
Spencer feels it’s because of a close knit leadership that constantly push boundaries for the team. “There is always higher standards, higher KPI and moving the needle farther and farther. We are always reminded that changes will take place so we have to change or be replaced. Stay focused and be flexible.”
The need to have a cool brand seem to dominate this part of the conversation on how AirAsia remained on top. “16 years ago we practised start-up culture and 16 years later we are the best low cost airline,” Spencer declared adding “we are still behaving the same as being 16 years in this industry is still considered fairly young. You learn better as a start-up.”
Something to learn from this seasoned traveller: “Be a smart traveller. Pack what’s required. Don’t bring your house! Know what to do with your medical needs and insurance. Malaysians don’t take insurance seriously. Don’t take too much cash and book flights and hotels in advance.”
Text YY Chen • Photos Spencer Lee