Mandy Langfield spoke to Xavier Blanchard, AXA Travel Insurance CEO and Global Head of Travel at AXA Partners, about why companies need to consider each market as an individual, and design policies and distribution models for each one
You’ve worked for AXA in different roles for some years, how does the travel insurance business differ from the other lines of insurance you’ve worked in?
For me, travel insurance is unique in the way it can be a very warm and personal customer experience, particularly when we provide assistance to travellers in remote parts of the world who rely on our support. This is a business where you receive thank-you messages from customers, and where we witness the outcome of our work.
It is also very vibrant and changing, affected by all sorts of external events: we all have in mind Covid, of course, but before that, there was an Icelandic volcano, drones stopping air traffic in London Gatwick, and some airline defaults … it is always changing, and it keeps us on our toes!
There are many things we can be inspired by from other lines of business – the use of data and sophisticated rating structures of - for instance - home and motor
Do you think travel insurance can learn from other lines of business, whether in terms of underwriting, customer retention, or marketing?
There are many things we can be inspired by from other lines of business – the use of data and sophisticated rating structures of - for instance - home and motor, the retention initiatives that can equally be applied to customers that have come back from their holiday and are already thinking about their next holiday. In addition, and this is very established in commercial insurance, it has been recognised that an ongoing relationship with the customer, not just at a point of claim, is of value. Not only to offer services to customers who may not claim, but also as a risk management initiative. For instance, within AXA Partners, we offer our revolutionary, fully automated risk management platform (Traveleye) for our corporate mobility customers.
How has AXA been affected by the pandemic, in terms of cancellation claims for travel?
We experienced differences with each of our partnerships, and therefore worked with our partners to support their customers. Overall, it was really important to communicate clearly both with our partners and our customers and therefore we introduced a number of tools that could help with getting clarity to our customers as quickly as possible.
Are you starting to see a recovery in sales of travel insurance policies? Do you think more people are aware of the benefits of travel insurance now than before Covid hit?
I believe we as an industry are going to experience historic growth for travel insurance following these unprecedented times. What we have learned from what we went through is that insurance is important; it needs to be part of a trip preparation as much as booking an activity, and is definitely needed. We already see e-commerce levels flying above 2019 levels almost everywhere, while passenger levels are maybe half of what they were two years ago. It is an indication of the strength of the recovery. Travelling is a part of our lives that is coming back very quickly and strongly – maybe the new norm is that it needs to be protected.
How has AXA embraced insurtech and new innovations to better reach their customers?
We are experiencing different partnerships, in different parts of the customer experience, and retain the ones that work for the customer, meaning they are getting used, and producing value.
It includes digital concierge capacity, automatic payments for flight delays and cancellations, automated alerts that improve prevention, and inevitably sophisticated bots, or simple things such as digital certificates.
The winners are not always the preferred ones internally, which keeps us grounded! The required approach is obviously to go quickly to a POC with a partner, learn fast and understand how to best position. We certainly do not try to own everything but rather assemble what makes sense.
Is AXA still allowing its employees to work from home, or is everyone gradually returning to offices? And is this different around the world?
Employee wellbeing, company resilience and ensuring our ability to meet the needs of our customers are the key drivers behind our plans to move to smart working at AXA Partners.
The smart working global initiative was launched to allow our AXA Partners colleagues to combine remote working and working in the office in the best possible way.
Smart working is different to how many of us have worked and continue to work during the pandemic. Many of us have been working from home permanently, which allowed us to continue to deliver safely for our customers and partners in uncertain times and allowed us to see the benefits of having a greater work/life balance.
Smart working, referred to as ‘hybrid’ working, combines the best aspects of both remote working and working in an office environment. It will allow us to work at home for part of our working week. Since our overall goal is to meet the expectations of all our employees, some employees may work at home more often, some less, depending on their personal circumstances and the needs of the business and the customer. Ultimately, smart working will allow us to experience the advantages of both working from home and being in the office as we move out of the pandemic to the new normal.
In many countries, the return to the office has already begun. This is happening in different phases in different countries depending on local circumstances, and it may not be possible to move to full smart working immediately everywhere. Return to office differs from smart working, as its key objective is to return safely and progressively to the office. Over time, we expect all countries to adopt smart working as described above.
What do you think the most significant differences are between travel insurance markets in different regions, such as US vs Europe, or Asia vs Europe? How do customers in these regions perceive the value of travel insurance, and what are the market challenges such as regulations and currency fluctuations?
Through our local presence across the globe, we recognise that countries have their own specificities. Even within Europe, countries have different regulatory requirements, a different social security system and different cultural risk appetite. Within the larger geographies such as the US, there is more domestic travel than in Europe, for instance, and customers may not always consider taking travel insurance for a local trip. Within the European Union, where a customer uses their own transport and the European/Global Health Insurance Card provides some cover, again travel insurance may not be top of mind. Distribution of travel insurance is also quite different. In some markets, like the UK, aggregators play a dominant role, which has a direct impact on product design and pricing methods. In other countries, such as Italy and France, the more traditional broker channel has a significant presence, creating a different demand. Within the Middle East and Africa, we are partnering more and more with airlines.
Where are you most looking forward to travelling to, once the world opens up again properly?
I have lived in Asia for 10 years, and was an intense business and leisure traveller for all those years, with very nice memories! But climate change and Covid have changed my perspective to travelling: closer destinations, more simple style, active time with friends and loved ones … the Europeans Alps in Italy is probably my next destination. My social energy is at its peak!
How do you switch off at the end of the day?
Running, exercising works well for me – the body switching off the brain!