5 Star Leadership > Liam Crawley, CFO Wyndham Destinations Asia Pacific

CFO Magazine A/NZ Editor, Richard McBride had the unique opportunity to pose the questions to seasoned Finance leader, Liam Crawley, CFO for Wyndham Destinations Asia Pacific discussing everything from recovery, resilience, sustainability and the importance of storytelling…

RMLiam, thank you for joining us today – To set the scene can you give us an overview of size and scale of Wyndham Destinations Asia Pacific – Your role as CFO, size of the finance team and which areas of the business are aligned or report through to finance?

LC – Wyndham Destinations Asia Pacific is a division of Travel + Leisure Co. TNL (NYSE), the world’s leading membership and leisure travel company, with a portfolio of nearly 20 resort, travel club, and lifestyle travel brands.

From our offices across Australia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and China we operate four vacation clubs with close to 71,000 members. Our management subsidiaries oversee a collection of some 70 hotels and resorts across the Asia Pacific region. We manage some of these properties on behalf of our global brand partner Wyndham Hotels and Resorts.

In my role as CFO, I oversee accounting and finance, financial planning and analysis, consumer financing, internal audit and treasury functions. We fund over $250 million in consumer loans for 15,000 of our vacation club owners and I oversee the securitisation of our consumer finance portfolios across the Asia Pacific region. I am also in charge of operations at our 500-person Travel + Leisure Co. global support centre in Clark, Philippines, which we set up in 2017.

RM – The hotel and accommodation industries have been some of the most impacted, especially here in Australia with two years of closed borders.  How are things recovering and have consumer behaviours changed?

LC- 2020 and 2021 were certainly tough. Like many businesses, we had to close properties for extended periods, which impacted many of our employees. State and international border closures, snap lockdowns, together with COVID-19 testing and isolation requirements severely impacted travel.  This year however, we have definitely seen travel bounce back strongly domestically. CBD properties have been slower to recover, but coastal and country locations are performing very well. Our vacation ownership properties have been near full occupancy for most of 2022, and our managed hotel inventory has delivered high yields, reflecting strong domestic demand.

When Fiji and New Zealand’s international borders opened, we saw a very similar trend. One of our most popular properties, Club Wyndham Denarau Island in Fiji has been fully occupied since the middle of this year and we see that continuing for the next 12 months. Once people are given the freedom to travel, we see demand bounce back very quickly.

Despite inflation and cost of living rising, it seems leisure travel is being viewed as more of a necessity than a luxury these days. After the freedom of travel was taken away, it has become something that people no longer want to put off. As such, we are seeing more people allocating funds to travel within their household budgets.

Travel by air still comes with some challenges in terms of reliability and cost, so drive-to locations remain popular. However, with the high cost of flights within Australia and rising hotel accommodation rates, I believe regional travel spots like Bali and Thailand will become more popular over the next 12 months. The more affordable luxury accommodation on offer in these locations will likely start to grow in popularity in place of more expensive Australian locations.

RM – There must have been some very difficult times over the past two years and tough decisions made with the C-Suite and board – Do you feel you are a more resilient leader and what got you through? How have the last two years changed you as a CFO?

LC – I imagine anyone in a leadership position during the pandemic became more resilient. There was no choice. In our case, we had to close down all our hotels and resorts for varying periods, stand down or let go of a significant number of our employees and stringently manage cashflow to survive. We had to strategically plan how to get through the pandemic, and then how to start back up.

I am generally a very positive person, and working in our industry I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel the world for both business and leisure. No matter how hard things got mid-pandemic, I always knew that one day, the world would get back travelling again, and that we would come out the other side much wiser.

We made a number of innovations during the pandemic that have proved to be of great value to our business. These include introducing a flexible work model. Many of our Australian corporate staff now work two days from home and two days in the office. This has created great cost savings, as we no longer require nearly as much office space. We also introduced virtual sales via Livestream. This platform now generates close to $1 million in revenue every month.  Innovations like this likely would not have happened, at least not as as rapidly, had we not been pushed to think creatively during the pandemic.

For me personally, 2020 and 2021 reminded me how lucky I am, and that there is always light at the end of the tunnel no matter how dire things may seem. If you can stay positive, work hard, be nimble, and have the right people around you to ride through the storm, most situations can be overcome. Much of this depends on being open to trying new things, staying agile, and being ready to change if needed.

RM – Australia, like other parts of the world is suffering from the ‘shortage economy’ – We have a shortage in supply chains and with both highly skilled and ‘blue collar’ skilled workers… Are you seeing a ‘war on talent’ and employment costs rising? – What levers can CFO pull and how are you preparing for 2023?

LC – We are seeing cost and resource pressures from many angles. Filling food and beverage roles, housekeeping and casual roles at our hotels and resorts is a challenge, along with our corporate offices. We are seeing high expectations for accounting and finance roles in terms of remuneration, and the candidate pool is very tight.  To help attract the right talent, we have introduced new benefits and flexible conditions.

We are focused on doing more with less. This means being smarter in how we operate, more efficient and focussed on essential business – all perhaps clichés, but strategies that work. Our analytics teams are working very closely with departments across the business to focus on financially what matters, and what provides the biggest returns short and long-term. Therefore, if we need to prioritise, we will allocate resources accordingly.

Setting up our global support team in Clark in the Philippines in 2017 proved to be very fortuitous. We are now leveraging the cost savings from that centre and the team to supplement labour where we cannot fill roles efficiently in Australia, and globally for that matter.

That team started with five people in 2017 and we recently celebrated our five-year anniversary this August with 500 team members now employed. We project that this office will grow to 800 employees in 2024.

This service centre in the Philippines is owned and operated by Travel + Leisure Co. It is not outsourced to a third party. It has allowed us to gain financial efficiencies, cover labour shortages in Australia, and reinvest some of those savings into greater service coverage across all disciplines, including more headcount and extended support hours.

We have been able to pass on these savings to our vacation club members and also reduce our requirements for corporate office space in our various, higher cost regional head offices.

RM – Sustainability is now front and centre for consumers, investors and shareholders with ESG initiatives and reporting gaining momentum – How much of a priority is ESG for CFOs in Australia / NZ?

LC – Sustainability has to be a priority for senior leaders in any business. If you don’t take it seriously you will be left behind. Consumers, investors and shareholders expect it to be a focus, as do employees. Our Asia Pacific ESG efforts align with the global targets of Travel + Leisure Co. which has a strategy to make a positive impact on the world in four social responsibility focus areas: inclusion and diversity, environmental sustainability, philanthropy, and ethics and human rights.

RM – Is a lower carbon future part of the future planning for Wyndham and what initiatives are you implementing / exploring?

LC – A lower carbon footprint forms a large basis of our green initiatives and we are proud to have set industry benchmarks when it comes to sustainability. We have won both the Hotel Management Environmental Program of the Year award and the Community Award at the ATHOC Awards for our environmental programs. We were one of the first hotel groups to ban single use straws and balloons back in 2019, and have followed this with the roll out of biodegradable bamboo entry room keys replacing plastic swipes, along with pump pack amenities replacing single-use bottles.

At a property level, we have been heavily focussed on solar energy, water saving initiatives, growing our own produce at several locations along with sustainable features within our property design and refurbishment stages to minimise energy use and recycle resources.
We have made big changes to minimise plastic and general waste, including the introduction of compost collection at numerous resorts.  
At our corporate office locations, we have focussed on design enhancements to minimise energy and resource usage, and some really simple actions around printing, which has reduced our printing volume and costs by over 80%.

RM – CFOs most valued skill is turning data/facts into a story, putting these into context and influencing change – How important is data and finance storytelling for contemporary CFOs? 

LC – One of the most important things we can do as CFOs is to tell a story.  Whether people like it or not, finance matters and it’s crucial that our teams understand what the business needs to prosper, and share in that vision.

We also need to know our audience. If we are talking to banks, investors, or people with a strong financial background we may be more technical and will have specific focusses. However, for the average employee and customers, the message needs to be kept simple to focus on key points, and what’s important to them. If you can achieve these things, it’s the most powerful way to deliver messages as a CFO, and the best way to influence performance in teams.

RM – Liam, thank you for your time today – As a final question, in a world where ‘always be learning’ has never been more important – do you have any advice for existing or aspiring CFOs, looking to future proof their roles?

To aspiring CFOs, firstly I would say – keep working hard. Always be open to feedback and ideas, and don’t be afraid to try new or different things.

If ideas don’t work, be nimble, change course quickly and learn from your mistakes. One thing for certain is that our roles, and the nature of work and business will change, so as leaders we need to stay agile and change also.