Blog Post

How To Avoid Being Drowned By The Cultural Tsunami 🌊

Imagine being one of the people here in this photo.

You are completely unaware that an enormous, frightening tsunami is about to hit.

This is what it feels like, in the moments before you have lost that big international deal.

A tsunami is going to arrive.

And you’re completely unprepared.

You see this in many studies, such as the one by AON which indicated that “cultural integration issues” was the #2 reason cross-border M&A deals fail.

It’s almost as if businesses were prepared for the initial earthquake of an M&A deal (i.e. The initial few weeks post-merger) but then forget about the intercultural tsunami which follows.


National Culture: The Lost Opportunity?

Think of it a different way:  Many business spend lots of time managing their employees individual personalities and trying to build the right organisational culture.

Yet many forget the influence of national culture, and how this can wipe away an organisation, much like a tsunami, if not managed in the right way.

You see it in the friction in teams and organisations when for example you have a direct culture (e.g. Straight shooting Dutch who “call it as it is”) versus an indirect culture (e.g. More nuanced Brits and Irish who prefer to couch negative feedback in nice, woolly language).


Business Travellers: The Big Opportunity

Which brings us to the business travel market.

According to a survey by TripActions, 90% of business travellers believe travel is essential to driving growth for their companies, which is no surprise in a world which is becoming ever more global.

Even more illustrative is how 91% of business people prefer to close a deal in person, even if it requires air travel.

So business travel is more important than ever.  So far, so good.

But then how do these business travellers prepare themselves for the different cultures they’re about to do business with?

This is where a survey by FCM (a global TMC, or travel management company) shone a bright light on this unexplored part of the business travel market.  I’m going to let you in on some of the more interesting gems from this survey.

The conclusion from this survey was that 55% of business travellers research the local culture all the time and 23% do so some of the time (i.e. 78% of business travellers or 8 out of 10 of them research the local culture before travelling).

And when you ask the individual business travellers how they do their research, many of them say they try to google it, or ask local counterparts, and very often the information they get takes too much time to read and is usually not user-friendly or engaging.

Of even more relevance to TMCs was how 77% of business travellers felt their TMCs should be providing information or training services to help them navigate the different local cultures.


Why Are TMCs Not Addressing This?

So the next question is why are many travel buyers, and TMCs especially, not addressing this opportunity?

At the end of the day, if I’ve spent €5,000 on a business trip for flights, hotels and taxis, what is the point if a deal falls through, or if I get under the skin of my customer, because I wasn’t properly prepared to deal with the local culture?

To find the answer to this, you have to go back to the evolution of the travel management industry.  At their most basic level, TMCs have traditionally supported corporates by facilitating primarily the booking of flights and hotels.

A business executive would tell their secretary the dates of their trip, their secretary would then inform the TMC, and the TMC would then book the flights and hotels.  This worked well, as on the one hand TMCs had the advantage of having access to discounted fares, and on the other could provide higher service levels by taking all the booking frustration away from business travellers.

However, in an evolving distribution landscape, times have changed:

“The role of the TMC process to sell, fulfill and support a reservation has fundamentally changed.

The question going forward is what will be the role of the TMC for both the airline and the travel buyer?”

This quote from the IATA Time To Fly Report hints at how TMCs are evolving well beyond traditional services to a model which is focused on providing a much more holistic service to travellers as eloquently encapsulated by this quote from Caroline Strachan of Festive Road:


“Know me. Be Where I am. Tell me only what I need to know.”



Caroline perfectly captures in this powerful piece how the Travel Management Company Identity Crisis has come about partly because consumer demands are increasing, which itself has been informed business travellers’ experiences outside of the workplace.  You also see this in the recent Mook For Business Travel report (in French) done by Aurélie Krau of Festive Road where there is a considerable increase in the emphasis on the social aspects of travel as well as the growth in bleisure travel.

To take but one example, if you are used to managing all your personal travel itineraries in one place, then you can easily imagine the frustration if you are having to use multiple travel tools to do the same thing when travelling for work.


Imagine Doing Business Blindfolded

Imagine doing business blindfolded.  

Try to imagine what that would look like.  

Try to imagine what that would feel like.  

That is what many of us are doing when we don’t make the effort to understand the different cultures we work with, sell to and travel to.  

It’s a bit like saying to your customer “I don’t care whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert.”

Of course you care!  But ignoring the cultures you travel to is a bit like doing business blindfolded.

And who better to help you take off the blindfolds than your TMC, who is already with you in the journey booking your flights, hotels and ground transportation?

Offering culture content to their business traveller customers can help TMCs to:

  • Differentiate their brands (as no TMCs are addressing this opportunity right now).
  • Address a real customer need (see above where 8 out of 10 business travellers already research the local culture).
  • Drive ancillary services and revenue.

Especially when a report by The Beat indicates that 33% of corporates are dissatisfied with the ancillary content offered by TMCs, here is an opportunity to TMCs to provide real value to their customers and address this source of customer dissatisfaction.

In short, it’s time for TMCs to open your eyes to the opportunity offered by culture content to transform the experience of your business travellers and redefine how your brand is perceived by creating that WOW factor many brands strive for.


What Do Industry Watchers Make Of This?

So how do people in the industry see this?

We ask Matt Parsons, Editor of Buying Business Travel, and here was his take:

“What’s culture got to do with business travel? Well, probably quite a lot.

Employees heading overseas are no doubt busy people; there’s the logistics of the travel and accommodation, on top of the preparation for any meetings and events.

But I’m a believer in the benefits of travel, how it helps our own personal development, yet alone the business’s bottom line. So if there’s a way to enhance the experience of a visit, all the better.

A little bit of extra know-how about a destination’s culture can go a long way. It’s an ice-breaker, it’s a way to avoid a faux-pas, it shows commitment your guests will no doubt pick up on, and it’s also a way to get into the minds of the people the traveller will be dealing with.

Learning more about a culture can also be fun. Let it transform the experience into something a little less mundane than a standard business trip.

Plus with Brexit around the corner, companies may find themselves pushing the boundaries out further and exploring new markets. So take the plunge with a bit of alternative research, you may be surprised by the outcome.”


How Can TMCs or Travel Buyers Address This?

So now that you’re (hopefully!) convinced of the power of culture, and how relevant it is to each and every customer journey, the next question is how can you develop culture content which you can then sell to your business traveller customers.

Option 1: In-house

Developing content in-house is certainly an option if you are a very large TMC, however pulling together the research for just one continent and crafting a writing and/or video production style which is engaging, consistent and rigorous is a challenge.  On top of that, it can be expensive. On the other hand, once done, then you have a unique differentiation point and your own content. So if you have a bottomless pit of cash and resources to play with, then this is an interesting option.


Option 2: Partner With Culture Consultancies

There are many great culture consultancies out there (e.g. Our partners Hofstede Insights are one of the leading consultancies for example) and you can certainly work with them, which we would encourage, especially when it comes to training and or consultancy.  However not many offer lots of video content, or write content that is tailored for the travel industry. Still, these are often worth reaching out to, if nothing else than to understand the market and/or assess your own organisational culture needs more broadly.


Option 3: Partner With Travel Companies

Partnering with travel companies (e.g. Travel brands that write and/or product travel content) is another option, however the downside here is that while you may get some engaging, even inspiring, content about where to travel, you don’t get much access to practical tools or content which focuses on the behaviours or do’s and don’ts of the local people, especially in business.  


Option 4: Partner With Culture Companies Who Specialise In Travel & Culture

The last option is to license content from companies that are a mix between option 2 and 3.  There will be many more companies going after this opportunity in future, but for now, one of the only players active in this space is CultureMee, winner of the “Best Travel Technology Product” at the Global Youth Travel Awards a few weeks ago.

What is CultureMee?  

Well when you’re going abroad, you need a map to get to your destination, but when you get there, what have you got to understand the local people?  

That is where CultureMee comes in, by bringing engaging culture content and culture videos to bring the local culture to life, helping you understand everything from the local do’s and don’ts to the local business culture, business negotiation and dining etiquette.  

There will be many more companies like CultureMee coming into this space over the next 10 years, as it is quite a sizeable market.

When you then factor in that the 8 out of 10 business travellers who research culture when travelling represents a market of around 140m people, then there is plenty of scope to drive growth in content like this offered to business travellers by TMCs and corporates.

Why We Love Talking About Culture

This CultureMee infographic above gives some examples of how culture really comes to life for people, especially in business travel.  And in our case we use local proverbs and engaging culture videos to bring the local culture to life. Sticking with the proverbs, there are two wonderful examples.  

The Italian example above shows how emotional and passionate the communication style is in Italy.  What might look like a heated argument to a visitor may often just be a normal chat between friends.

On the other end of the scale you have our Finnish friends, as best exemplified by this local Finnish joke:

“An introverted Finn looks at his shoes when talking to you;

an extroverted Finn looks at your shoes”.  

This self-deprecating joke gives a sense of the communication style of the Finns, who see themselves as quite a reserved people.  You see this in how good friends could go down to their local pub together and spend 30 minutes together without saying a single word.  In Italy (or Ireland for that matter!) you couldn’t go 30 milliseconds without some bit of banter or conversation flowing between each other.

These are just two simple examples which show why we love talking about culture.  When you put this in a business context, well imagine what can go wrong when you use a similar negotiation or relationship-building style in Italy versus Finland?  Fireworks doesn’t even come close to describing what can happen if you get this wrong from the off.


“A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s In Water.”

There is a great saying by Derek Sivers that are such powerful words when it comes to culture.  

Much like the fish isn’t aware of the water around it, many of us are not aware of the different cultures that we deal with.  It’s like the oxygen we breathe every day, it is everywhere and is something that’s just second nature to us.

Business travellers get this, which is why most of them already seek out information on the local culture, to open their eyes to it, to educate and to hopefully give them an edge when doing business abroad.


Our Passion For Culture & How Can We Help

John Lee and his wife Dee Lee, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim who have developed the travel app CultureMee.
Photo: James Connolly

The intersection of travel and culture has always been a massive inspiration for John and Dee, the founders of CultureMee.  Together they have travelled to over 80+ different countries, even bringing their 2 year old daughter along with them (by 17 months she had already been to 23 different countries).  


Dee is the CEO of CultureMee and she has travelled herself to over 70+ different countries.  She took every opportunity to travel during her time in London where she worked in senior finance roles in a number of different investment banks, including seeing first hand the intercultural challenges between Japanese and people from the UK during her time at Nomura.  Dee is from Ireland and she has lived in Dublin, Glasgow, Chicago, New York, San Diego, London, and Amsterdam as well as Phuket.


John is the COO of CultureMee and he has travelled to over 150+ different European locations during his time in senior finance roles in the European division of CRH, a FTSE 100 company and Ireland’s largest company.  John speaks 6 languages, 4 of which fluently, and his passion is navigating the different cultures of the world. John is from Ireland and has lived in Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany and Thailand. John has studied various culture models in the past and has deep experience of managing business turnarounds, restructurings and performance initiatives across different cultures.


CultureMee is currently partnering with TMCs and Corporate Travel Buyers to license their culture content to business travellers.  If this does sound like something interesting, then please get in contact with and we would be happy to have a chat about how we can address your business travel needs around culture.


A big thank you to:

  • Caroline Strachan of Festive Road  who introduced us to the TMC market.  Without her, we would never have gotten into this part of the travel industry.  She is a superb industry thought leader well worth keeping an eye on.
  • Adrian Parkes of GTMC who invited CultureMee to pitch at the GTMC Entrepreneurs In Business Travel Awards earlier in 2018.  
  • Suzanne Horner, CEO of Gray Dawes Group, and all the exec team of Gray Dawes, especially Mike Bor.  Gray Dawes are a very innovative, open-minded TMC in the UK market and in Q4 2018 we have been doing a 90 day pilot with the team.   
  • Aurelie Krau who is another Festive Roader and is a big believer in the power of the social aspects of business travel.


Appendix 1: FCM Survey Results

Question 1: If you’re going to a country with a different culture, do you research the business culture and work philosophy of the country in question?

Question 2: According to you, culture shock is often linked to:

Question 3: For business travel, do you think culture shock is above all an experience:

Question 4: How could your TMC help you or assist you facing culture shock?


Note: If you want to understand more about business culture from around the world, then download our CultureMee app at or in your local Apple or Google Play store.


Here are some other resources and tools on culture which you might find useful:


Hofstede insights: Compare Your Culture Graphs & Team Culture Scans


Negotiate Like A Local Tool


Sietar Europa Cultural Tools


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