Kathleen Tan to step down as AirAsia China president

Kathleen Tan (pictured), AirAsia's president of China, is stepping down from her role. She was responsible for providing leadership and strategic direction to the airline. Tan confirmed the move to A+M in a statement, and added that she has decided to "take a long break" and her last day is on 8 October 2018. AirAsia was unable to comment on A+M's queries.

Tan was promoted to her current role in June 2017. Prior to that, she was president, North Asia, a role she was appointed to in June 2016. During that period of time, she was responsible for building the China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Korea and Taiwan markets.

In 2015, Tan left her role as CEO of AAE Travel, previously a joint venture formed by AirAsia and Expedia Group in 2011. The airline disposed of its remaining 25% equity interest in AAE Travel to Expedia Group this August.

Between 2004 to 2013, Tan helmed the roles of regional head of commercial and senior vice president of China. During the period, she championed marketing campaigns, such as giving away one million discounted seats in 2005. She also spearheaded the airline's social media strategy and development.

Tan also worked at FJ Benjamin as divisional head of marketing for Southeast Asia before moving to Warner Music, where she was regional marketing director of Warner Music Asia Pacific and later, managing director of Warner Music Singapore until 2004.

When asked what prompted her departure, Tan said: "I love the company but the culture has changed, and it is no longer what it used to be. When the company grows bigger, you need to find the perfect structure and ways to integrate the new people into the company," Tan explained. She added that she also grew tired of travelling nonstop and reached a point where she felt like she was "living out of a suitcase".

While Tan has yet to decide on her next move, she is considering various possibilities, including giving motivational talks and mentoring the younger generation and educating them about marketing.

Working in the China market with AirAsia

During an interview with A+M, Tan said she faced plenty of challenges during her time in China, one of them being the fact that the country is still rather traditional.

"No matter how modern the country is in terms of technology, their values and cultures are still very traditional. Face time is still very important. When you have meetings with people, you need to be there all the time. Trust, respect and guanxi (relationships) are still valued in China business," she said. Tan added:

You need to win and influence people. You cannot just sit around when you are dealing with the government, especially when you are a foreign brand.

Tan describes herself as someone passionate about marketing and urges more marketers to "take ownership" of customer care. "Building a brand is important and customer care is part of that building block that helps shape consumers' perception of a brand," she said.

"If you don't handle [customer care] promptly, it will hurt your brand, especially in today's social media age. Consumers will slam you and it will go viral," she said.

During her tenure, Tan claims AirAsia also adopted the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to manage customer queries in China via WeChat, gradually shifting away from traditional call centres. Tan also claimed that the airline had over 60,000 chats within two weeks of its launch on WeChat. It also made sure the bots knew when to use stickers, which are a hit with Chinese consumers on WeChat, when communicating with them.

It also made it a point to alleviate the anxiety of travellers when they encounter flight disruptions by offering AirAsia consumers a QR code for crisis management, as part of enhancing customer experience where they can get live flight updates. This was available to consumers during the eruption of Mount Agung in Bali in July.

She told A+M that during her time at AirAsia, the brand was going through "restructuring" as was undergoing digital transformation. She added that the airline was also increasingly focused on collecting data, building dashboards and looking at algorithms, integrating operations, customers and commercial, all in a bid to position AirAsia as a "digitally smart airline".

"As a marketer [at AirAsia], I never had much data to look at in the past. It would have been heavenly if I could turn back time and see the number of engagements I had for a post in the early days of social media, so I know if I'm moving in the right direction. It's a great time right now as companies have data made available to them. Think of the wonders companies can do with [data]," Tan said.


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