ITIJ spoke to Dominic Vernhes, CEO of Anubis Group Holding, about the intricacies of funeral assistance, the challenges of Brexit, and the changing face of the industry.
How did you first get started in the travel assistance industry, and how did you come to be in your current role of president and CEO of Anubis Group Holding?
I have always wanted to help people, but by chance I began my career in the funeral industry, which in hindsight seems prophetic. Because in truth, the funeral industry is not merely about selling commercial services. The relationship with the relatives of a deceased person is a time of listening intensely to the family’s life story. We discover their history and their difficulties, and actively participate in remembering their loved one.
I had the opportunity to meet some families who had suffered the loss of a loved one abroad. I could feel the immense void in the face of the distance that separated them from the event, their incomprehension, worry and anxiousness to return home as soon as possible. I felt a desire to break through the borders, language, cultural barriers and legislative, logistical and financial complexities. It was like a mission, a response to a need.
This was how I came to create an international funeral assistance service, immediately integrating this new activity into the ethos of helping people, which is also that of the travel assistance industry. I wanted a unique and mythical identity for my company, and so I came across ‘Anubis’. In mythology, Anubis was a ‘psychopomp’, one of the gods that accompanied the dead to their ultimate destination: the kingdom of the dead. Anubis was a comforting god for the ancient Egyptians, for whom the afterlife in the realm of Osiris was more important than their earthly life.
In what ways have you noticed the global assistance industry change over the last decade? How have practices evolved, and how has the landscape itself changed?
In the past, few assistance companies have been concerned with the repatriation of bodies as a sensitive service, because this activity is not in the DNA of medical assistance. For the most part, assistance contracts have minimal clauses concerning the repatriation of bodies, and we tend to think that this is above all a matter for funeral directors.
It is often mistakenly believed that all that is needed to repatriate a body is to place it in a coffin, carry out the formalities, transport it to the airport, put it in an aircraft and then wait for the body to arrive home. Meanwhile, the family no longer receives much information. In this context, Anubis did not meet the expectation. Anubis created an expectation and now responds to it.
The number of companies in the assistance sector has increased dramatically, particularly in Asia, and for the most part they are now quite familiar with the basic services related to body repatriation. However, due to competition, they pay more attention to cost control than to the need for actual assistance. Unfortunately, the business has come to underestimate the assistance company’s degree of responsibility towards their customer (the consumer, who is in fact a whole family), and that of the service providers.
We have also seen that late payment and failure to pay the service provider have become major risks. This whole approach weakens a large number of service providers in this market financially.
The provision of funeral assistance is notoriously challenging, both in terms of practical logistics and the sensitivity of the subject. What aspects are the most difficult to navigate, in your experience?
The need for flexibility. Requests for assistance are not always precise. They begin with a request for a quote for repatriation from a country or city to a specific location. But without precise information, an estimate can only be drawn up on the basis of generic services. The time period for accepting the estimate is also random – two hours, a day, a week. At this stage, we have had no contact with the family. By the time we receive the guarantee of payment, the family is already stressed due to delays in intervention and the lack of concrete information. We must set up logistics adapted to the reality, the context of the death, the location of the body, the morgue, the airline. Sometimes, when the family is present, it has already started formalities or advanced costs, and we must melt smoothly into this organisation to take over management and not add further frustration.
Brexit is going to create a number of challenges for assistance providers in Europe with UK clients – how are you preparing for potential increases in regulation and costs?
Yes, Brexit presents a number of challenges for the UK and for Europe, who have to find a new dynamic. Actually, Brexit is causing some uncertainty about development actions, so it is imperative for the UK’s exit from Europe to be clear and provide an opportunity to win back its markets. Anubis has the particularity of having its operational holding company based in London and subsidiaries in Europe, the West Indies, Canada and Asia. This configuration, along with the group’s know-how, enables us to adapt and deal with these complexities and those related to the regulations on a global scale.
Anubis has been nominated in the Ancillary Assistance Service Provider of the Year Category in this year’s ITIJ Awards. Congratulations! How do you and your company feel about this nomination?
We’re very proud, of course! Our first victory was to have been nominated, and our teams are at the heart of this recognition. This is the second time since the creation of this category of ancillary services in 2016 that Anubis is nominated. It is not easy to approach the funeral sector in detail, and this nomination shows the path travelled in order to be recognized as a fully-fledged assistance service in those moments.
You have been with Anubis in one form or another for over two decades – what is it like to dedicate yourself to a company in such a way, seeing it grow and develop?
Death is a very painful time for all of us, and when it happens far from home, especially in unlikely countries, with no funeral organisation, during a war, a natural disaster or a catastrophic accident, no-one can imagine being unable to do anything, like in Saint Martin (French West Indies) after the devastating Hurricane Irma. I have always admired Anubis’ ability to respond quickly and urgently to all types of requests for assistance without limits on its intervention, anywhere, at any time, whatever the nationality, religion or human and material resources to be deployed in the area. Our market is global – and our best years are yet to come!
Can you describe a typical day as president and CEO?
Not easily, because I’m in London or Paris for a week each month, and the rest of the time I’m on the ground. No matter where I am, my day always starts with an overall analysis of the group’s activities, and I go over the various reports and hold conference calls with the managers. Depending on the country, I always have from six to 12 hours’ time difference with the agencies. Managing this activity without always being in the office gives me a much-needed distance from the day-to-day activities, moments I use for the development of Anubis.
What are your proudest achievements, both professionally and personally?
Professionally, the list is long, but first and foremost are the 30 or so major crisis management situations in which Anubis was involved. Then, winning the tender launched by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs in 2012 for vital emergency operations involving French and European nationals all over the world. To succeed in winning the trust of a global clientele that is more interested in our know-how, our capacity for intervention and analysis than the location of our platforms is rather rewarding.
Personally, having gone from a simple idea in a very unlikely sector and the mythical name of ‘Anubis’ to creating a group present on five continents. Having an organisation that is useful and respectful to all within a diversity of peoples and religions is undoubtedly my greatest pride, to which must be added the worldwide recognition that Anubis enjoys today.
If you could do any other job in the world, what would it be and why?
When I was younger, I would have liked to be ambassador or consul and represent my country, be there to assist expatriates and participate in cultural exchanges.
Today, I think I would like to be the head of an international NGO, still in the field of assistance to people worldwide. I have some ideas on this subject and a few more years to reflect on it. ■