“This is a short-term pain that we are all going to have to suffer but we will definitely have long-term gain if we prepare well and with skill”
Mounting cancellations, dwindling staff motivation and the need for travel insurance have been some of the most debated topics of the last few months in the tour operator and travel agent world in our region.
TTN, in collaboration with the recently concluded ATM Virtual, organised a roundtable focusing on these issues and how to better prepare for the summer when travels begin. A panel of experts shared their insights on uber luxury itineraries, the immediate future of cruising, staff motivation and enrichment, and what lies ahead for corporate travellers.
We had five eminent speakers: VK Balaji, chief strategy officer, TBOHolidays; Adnan Gilitwala, director, Dadabhai Travel; Maggie Bootsman, GM UAE, Travel Counsellors; Ashok Kumar, managing director, Cruise Master; and Emily Williams, B2C Head of Retail & Product, dnata Travel.
“This is a short-term pain that we are all going to have to suffer but we will definitely have long-term gain if we prepare well and with skill”
– VK Balaji
All five panellists unanimously agreed that business was great up until the beginning of the year, after which, it ceased to be.
Balaji from TBOHolidays, said: “Until January 2020, we were growing at a global pace of over 60 per cent year on year, and we were doing well in a lot of new markets. Our API business was picking up, TBO Air was doing great, we were about to launch a third OTA, and of course, Covid-19 happened.
“This is a short-term pain that we are all going to have to suffer but we will definitely have long-term gain if we prepare well and with skill.”
Adnan Gilitwala, director, Dadabhai Travel, said: “We had a very good 2019 – our numbers were growing for the past few years. We opened our latest branch in Kuwait and we were seeing some very good growth over there. We had a lot of plans to expand further and we started taking our first steps to enter the digital space by developing our own in-house booking engine for both b2b and b2c and incorporate some other ancillary products like a loyalty engine and few other ecommerce products to supplement that. This unfortunate situation has set us back a few months.
“Our focus is the future and we are building all of this new infrastructure for times that are beyond us and we're really looking forward to seeing just how much the industry grows.
Maggie Bootsman, general manager UAE, Travel Counsellors, said: “At the end of January, which was the first quarter because we're aligned with the UK financial year, we were on track for a 22 per cent increase over F1 2019 with Dh50 million in sales.
“We were on an amazing upwards curve, which ceased quite quickly in February.”
“I don't think that normal will ever exist in a way that it was prior to this. I think we're going to have a 'new normal' and it’s going to really impact how people want to travel”
– Emily Williams
Ashok Kumar, managing director, Cruise Master, said: “Traditionally, January and February is our peak booking period, what they call in the West as the 'wave season' where majority of the bookings come. At the end of January, we were 25 per cent upwards of the same period last year but unfortunately Covid-19 happened and has upset the plans for everybody in the industry.”
Emily Williams, B2C Head of Retail & Product, dnata Travel, said: “Pre-Covid-19, we had an excellent 2019. We had opened three new retail outlets in 2019, which were all doing really well. Our business has about 30+ retail outlets, a website and a call centre, so we were really spending a lot of time looking into projects that were helping us to grow our e-channel business and be able to relate to our customers and help them to book whichever way they want to book.
“We had done a lot of technology upgrades and roll outs to be able to really help with the customer journey to be a lot more personalised moving into the future. I think for us, at the moment, this Covid situation has given us a bit of an opportunity to pause and to relook at what that strategy was and if it was the right way for us to continue on into the future.”
Experts around the word have predicted that the first steps of recovery will be seen on the domestic front. Williams reiterated this opinion: “We are seeing increased demand for UAE staycations, as travellers seek a change of scenery close to home. We are surrounded by incredible and diverse landscapes in the UAE from the beach and the ocean, to the desert and the mountains beyond. Of particular interest have been staycations in Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and Ajman, where hotel facilities including swimming pools are open, alongside private beaches, at limited capacity to abide by latest health and safety precautions. We predict domestic travel will remain popular throughout the summer and the rest of the year, as people take this opportunity to explore more of the UAE.”
Also for Travel Counsellors, a lot of its sales come from the staycation market already. “We did a lot of research for the staycation market to make sure that we did have the right checks and balances in place for offering staycations to our customers because we wanted to make sure obviously, first and foremost, their safety was key and that the suppliers we were dealing with and the properties we were dealing with had the appropriate checks and measures in place to ensure their safety.”
Where else will people be heading towards this summer? Balaji said: “Airlines are opening up, so immediate travel will be domestic, regional and short-haul travel. Leisure travel, FIT will pick up, but corporate travel might take longer to recover fully. Families will be coming together and expats will be going back to their countries for visits – people will head back to destinations they perceive as safe. Indian Ocean islands are a good example with their exclusive resorts, mountain and beach resort products will also be popular in the short term but for travel to return to normal it may take a year to 18 months.”
Dadabhai Travel’s Adnan Gilitwala said that travel could be hooked on either necessity or frustration of being packed inside of their homes. “Different conversations you have with people give you different insights. There are some people who don't care, they just want to get on a flight and go somewhere and then there are those who say they are not going to be flying for the next year even if a vaccine does come out. It's just hard to gauge but we're definitely going to see some activity because so many things are dependent on travel happening from the corporate perspective as well as from the personal perspective.”
“We did a lot of research for the staycation market to make sure that we did have the right checks and balances in place for offering staycations to our customers”
– Maggie Bootsman
Dnata’s Emily Williams said: “Everything will depend on how quickly everything opens up to us. After the staycation market, the next step would be cross border - road trips to Oman, Saudi Arabia depending on when the borders open up of course.
“People will be looking for places that offer fresh air, clean outdoors – think Indian Ocean, think Switzerland. People will be wanting to get home at some point in the next six months and possibly then doing travel within their home country. People will want to travel for various reasons, even medical or they may have lost someone in the family, I think we will see an immediate spike and then maybe that might tail off a bit and then people might do a lot more domestic travel in the meantime but we'll just have to wait and see.”
Maggie Bootsman said: “I feel like a lot of the families will be returning home for Christmas this year. The responsibility of us all as an industry and as Travel Counsellors as a company is that duty of care and making sure that we have got the facts right so we can then guide our clients along the right path to make sure they're making informed decisions based on the knowledge that we've gained and we have actually made sure that we are up to date and validated before we make these opportunities available
“The situation is constantly evolving but for international cruising worldwide we may be looking at the fourth quarter of the year. Again, since there is rapid change, it may open up sooner, but my rough estimation is that by October the cruises should be operational internationally. There are at least four or five brands that use Dubai for their winter cruises and still some other cruises use Dubai as a turnaround or as a part of their repositioning cruises. P&O cruises out of the UK is looking at coming back to the Gulf in 2021 for seven- and eight-night roundtrip Dubai cruises.”
While we look hopefully towards the near future for business, the past few months have been a depressing whirlpool of cancellations and staff demotivation.
“We are talking unprecedented, massive cancellations and negative sales,” Balaji clarifies. “We have set up a separate Covid-19 refund division and we immediately deployed people to handle the cancellations. The division is working 24/7. So far, we could manage 85 per cent of the refunds to the customers, except 15 per cent that is still under follow up. It is a question of the hotel chains and airlines, and the properties and their individual decisions.”
Gilitwala said: “No one was prepared for this, no one was expecting this to happen. At Dadabhai Travel, thankfully we've refunded 100 per cent of our cancellation requests regardless of what suppliers, airlines or anybody has said.”
“Some cruise lines have been giving customers 100 per cent refund some 125 per cent, and one cruise line has given 250 per cent to retain the customer”
– Ashok Kumar
Bootsman added: “First and foremost, the most important thing was the repatriation of our clients and returning them to their home countries safe and sound. We've got a 24/7 duty office and we set up a triage team to handle that. Safety and security was paramount and returning people to their families.
“The sheer volume of the refunds sits at around 200 at the moment just for our region but obviously with 1,900 Travel Counsellors globally, it's about 10,000 at the moment. We've used the time very positively as well. We're doing lots of training and webinars with our suppliers and we've also done some really great work with some of our 'Meet the People' series. We've had some really great outcomes to make sure that our Travel Counsellors are ready and raring to go when the world opens up.
Kumar of Cruise Master adds: “The situation has been exceptional, I must say. All the resources that were busy in making bookings for our travel partners, we had to deploy them all to get refunds from the cruise liners. Now some of the cruise lines have been kind enough to give them a 100 per cent refund upon cancellation and some, like NCL, have gone beyond, giving 125 per cent and one cruise line was giving 250 per cent of the money which client had paid to retain the customer. Princess Cruises was the first one to cancel cruises, and were giving 150 per cent of the value paid to the cruise line. Most other cruise lines were giving 125 per cent if you are keeping your funds with them and if you want cash refund, they are giving 100 per cent refund but then that process will take time.
“In some of the cases, it has taken up to four months to get the money back from the cruise line. But you are sure to get your money back, either in the form of cash or future cruise credit.
Dnata is a huge business so the cancellations are also staggering. “It's not whether or not our systems can deal with the mass cancellations, it is to do with the flow and effect from the booking,” Williams explains. “If you've booked with one airline and multiple hotels and different companies for transfers and transport etc, obviously all of those will need to be looked into. There's the flow and effect on how all of those payments and refunds need to happen across the business, just trying to make sure that you've got enough people to be able to process all of this is huge. All of our systems are centralised between us and our corporate business and DMC business, so it’s not like a small team running - there are a lot of pieces at play.”
This brings the question of travel insurance to the fore and whether or not it should be made compulsory in the region.
“I think the thing with insurance is that it is always an amount of money that you'd want to spend. No ever wants to take an insurance policy and have to actually use it, but after all my years in the travel industry, my opinion is that everyone should invest in a good insurance policy,” Dnata’s Williams said. “Think of the amount of heartbreak that can be avoided by simply having a good insurance policy, whether it's for cancellations, amendments before departure because something's happened and they can't travel or if it's to do with a situation while they've been on holiday.
“At Dadabhai Travel, thankfully we've refunded 100 per cent of our cancellation requests regardless of what suppliers, airlines or anybody has said”
– Adnan Gilitwala
“There are some really affordable policies out there.”
In the region, there is an absence of insurance buying culture and there needs to be a much greater awareness about this. “I think as travel agencies we have a duty of giving this to our customers. I think a lot of people don't know what an insurance policy covers or may not understand that it can cover you for before you've even travelled to cover the cancellation and amendment costs as well as for when you actually are on your trip. So, I think it's our duty to be able to offer that to our customers and explain to them what the benefits are, so then they need to make that risk assessment if they choose to travel without it. At least we've done everything we can to try and help them assess.”
Dadabhai Travel’s Adnan Gilitwala pointed out that while travel insurance has its obvious benefits, people wouldn’t respond positively if it was made mandatory. “I don't think anybody likes to be forced to do anything, especially when it involves an additional cost that might not yield any immediate benefit in their perception. Before all of this happened, the percentage of flights globally being cancelled on a regular basis was quite small. This situation might change the perception of people globally about travel insurance towards pro insurance. They might see the need for it going forward, but telling customers that you must buy insurance no matter what, I don't think people are going to respond positively
“Of course, any business needs to make revenue and travel insurance can be a good stream of income, but consumer satisfaction is a primary factor because that essentially guarantees you future revenue. If people are happy dealing with you and the experience you give them, you more or less know that they're going to come back to you one way or another.
“So if an agent just thinks that I can make a few extra dollars selling this insurance package to this customer and forcing him to take it, it's very likely the customer might not come back because they look for an alternative especially if there's one particular package you're going to push onto them without looking at alternatives.”
Needless to say, agent motivation has been at an all-time low due to absence of travel business and consequent job losses, furloughs and forced leaves. Companies are aware of this and are aiming to achieve a fine balance between motivating them and training them to prepare for when travel returns full swing.
At TBO Holidays, continuing education has always been given key importance. “Everybody has to learn, right from the top of the organisation to the bottom, and we have been doing that from the very beginning. TBO Travel Academy has around 120 courses and we have been busy training our staff - almost every week we have two or three trainings on new destination skills, new product skills, upselling, reskilling that kind of stuff.
“We are also doing a lot of things on the motivation front – these are exceptional circumstances and both the mind and the body need to be really strong to face the situation. We have been doing a lot of wellbeing sessions as well.
“For our 120 courses, 10,000 agents have attended and 29,000 certificates have been issued so far - we have conducted 60 webinars so far. I myself have taken two courses - motivational and wellbeing courses. We have partnered with Art of Living for mind, body and meditation and also yoga. I want everybody in the travel industry to safeguard themselves and prepare for the future.”
Adnan Gilitwala adds: “We're mainly just focusing on refining the core skills that our people have. We're making sure that they've got their fundamentals and their basics right. We're also helping them develop their personal skills a lot more such as their communications skills, their customer service, their language skills. We're encouraging people to do more research and continue to improve on the things they're interested in because we never know how that could help us as an organisation going forward.
“In terms of motivation, the biggest motivation we are providing right now is letting people know that their jobs are safe, that their future is secure and that their safety net is still in place. As long as we can keep reassuring them of that, I don't think there's a better motivational factor, in these times in particular.”
Maggie Bootsman adds: “We've just finished a two-week training session for all of our Travel Counsellors globally. We have done a lot to work to instil positivity: we've had Travel Counsellors interviews, interviews with external people. We've reached out to all of our key DMCs and all of our suppliers, asking them to do webinars and training sessions and product sessions for our counsellors as well.
“We're very cognizant of the fact that we have a lot of our Travel Counsellors are doing home-schooling at the moment, which is also challenging for them. So we are making sure that we have a balance, that we don't flood them with too much information that they feel a little bit overwhelmed, that they've got the opportunity to have some downtime.
“Some of the Travel Counsellors are doing 'rate my plate' and sharing food ideas. We're making sure we're having some fun. With my team I have daily calls, globally we have calls every two days, we're sending out a daily update to our counsellors in the UAE. We've been keeping our TC TV going, which is always motivational, which is where we stream live from the office here. We've got a television studio in the office, we're doing quiz days, we're had virtual coffee mornings. My teams are continuing to reach out to all the Travel Counsellors making sure we're checking on their health, wealth and wellbeing.”
Cruise guru Ashok Kumar said: “At the moment, the best motivation we can give our colleagues is empathise with them and the situation they are in at the moment. I reckon there's going to be a lot of negative feeling in the industry whereby people maybe are losing their jobs, so best motivation at the moment we can give them is to make sure that they have their jobs. They have continuity in the jobs and as Balaji said, to keep them occupied emotionally, yoga is the best to keep them occupied.”
Dnata’s Emily Williams confirmed that they have been doing something similar – a mix of training and motivation for their staff as well. “I think when it comes to motivation of staff, the number one thing we can do is just make sure we're communicating consistently and keeping people up to date as much as possible about what's happening in the business and what the future looks like.
“We're having daily and weekly calls with the teams and going over the different forecasts for the future and the different projects we're working on. I think it's a tough one in some ways because you also need to make sure that you're checking in on your team and finding out how they are spending that time and really listening to what they're up to is often the most important thing.
“I think we just need to be really careful that we don't try and put on things that might end up looking like we're just trying to entertain people rather than actually helping people to get enough of a rest and break from what is a really stressful situation as well as offering an opportunity for them to do as much learning or keep themselves entertained.
“People are juggling a lot of things in their home life as well. One thing I hope we can carry forward from this is that we're been doing some successful webinars and training sessions with external partners -hotels, suppliers, airlines - and it will be silly for us to not carry that in to the future considering our team is set out across multiple sites and retail outlets.
“There's no reason that should stop and trying to insist on bringing people together for training sessions. Some of it can be done well via video call.”
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