Brick-and-mortar travel agencies in Singapore working hard to remain relevant

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SINGAPORE: The sudden closure of well-established Misa Travel last week may have raised some doubts about the future of brick-and-mortar travel agencies here, but there is still a role for them and their services, said industry players. 

Misa Travel, which has been around for 23 years, shut down on May 31, a day after the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) revoked its travel agent licence for failing to “fulfil its obligations towards its customers”. According to figures on STB’s site, eight travel agencies, including Misa Travel, have had their licences revoked in the past three years. 

But other agencies are working hard to maintain their relevance to digitally active travellers. Chan Brothers Travel, for one, launched its eTravel Advisor app in 2016, which offers prospective travellers tour information and other functions, including pre-departure briefings, tour notifications and post-tour feedback. Earlier this year, the agency added a Webchat system and a WhatsApp hotline in order to answer prospective customers’ questions immediately.

“We see an encouraging number of online payments made through our eTravel Advisor mobile app, a digital travel concierge for our customers as well as transactions completed through our Webchat system via mobile browsers,” a spokesman said. 

Director of marketing communications at Dynasty Travel Alicia Seah said that travel agencies must be able to implement strategies to leverage on technology to improve service, increase efficiency, broaden market reach and evolve their business models.

On its part, Dynasty Travel has launched a travel service on the move: Sales consultants are now equipped with a mini iPad to conduct sales transaction in the comfort of customers’ home, at a cafe or even at a golf course. Payment can also be made via AXS machines, without the need to visit the agency’s offices. 

Such moves are necessary in order to face challenges like the increasing use of online travel portals and global uncertainties, Ms Seah said.

“Otherwise, we will see more travel agencies that do not keep up with changing times and travel trends of discerning travellers shutting down,” she cautioned.

TRAVEL AGENCIES OFFER KNOWLEDGE, SPECIALISED SERVICES 

Despite the closure of established travel agencies, including Five Stars Tours in 2014 and Asia-Euro Holidays in 2015, online platforms like Expedia Asia and Zuji Singapore believe there is still space for their brick-and-mortar equivalents. 

“We believe there is still a place for brick-and-mortar travel agents, especially for complex travel itineraries, and where they add specialised services,” said chief executive of Expedia Asia Jonty Neal.

In fact, according to data provided by Zuji Singapore’s chief executive Chua Hui Wan, about 30 per cent of travellers in Singapore book through online sites.

Travellers still patronise travel agencies for less explored destinations such as Northern and Eastern Europe, and countries with language barriers such as Japan or Korea, said Dynasty Travel’s Ms Seah. 

“They also use our services for trips that are more complex. Travellers looking for unique experiences such as hands on activities, homestays and knowledge that a self-service site cannot provide also come to us,” she said.

Dynasty Travel’s customers are largely 35 to 65 years old, and they typically look for unique, value-for-money tour programmes. “They rely on us to provide knowledgeable advice on certain tour programmes and arrangements especially if they are travelling with family members who are young and old,” Ms Seah said. 

Travel agencies are better connected and possess a wealth of knowledge, said Chan Brothers Travel. Even if consumers spent weeks combing and researching on the Internet, they are likely to get only a fraction of this knowledge, the spokesperson said. 

“Travel agencies offer time-tested itineraries and provide 24-hour overseas emergency assistance. Further, they have expertise, specialisations and economies of scale, and most importantly, take care of the cumbersome logistics and sweat the small stuff,” she added. 

The spokesperson added that travel agencies and package tours are popular in the face of questionable booking sites popping up in the market, and increasingly dense and confusing influx of travel information available. 

Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam said that while the travel agency industry is unlikely to collapse, as it has a sizeable market, mergers may happen. He added that agencies may evolve to provide focused services such as those who have medical needs. 

“For example, if there is a group of kidney patients who need dialysis who want to go overseas, it may be difficult for them to arrange something for themselves. With their local knowledge and connections, travel agencies will be able to help,” he said.  

CHALLENGES BEING MET “HEAD ON”: NATAS

The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS), which Misa Travel was a part of, said brick-and-mortar travel agents are facing challenges such as the proliferation of online travel agents and low-cost carriers. Do-it-yourself (DIY) travel has become increasingly popular, especially amongst the younger generation, a spokesman added. 

Travel agencies have to face challenges such as the proliferation of online travel agencies and low-cost carriers, as travellers increasingly book their trips online. 

However, with the launch of the Travel Agent Roadmap by NATAS and STB in August 2016, challenges in business transformation, technology and manpower are being addressed “head on”, the spokesman said.

She added that the NATAS Travel Fair 2017 showed that the demand for travel is still “very much present”.

Ms Valerie Toh, an office manager at a construction firm, is one who prefers to use a travel agency to book tickets for workers because sometimes, there are perks like cheaper tickets or bigger baggage allowance to be had. It is convenient for the 30-year-old, who books tickets once a month on average, as she is able to book with her agent via email or WhatsApp.  

Another consumer happy to use brick-and-mortar travel agencies, at least when it comes to booking hotel and flight tickets, is Ms Raja Jumira. The 30-year-old marketing communications manager said she used such an agency at least four times for her trips last year.  

“It’s the convenience. I hate to do the trawling and comparing online myself. It takes a lot of time to find the cheapest tickets. The agency I use tends to know my preferences.”

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