Travel agents poised to become the first choice for the future
Back in 2014, around 94 per cent of personal travellers and a whopping 98 per cent of business travellers disclosed booking at least one service for their trips with an online booking engine (Ipsos MediaCT, 2014). After seeing those numbers, it is not surprising to find that, in the past 10 years, travel agencies that adopted an online booking engine report a dramatic rise in their sales and overall profits. Most travel agents, however, have the same pressing question: What is the right booking engine for my business?
No industry is infallible. And the tourism industry has a number of bottlenecks from taxation issues, to government’s focus and commitment, to aviation volatility but the fact remains that as industry professionals we have to move ahead amidst all the stressful times. The impact of technology on travel agents, including the availability of personal computers, cell phones and the Internet, has been significant. While many travel agents have had to change the way they do business, travel agencies are still thriving and providing important services to both leisure and business travellers. It wasn’t until the 1980s that many businesses could afford to have in-house computers. Travel agencies were no exception. Travel agents relied on personal travel experience, attending industry events, reviewing brochures and developing personal relationships with vendors so they could make appropriate recommendations to customers. In addition, travel was often booked by phone or via fax.
Observing the vast contribution of the these traditional travel agents and how they are always on their toes to defy the modernities of digital travel planning/ booking, TravelScapes cumulates the champions in India’s travel and tourism industry, understanding what it takes to stand out in the crowd of travel planners.
“OTA often struggles with customised service before, during and after sales”
Boasts Ashish Saran
CEO, Holidays on Tracks
Indians have a threshold of a spending limit online; beyond that, they want to meet the travel service provider in their office and know who exactly they are dealing with. Observing the fraught ascends of the current travel agents, Saran undeniably approves that their challenges do persist although there are opportunities as well. “A large OTA often struggles with customised service before, during and after sales but also is unable to optimise customer service agents’ knowledge quotient. They are largely dependant and equipped for volume sales of fixed products. Any deviation in product or service, as well as a higher level of product and destination knowledge, is something that a travel agent is much more capable of providing to the traveller.”
The more immediate and troubling challenges are purchasing power. He continues by adding, “The mid-size travel agent is not capable of negotiating the fares and freebies that an OTA is capable, out of sheer volumes that they generate. This one issue is always a game of convincing the clients about paying peanuts but that also depends on the kind of relationships and personalised service that agents can provide to win customers over this hurdle.”
As the makers of the company assert, Holidays on Tracks is not simply a travel company but a facilitator of dream holidays and destinations for travellers from India. Founded with the concept of complete handholding and knowledge enhancement, the company has been acting as a bridge between awareness and delivery for the preferred partners in the India marketplace. With the passage of time, the company has become both destination and product representatives that act as counsellors and vacation consultants to provide holiday planning and confirmation assistance.
“We keep finding newer options in regularly sold destinations and newer destinations that will rise in demand, the soonest. Likewise, we provide service that brings customers back again for other destinations,” shares Saran for enquiring on the company’s winning strategy in the current edge of competitiveness and mushrooming of travel and tour companies. Having a sole focus on ‘Specialisation and Customisation’, Saran believes that today’s travellers demand customisation while today’s destinations (hotels and holiday experiences) deserve utmost specialisation. “As future travellers become more and more aware and educated about destinations the key to success as travel solution providers lies in knowing more, in keeping ahead, in being aware of latest developments with destinations.”
“Travel agents have been able to create stable businesses”
EXPLAIN ADITYA BHAGAT & Sandeep Bhagat
CEO & Managing Director, My Indian Holidays
Ever since the beginning of internet commerce, its impact on pricing and competition has been actively debated by both practitioners and academics. The potential to reduce distribution costs using Internet channels has made hotel managers more conscious of the need to maximise contributions to gross profit rather than just the revenue obtained from the occupation of a given room, it is almost certain that the internet will continue to grow as a travel information source, with online bookings increasing as more people have access to high-speed Internet connectivity.
Speaking on the consistent advancement of the internet in the way an individual would try or sell travelling, Sandeep Bhagat describes, “Technological advances now permit travel agents to research, book and confirm travel online. Agents no longer need to maintain hard-copy files on clients, nor do they have to spend a lot of time collecting payments from clients and remitting balances to vendors. Booking, payments and confirmations can be managed quickly online and information can be sent via email to clients.” He further states when consumers had the ability to research and book travel products directly, some travel agents went out of business while other agents saw new opportunities for success.
Eventually, airlines, hotels and travel vendors began putting up their own websites, which contained information about travel products, including photographs, room dimensions, prices and package inclusions. As a result, many travellers no longer contacted a travel agent to learn about their travel options. “As fewer travellers approached travel agents to handle routine travel, some agents decided to reinvent themselves as travel specialists,” says Aditya Bhagat. These agents might seek to serve niche populations, such as travellers with disabilities, travellers over the age of 60, women travelling alone or LGBTQ+ travellers. Others opted to specialise in specific destinations, group tours or types of travel, such as all-inclusive resorts or cruise lines.
“By developing in-depth knowledge of these destinations, niches and travel products and strong relationships with vendors, these travel agents have been able to create stable businesses catering to clients who need and rely on their expertise,” considers Sandeep Bhagat.
“The traditional agents will haveto evolve”
OPINES Adl Karim
Director, Creative Tours & Travels
The hard times that the travel agencies are currently facing, due to the incursion of OTAs, have been further augmented with the sudden trend of self-made trips and packages by the consumers. Potential travellers are certainly not short of options when it comes to researching and arranging their trips. With more deals, agencies and service offerings than one could ever fully consider shopping for travel services has become about cutting through the noise rather than discovering something authentic.
In such a situation, competitive prices, a strong value proposition and process efficiency will be the core factors that must be taken into consideration by individual offline travel agencies to compete with online travel portals as Karim suggests. “Of course, the traditional platforms are going through a challenging phase due to online travel booking platforms. The end consumer has direct and easier access to all their travel requirements with the emergence of OTAs. Going forward, the traditional agents will have to evolve with technology and focus on their companies’ niche products and customisation of packages,” he further explains.
Established in the year 1979, Creative Tours & Travels is regarded as one of the foremost and one-stop solution providers of travel-related services across the world. “Creative has diversified into multiple travel verticals over the years. Apart from our traditional offline consolidation in airline ticketing, we have also started with an online platform for our B2B partners. Furthermore, we are also a DMC for South India under the banner of Creative Holidays that surely boosts our brand value in the market.” Apart from being a PAN Service Agent (PSA) agent for the luxury train ‘Maharaja Express’, Karim informs that Creative Tours & Travels also has a separate division for the Muslim pilgrimage movements such as Haj and Umrah, Ziyarat packages, to point a few. Having several feathers in the travelling hat, Creative Tours & Travels is fashioning the very essence of diversification of portfolio and services for not just mere persistence but for the very idea of building a high value in the current competitive edge that the industry has to deliver.
“Traditional agents and OTAs will both need to evolve ”
Endorses Rakshit Desai
Managing Director, FCM Travel Solutions, Indian Subsidiary of Flight Centre Travel Group
In today’s world of competitiveness, it is apparent to state that traditional companies have their own set of challenges, different from the ones faced by online platforms. Desai foresees how luxury and business travellers are often going to be looking for something a little more specific, which is when the search for services, offered by specialised travel agents would be looked at. “Traditional agents and OTAs will both need to evolve as the battlefront shifts from price and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) to curated and personalised. The content universe is too vast to navigate for time-poor, cash-rich customers. And so, players who can harness technology and human emotional intelligence will be able to offer differentiated solutions,” he opines.
He boasts that in an era of the digital revolution, traditional travel companies will continue to hold an edge as specialised and trained travel consultants have access to skillsets, which are not available through the OTA route. “OTAs bring price transparency on standard products and services, whereas traditional companies use a combination of systems and human intelligence to craft life-defining travel experiences for customers who value their time and expertise.”
Recognised as a leading global travel management company, part of the Flight Centre Travel Group (FCTG), FCM Travel Solutions has its roots deeply sowed in leisure travel while its corporate travel business has grown rapidly since the 1990s through strategic acquisitions and by enhancing its technological capabilities to strengthen FCM’s international market position. With a presence at over 95 countries across the world, FCM’s network of experts is fully coordinated and uses the same systems to provide business travel solutions, therefore building both market value and customers’ inclination.
“We use technology as a tool to enhance consultant expertise, not substitute it. We believe in putting attention to detail and take pride in the knowledgeable staff that we have. We invest more in learning and development, which includes ensuring our experts have experienced destinations themselves beforehand so that they can help travellersvisualise what would work and where challenges may lie. We are constantly looking to create a life-defining experience,” elucidates Desai.
“We are grateful to the emergence of several OTAs”
Expresses Sudhir Patil
Founder & Director, Veena World
At the threshold of digitalisation touching the lifestyles and personal choices of every individual, globally, travel is not leaving any stone unturned to improvise its presence in the market. A firm believer of ‘The one, who gives, should keep giving. The one who constantly takes from others, should one day take a leaf out of the giver’s book and learn the kind act of giving’, Patil has an optimistic approach towards the current growth of the Online Travel Agents (OTAs). “We are grateful to the emergence of several OTAs. With their financial muscle power, they did a lot of advertisements and made this industry more popular. Due to them and the aviation industry, the market expanded exponentially. The traditional travel agents definitely feel more unsecured and need to gear up on their services,” he simplifies.
“However, the need for traditional agents will always be on high demand in our market as most of the Indians are yet to use credit cards and digital commerce, generously. They need of personal services and assurance of on-field support can never diminish.” Patil further shares that the demand for a traditional travel agent is based on the quality of services that they tender to their guests and how they treat them. “Tourism is all about the personal service and this start from the booking level, itself. Giving attention to guest requirement and their profile is the key to success. In addition to this, transparent and honest dealing with guests is expected. “
Started in 2013, with the idea to create a world of affordable tourism and to explore as well as innovate new avenues in the travel industry, Veena World set out on a journey to achieve ‘Our Lakshya – Bharat Ki SabseBadi Travel Company’ ideology. The company ceaselessly went on to set an empire in the travel space that is regarded to be robust and promising. “At today’s competitive age, we need to be on toes, always. One needs to be innovative and meet the guest demand and their requirements on a regular basis. We keep on changing and adding on the best of experiences at the destination and keep upgrading it. Proper product designing according to segment is the major scope to success. We need to upgrade our team’s knowledge and always need to motivate them to give the best services.”
“The demand for traditional travel agents will only increase”
Assures Anand Menon
Brand Leader, Travel Tours, Leisure Travel Brand of FCM Travel Solutions
Over the last decade, the rise of online travel agencies has made it easier than ever to book a trip. And yet what’s old is becoming new again. Recently, the travel marketing firm MMGY Global released its annual ‘Portrait of American Travelers’ survey. The survey found that 32 per cent of travellers now visit direct provider websites when making reservations — up to six per cent from 2015 and virtually even with the percentage of travellers who turn to online travel agencies when booking travel. Meanwhile, travellers are increasingly browsing booking sites during the planning phase of vacation before turning to a ‘brand.com’ sites to actually book reservations.
“Technology can simplify things but cannot replace the human element. Though OTAs allow clients to make quick comparisons between a number of different airlines and accommodation providers, it can be a risky venture as online comparisons are not always accurate and the information provided may not be authenticated,” adds Menon to the above idea and further says, “The demand for traditional travel agents will only increase as the number of Indian travellers travelling for business and leisure purpose is increasing day-by-day. In fact, we have seen a surge in demand for ‘Bleisure’ (business and leisure) travel and that is where the need for offering customised packages comes into play.”
Having the stern believe in the company’s three basic pillars of “Agility, Knowledge of staff and Attention to detail” like Menon mentions, Travel Tours Group (TTG) is the flagship leisure travel brand of FCTG Australia, in India. Known for its range of customised travel offerings, Travel Tours has showcased ‘unbeatable’ services both in pricing and quality. Currently, there are over 34 Travel Tours stores across all leading cities in India including Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmedabad, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Cochin, Chennai and Kolkata, among other cities.
Travel Tours has been formed by bringing together the erstwhile Travel Tours, a strong brand in South India which has been in existence since 1977 and Flight Shop, well-known in North and West India. The acquisition of these two companies was done at INR 750 crore in a cash and stock deal.
“OTAs have made travel planning more feasible to travel agents”
Asserts Shahnawaz Zafar
Country Head – India Sales, United Travels and Tours Pte Ltd
Today is the era of information technology (IT) and every trade is bound to adopt technology in its process to survive and particularly, it is more important in the subsistence of the travel trade. IT is the boon for the travel industry. It has made entire information available on fingertips to the customer as well as travel agents. Travel agents are now more equipped to handle their business. They are using this technology to improve their operation process, which enables them to match the expectation of their customers.
“OTAs have made travel planning more feasible to travel agents also and not just to the discerning customers. The significance of travel agents will always be extant. OTAs can be felt as a threat to the travel agents for a while but as a whole, it cannot change the rule of the game. Today is the time of survival for the fittest and only those agents will go a long run, which is efficient, skilled and knowledgeable. The human-machine cannot surpass natural machine,” states Zafar. He continues explaining as he cites an example saying, “One can plan and book your trip through online channels but cannot discuss any additional concern with the bots, online. One cannot get the back-up support from online compared to what we receive from an offline platform.” Overall, he gives the ideas of personalisation and ‘human touch’ absolute significance as he shares his opinion.
Capable of catering to the high demands of the industry, United Travels and Tours is rightly poised to handle the customers coming from India or any part of the world in the most personalised manner than most others. “We, being a travel supplier of the Far East Countries, have prepared ourselves to move ahead with time. We have created our online platform, which has not only made our operation process flawless but has eliminated stress from booking processes for our B2B travel partners right from getting an enquiry to the closure of the sale. At the same time, we have our sales support team who are reachable and capable to give all kind of pre and post-sales support to our B2B partners, thus ensuring a company-to-client relation,” he adds.