Coronavirus: No tourists? Travel agencies take the chance to regroup

For those disappointed by travel plans gone awry, travel curator Anywhr offers one solution: Plan way ahead for trips in the future.

Last month, the Singapore-based start-up offered a 60 per cent discount on its annual trip planning membership, in which it will plan and book up to 10 vacations a year on behalf of members.

The one-year membership costs $299, down from $900. Healthcare workers get a two-year membership for the same price.

Response has been healthy so far, with more than 500 sign-ups.

Co-founder Zelia Leong says: “We’ve heard from friends and customers who are frustrated that they cannot travel. Some are doctors and nurses who have had to cancel trips or pre-wedding shoots to go back to work.

“So we launched this promotion to give people something to look forward to once the Covid-19 situation improves.”

In the last few weeks, the travel industry has virtually ground to a halt.

Shortly after the World Health Organisation announced a global pandemic on March 11, the epicentre of the virus moved to Europe and the United States.

Airlines cut flights and grounded fleets as countries shut their borders and went into lockdown.

Tour operators here are feeling the heat. Anywhr, for instance, has had zero bookings last month.

Free walking tours run by operators such as Indie Singapore and Monster Day Tours have ceased.

Individual travellers may think twice, but there will be a need for business travel once meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions resume.

MR SUEN TAT YAM, CEO and founder of local tour operator Woopa Group, is developing new tours that target “bleisure” travellers, or those who combine work trips with a day or two of sightseeing Features

Online travel agency Klook anticipates that Singapore bookings will fall by about 25 to 30 per cent this year. Tour agency Dynasty Travel reported last month that 70 per cent of customers had cancelled or postponed their tours.

Meanwhile, an enhanced job support scheme, announced last month as part of the Resilience Budget, offers some respite. The Government will co-fund 75 per cent of wages for tourism firms, which includes travel agents.

As such, companies are not throwing in the towel, but instead using the downturn to gear up for recovery.

NEW OFFERINGS AND NICHES

Many are busy hatching new offerings for when the upturn comes.

Mr Suen Tat Yam, chief executive and founder of local tour operator Woopa Group, is developing new tours that will be offered by the company’s corporate tours arm, Unique Business Experiences (UBE).

UBE targets “bleisure” travellers, or those who combine work trips with a day or two of sightseeing.

Current tours in Singapore cover the start-up ecosystem in one-north and the company plans to launch new ones that showcase innovation in other industries, such as gaming, hospitality and social enterprises.

“We are working with industry partners to discover new start-ups and see how we can collaborate. Our tours can be a platform to connect Singapore’s businesses with people from around the world,” says Mr Suen.

He anticipates that the bleisure sector has potential for faster recovery.

“Individual travellers may think twice, but there will be a need for business travel once meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions resume,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Klook is focusing on another niche – food. It is partnering start-ups to make it convenient for customers to order out and eat in.

In Hong Kong, it is offering deliveries of hot pot and dim sum by logistics start-up Lalamove.

In Singapore, Klook has teamed up with food delivery company WhyQ, which will order takeaways and queue on customers’ behalf at popular hawker stores such as Han Kee fish soup at Amoy Food Centre, which typically has a queue of at least 20 minutes.

Vice-president of marketing (Apac) Marcus Yong says Covid-19 has presented the company with avenues to think out of the box.

“People aren’t really searching for travel these days, but they are still looking for things to do domestically. This is a period when brands like us can help power the local economy,” he says.

DATA AND DISRUPTION

Companies that can automate their processes while retaining a human touch will be the ones best positioned for recovery.

That is the view of Mr Kevin Wee, senior lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Business Management.

“Even as the pain of Covid-19 is deeply felt now, the tourism industry is slated to face even more disruption over the next few years,” he notes.

He adds that companies must rise to the challenges of new technology, such as artificial intelligence and robots, or risk being left behind.

With an empty calendar for the next couple of months, there is no better time to do so.

Anywhr, for instance, is improving its trip curators’ planning with algorithms that match travellers’ preferences by upping offerings in certain destinations.

“If a customer wants to see the northern lights, we can search regional weather forecasts on their given dates to suggest the best cities for them to do so from; if they want to stay in an igloo, we can search for the best prices,” says Ms Leong.

The company is also liaising with airlines and hotels to secure better rates for customers and will either match or beat prices on booking sites and airlines’ websites.

“Now that many airlines are not flying, they have more time to talk to us,” she adds.

Woopa Group, which runs Monster Day Tours, which offers both free and private tours, is taking the chance to implement new booking, accounting and scheduling systems for the company.

Since it was launched in 2017, Monster Day Tours has gone from running 20 to about 150 tours a month, and tripled the number of freelance guides it engaged, from three to about 15. This was before it ceased its free walking tours last month.

“There was a lot of communication needed to coordinate and schedule all the guides. We are looking for systems to make this process smoother and decrease human error,” says Mr Suen.

TIME FOR UPSKILLING

Mr Wee of Nanyang Polytechnic adds: “This downtime gives companies the time and opportunity to retrain and reskill existing employees who may already have a deep commitment to and understanding of the workings of the company, and would be able to offer more value to the company when the industry recovers.”

Ms Alicia Seah, Dynasty Travel’s director of public relations and communications, says the company will continue to adopt new technology and enhance service delivery to “remain competitive”.

When the tides turn, she hopes it will be ready to seize new opportunities. It is already working on attractive travel deals in anticipation of a rebound, no matter how far down the line it comes.

She says: “All airlines are waiting for the right time to dangle their offers and attract customers back to the skies again.

“We are ready to launch promotional packages, for instance to Australia and New Zealand, with prices that will be more attractive than before to help customers regain confidence in the travel industry.”

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