Why S’pore agents must unite

The travel agent sector in Singapore is actually far from dying

If a travel agent could not run his own business successfully, how could he lead the industry?

That must have occurred to a lot of members of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) when they received the shocker that GC Nanda & Sons was exiting the trade. It had seen 40 years of operation, many of those years led by the soft-spoken, kindly Prem Paul Ohri, then by his son, Devinder Ohri, who was NATAS president from May 2016 until the agency’s recent demise.

To be fair, has it occurred to agents that a reason why GC Nanda closed could be that Ohri junior had spent a lot of time on NATAS volunteer work? Another reason of course was the changing industry. A source close to the agency said he was an administrator, whereas what’s needed as the industry changes fast and furious are rainmakers.

Whatever the reason, I can’t help feeling some revulsion at the criticisms hurled at NATAS in re-appointing office bearers who had left to lead the association until the next AGM, and for its current state of instability. It’s like shooting a lame dog.

There are two realities that Singapore agents should mull. The first is, few CEOs actually want to devote time and effort on volunteer work, especially when business is so demanding. Anyone who comes forward, provided he or she is not self-serving, therefore deserves all the support and compassion.

The second reality is agents are divided because of the two travel fairs, a major income earner for them and NATAS. This has to be resolved. It’s a pity a proposal to hold a joint fair as we reported in January came to naught.

The bigger interest must prevail and that is to ensure that travel agents can thrive in a continuously changing landscape. The travel agent sector in Singapore is actually far from dying. A figure of 104 closures in the first six months looks scary, but it’s nothing unusual from figures in the same period the past four years. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which regulates the sector, expects the number of agencies to remain constant at around 1,200 this year, as it has been for the past four years.

That means new agencies are always opening to replace closed ones. In two words, new competition, which will only increase if proposals for tiered licensing are approved. STB, keen to grow tourism, naturally wants to nurture innovative players with grants such as Experience Step-Up Fund and Business Improvement Fund while helping the sector transform itself through a Travel Agent Roadmap. It’s not easy though. Look at MISA Travel, once held as a role model for its online push but couldn’t sustain drive and is now gone after 23 years in operation.

Fact is, it can happen to you. That’s why the need for unity, stability and the spirit of cooperation and collaboration among Singapore agents has never been greater.

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  1. It is easier said than done Raini. Besides the competing travel fairs creating a dilution, some individual companies are conducting more than a fair share of private travel fairs as well to add on to it. Products and tours sold at these fairs while offering value and cater to the budget, do not offer product variation, let alone specialization. With major investments in fairs, advertising (on traditional media, new media, social media), there are little done to the training and development of staffs, while product development personnel are not exposed enough or given adequate power to market new products. All these combined, deteriorates the market and it is no wonder that the active travel market (demographic of 30s-early 60s) are slowly moving away from mass travel agents and arrange holidays themselves either through OTAs or pursue bespoke travel agents for more experiential, transformational travel. As a new travel agent, I do not see the need to be associated with NATAS, an organization I felt is way behind times and do not have the capacity to compete with international contemporaries. Yes, ILTM may come to Singapore in 2018 but still, with the show focusing on the luxury segment as well as experiential travel products, I do not think Singapore companies who will be attending ILTM Singapore will start to offer exciting products. With emphasis on price-cutting strategies, mass companies will never change their offerings and these will repeat over and over again at the 2 fairs as well as their own private fairs. We will be very naive to think that these business owners will change their mentality. They won’t. Eyes are always red. Instead of competing on differentiation and skills expertise, the neverending price war will continue and so will the vicious cycle. Why would they (mass agents) think they can cooperate with each other when they can’t stand one another? I do believe though, it will only be a matter of time, driven by drastic change in travel patterns and behaviour, that these companies will start evaluating themselves.

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