Exit interview with Lionel Yeo: High and low points in helping agents transform in the past six years

Yeo: “We can't expect the Travel Agency Act to be the silver bullet.” Watch the video here

Singapore travel agencies are rising to the challenge of transforming their business models to suit current demands, according to Lionel Yeo, who left the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) as CEO yesterday (May 31).

In an exit interview, Yeo used the example of STB’s Tourism Innovation Challenge last year which brought together travel agencies with startups and solution providers to create a better understanding of the issues agents face and the solutions that are available or can be created for them.

“Both sides were very engaged, to the extent they want to do more. NATAS (National Association of Travel Agents Singapore) in fact said they want to organise their own innovation challenge. To me that’s a high point because the industry is taking ownership,” he said.

Yeo: “We can’t expect the Travel Agency Act to be the silver bullet.” Watch the video here

The number of agencies in Singapore has remained the same at around 1,200 in the past few years, because the rate of new agencies opening and exiting has been fairly constant at around 100-plus each way. Asked if there are more innovative agents and what they have in common, Yeo said: “There will always be a vanguard of more progressive businesses and business owners.

“What they have in common is a very clear sense that they need to keep abreast of how the operating environment is changing for them. So if a new technology comes on stream, they ask how is it an opportunity to grow their business. Some have been able to deploy technology to increase staff productivity. They get their sales agents to be more productive, to be more sales-focused on customer engagement, potentially upselling and not just taking orders.

“They are also the ones who are attuned to consumer trends and are quick to respond to travel trends. Chan (Brothers Travel Singapore) for example traditionally organises the bigger coach tours but has introduced Prestige. They sensed a segment of travellers who still want a trip organised for them but in a more intimate type of group setting. So you see such examples of agents responding to the market and technology,” he said.

Yeo said agents would always be around. “As long as you are able to transform and meet market segment needs, you’ll always be relevant. There will be many types of travel for which an individual may feel he can self service. That’s fine, and that’s part of what is driving the growth in travel. But there are other kinds of trips where you appreciate a more specialised advice, someone who knows what they are talking about, who’s familiar with destination you are thinking of going.”

Changes in the Travel Agency Act have meanwhile have opened up opportunities for more innovative tour developments, since tour guides no longer needed to be licensed as agents to introduce their tours, Yeo observed. Another outcome thus far is in boosting consumer confidence in the industry, as requirements to be licensed agents have been beefed up.

Added Yeo: “We can’t expect the Act to be the silver bullet; we have to look at it in totality with the agents roadmap that STB is working with NATAS to ensure the agents industry continues to transform and stay relevant.”

Agency owners interviewed expressed hope that Yeo’s successor will continue the efforts.

Anthony Chan, group managing director of Chan Brothers Travel, said: “Great efforts have been invested by STB over the past years to engage with and support the agency sector, particularly the outbound industry segment. We strongly believe that to fully realise the vision of a technology-enabled travel landscape based on developments thus far, the momentum and monetary support must be sustained.”

Agreeing, Clifford Neo, president/CEO of Dynasty Travel, said: “The leader must continue to inspire and motivate the agency sector to innovate in this disruptive landscape. As well, continue to work with NATAS on of the initiatives implemented under the Travel Agent Roadmap to transform our businesses, adopt technology and relook at manpower practices.”

In tomorrow’s Part III interview with Yeo: How Singapore picks its STB chief

Catch Part I interview here.

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