The way forward

In the face of adversity, some travel agents have chosen to keep their spirits up with training and alternative business, while others have reworked operations to face a new travel future. In this final instalment of a three-part series on the Asian travel agent community, we check in on Indonesia and Singapore.

By Mimi Hudoyo and Pamela Chow

The Covid-19 vaccine roll out across the world has raised hopes of business recovery among Indonesian travel agents, most of whom are regarding 2021 with cautious optimism.

Budijanto Ardiansjah, vice chairman of the Association of the Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies (ASITA), said the widespread availability of Covid-19 vaccines is the turning point for the industry, as inoculated consumers will have confidence to return to travel.

Indonesian travel agents are optimistic that the vaccine will rebuild travel confidence and bring travellers back to the destination soon; Jakarta pictured

Budi Tirtawisata, group CEO of Panorama Group, hopes people in the travel and related industries will get vaccinated early, as they are in direct contact with customers and travellers. He revealed that the private sector is discussing the possibility of purchasing vaccines for their employees. Should the government give the nod, this would enhance the national vaccination programme.

However, the current optimism barely masks the fact that travel agencies are among the worst hit by the pandemic in Indonesia’s travel and tourism industry.

Both ASITA and the Indonesian Travel Agents Association (ASTINDO) have reported that more than 90 per cent of their members are in a very bad shape, and some five per cent have given up on their business.

Pauline Suharno, secretary general of ASTINDO, said members in the secondary cities are suffering the most, as they do not get as many staycation and corporate travel business compared to those in Jakarta.

“Even (travel agencies in) a big city like Surabaya are suffering,” she said.

To ride out the storm, many have chosen to shrink operations. Pauline, who is also the commissioner and director of her own agency, Elok Tour, has had to close a number of brunch offices.

Budijanto said retrenchment was usually the last option, as travel companies wanted as many staff on deck as possible to ramp up operations quickly when conditions improve.

“Many companies are surviving on their savings,” he added.

To maintain staff morale, travel agencies and industry associations have rolled out various training programmes on topics such as digital marketing and destination updates.

At ASTINDO, education is centred on Indonesian product updates to help members make the best out of domestic tourism opportunities. According to Pauline, most ASTINDO members specialise in ticketing and outbound.

Temporary diversification into other businesses has also proven useful to keep staff occupied. Elok Tour has created a marketplace for staff to sell food products, and arranged to support a number of hospitals with their PCR test service.

Similarly, Panorama Group started the Orange Kitchen marketplace, which initially sold only food products and has now opened up the platform for clients to sell their products, such as cosmetics.

“This is a way for us to maintain our close relationship with our clients and business partners,” said Budi Tirtawisata, CEO, Panorama Group.

Members of the community in Singapore have found reprieve in pivoting towards new business models and, in some cases, entirely new segments altogether. DMC Discova, which has offices in Asia and the Americas operating under the Flight Centre Group, is supporting its staff through a variety of remote retraining and alternative business courses.

Its managing director for Asia, Suyin Lee, shared: “We’ve had to right-size our operations and reduce our cost base, which has impacted some of our great people. However, we’ve continued to train our people and our guides, and are providing financial support and business skills training to those wanting to launch a side business in the interim. We’re also helping our communities launch programmes which will provide alternative work and revenue in the absence of international tourists.”

NATAS is mediating a series of discussions between its members and government agencies to facilitate cross-business collaborations

Lee revealed that Discova’s travel partners have been “seeing an uptick in travel enquiries for the second part of the year”, but in the meantime, it has retrained a core part of its workforce in Asia to support domestic tourism and prepare for travel resumption.

Meanwhile, homegrown and household name Dynasty Travel has also adeptly adapted its workforce to cater to the burgeoning domestic market. During the quarantine last year, its staff engaged in a charity baking drive in order to raise funds and foster team morale.

With Singapore loosening activity restrictions, product development planners – who once handled destinations such as Europe, America, Australia, Japan and South Korea – now plan sightseeing tours for local residents.

“Local itineraries include staycations and visiting a mask factory (for guests to) learn how to wear the right mask to protect ourselves. We also work with tourism boards in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and New Zealand to keep our customers informed of the latest news through webinars and video streaming,” described Alicia Seah, director, public relations & communications, Dynasty Travel.

It has combined its Group Tours and Free and Easy departments, retraining its staff to sell across a range products, and partnered with private healthcare provider Raffles Medical Group. The latter allows future travellers who sign up for Dynasty Travel packages to pre-book and perform their swab tests at any of the group’s 36 clinics in Singapore.

“The role of travel agencies will become more critical as we begin to offer an entire travel package focused on meeting safety requirements before and after the trip,” expressed Seah.

For agencies struggling with transforming their businesses, the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) is mediating a series of discussions between its members and government agencies to facilitate cross-business collaborations.

President of NATAS, Steven Ler, told TTG Asia: “Since July last year, many agencies have been working on how to create more local tours and variations of virtual tours. Some members have gone into hibernation, while some have transformed their businesses to get into the domestic market.”

Ler said that although NATAS runs at cost and has not been able to provide funding support, it has worked with government agencies, such as Singapore Tourism Board, to help push out schemes to subsidise affected industry members.

Since April 2020, the Singapore government has provided wage support for employees of impacted sectors – including tourism and aviation – covering up to 75 per cent of their monthly wages last year, and up to 50 per cent for 1Q2021.

Ler added: “In the next six to 12 months, we will continue to look at how agencies can collaborate with businesses in other sectors, and work with the government to get more support. We would like to see a collaborative effort from (our member) agencies and government ministries, in order to fund some bridging resources to help agencies transform – and perhaps even move beyond local into regional partnerships.”

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