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Int’l travel agencies adapt to the changing times

/ 12:10 AM November 30, 2014

SINGAPORE—With a few taps on a smartphone or tablet, a traveler can quickly map out an entire trip—from booking flights and hotel accommodations, to choosing the restaurants where to dine.

Advances in technology have considerably changed the way people travel. E-commerce has become the next big thing in the travel industry worldwide.


The Singapore Tourism Board recently organized a trade festival it dubbed TravelRave 2014—Asia’s biggest gathering of travel leaders from across the globe.

From Oct. 27 to 31, the board hosted several forums that served as platforms for collaborations among leaders in the airline, hotel, tourism and travel sectors in more than 90 countries.


Over 300 aviation executives attended the “Aviation Outlook Asia,” which tackled issues and challenges faced by the aviation industry.

One of the highlights of the event was the Leaders’ Gala. In a ceremony, the Singapore Tourism Board conferred the 2014 CNBC Travel Business Leader Award on Stephen Ho, president of Starwood Asia Pacific, a leading hotel chain in the region.

The event also introduced the first Hotel Management Summit Singapore, which centered on operational and management challenges confronting hotel executives.

Among those participating in the event were representatives of Panorama Group, Pan Pacific Group, Far East Hospitality, Tripadvisor, Hilton, Air New Zealand, Expedia and others. They pitched ideas and opened avenues for joint efforts.

Empowered travelers

Kathleen Tan, chief executive officer of Airasia Expedia (AAE) Travel says during the “Web in Travel” conference that the vast information out there on the Internet has empowered travelers in so many ways, allowing them to decide where to go and what to do.

The shift to online travel planning was both a game-changing opportunity and challenge for the travel sector. This development gave rise to AAE Travel, a partnership between low-cost airline Air Asia and the world’s biggest online travel agency Expedia.


Since 2011, AAE has been providing online services to travelers, dominating the markets of Singapore and Japan.

On AAE’s plans for the Philippines, Tan says the company has tapped a team to gather information on the hotels in the country.

But she explains that AAE’s business in the Philippines at the moment remains one-sided—inbound traffic to the country outstrips the number of Filipino travelers using its services for trips abroad.

“We are selling the Philippines from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea—we get a lot of bookings from there,” she says on the sidelines of TravelRave.

She also admits that there are still problems when it comes to doing business in the Philippines.

“The challenge for the Philippines is the payment process. It’s the infrastructure. The Philippines is still not 100-percent online,” Tan points out.

A huge percentage of tickets via low-cost carriers are still not booked online, she adds.

“For LCC Cebu (Pacific Air), most [travelers] still go to Western Union to pay,” says Tan, who used to work for Air Asia Group CEO and founder Tony Fernandes before assuming the AAE’s top post.

For the Philippines, Tan says it will take time before a global brand like Air Asia Expedia can settle in.

Online tide

Singapore telecommunications company StarHub is likewise riding the online tide.

“Travelers today are mobile savvy, and they increasingly use their smartphones in accessing travel information and when buying travel products and services,” says Mock Pak Lam, StarHub’s chief technology officer.

“To empower travelers to create their own bespoke adventures on-the-go, StarHub is developing Goru, a traveler-friendly app that integrates the best localized booking engines, travel guides and other services.”

Goru, he says, will also create an ecosystem for industry players to work together to better serve travelers.

Citing data from the World Tourism Organization, Andrew Phua, STB’s director for exhibitions and conferences, says that by 2020 40 percent of the expected 1.260 billion travelers worldwide will come from Asia.

The industry is likewise expected to grow into a $340-billion industry by 2020, spurred by millennial travelers, or those who come from affluent and middle income earners aged between 18 and 36, Phua says.

And as international tourist arrivals continue to grow, Southeast Asia is in a position to offer new opportunities rivaling Asia’s giants like China and India, according to World Tourism Organization’s 2013 Annual Report.

With this comes the need to be more connected, Phua says.

According to 2013 Google study “The Constantly Connected Traveler,” the Philippines and Singapore share the third and fourth spots for having the most travelers booking their hotel stays online at 84 percent.

Malaysia topped the list with 92 percent of travelers using online to book hotel accommodations. It was followed by Thailand at 88 percent.

Phua says that while outbound tourism is projected to be strong in the next 10 years, inbound and intraregional traffic will continue to be promising as Asia remains the second most visited region in the world.

Unvarnished opinion

Barbara Messing, chief marketing officer of travel website Tripadvisor, noted in one of the forums that a significant result of the online migration is the emergence of the public’s “unvarnished opinions” toward the hospitality business.

TripAdvisor claims to be one of the most trusted websites in the world, offering unbiased hotel reviews, photos and travel advice.

“World travelers now have a platform to tell their stories. That’s power,” she says, boasting that the website now has over 170 million members worldwide.

Messing flew from the United States to Singapore to participate in the TravelRave event.

“Getting feedback is good even if it’s not what you want to hear,” she says.

According to Messing, the company strives to achieve a certain level of emotional engagement with its community.

On the flip side, however, not all unvarnished opinions are good, particularly for the hospitality business, Phua says.

Gone, too, are the days when celebrity endorsements and advertisements in social media could be enough to save one’s image.

“One bad experience of a traveler can spread and go viral. Crisis management in social media is something the travel trade still has to learn,” Phua said.

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TAGS: e-commerce, Singapore Tourism Board, technology, Travel, TravelRave 2014
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