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TAAI Convention: New look at old issues

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Organised in India after six years, the annual convention of the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) held in Bengaluru recently turned out to be a momentous event of sorts with the signing of an MoC (Memorandum of Collaboration) between the association and Karnataka government for setting up an institution to train young people in tourism. “The aim is to enhance the quality of human resources in travel and tourism in the country, to get better talent. TAAI members have joined hands with the government of Karnataka to induct professionalism in the industry. The programme will be launched in February next year,” said Arvind Jadhav, additional chief secretary, tourism department, Government of Karnataka.

Re-elected as the president of TAAI (post the convention), Iqbal Mulla spoke about the many challenges being faced by the industry. “We will keep fighting for our legitimate rights but it is only possible through unity of members. Karnataka Tourism has excelled in tourism development. The slogan is very well designed – one state, many worlds.” RV Deshpande, minister of tourism, Government of Karnataka averred that while the state has been attracting many investors from India and overseas in different sectors, there is a need to take advantage of the potential the state has in terms of tourism, which has not been exploited so far. “We are concentrating on building the infrastructure and also developing the human resources for the industry,” he stated. Deshpande asked the travel industry to look at Karnataka as a destination of tourism. “We have identified 42 beaches and 11 islands on the west coast, so there is a lot of potential for beach tourism,” he added. In terms of domestic tourist arrivals Karnataka is placed in the fourth position, while for international arrivals it stands at the ninth place. The state has 10,000 hotel rooms with many more hotels across all categories coming up across the state.

To evolve with the times it is necessary for travel agents to sharpen their competitive edge and workout a new strategy. While the internet can provide a lot of information to the customer, the travel agent can offer something of greater value – insight, emergency support and personalised service. “We must add this to our internet and social media capability. Travel agents need to embrace technology and move with the times. If we leverage this we can leverage ourselves as advisors or counsellors. We have to make ourselves valuable like the doctor or the advertising agency,” asserted Ashwini Kakkar, past president, TAAI.

A turbulent relationship

The relationship between airlines and the travel trade fraternity in India has been a turbulent one. Kapil Kaul, CEO-South Asia, CAPA believes that it is important for travel agents to understand how ‘deeply bruised’ the airline sector is. There are constant challenges for the airline management – they have no control on external factors like fuel cost, regulation, etc. Further, because of aircraft types changes, technology changes, they have no time to work out strategic changes. “We run aviation in a very ad hoc manner, there is no clarity in terms of regulation,” rued Kaul. Focusing on the need for data mining, Kaul stated, “Airline passengers represent the top 10 per cent of global passengers but airlines do not know their customers, maybe Goggle or Cleartrip knows the passengers better than Indigo or SpiceJet. This apart, airlines are a ‘tribal’ community, they are unwilling to cooperate with airports.” He also focused on creating new markets through collaboration. There are 12 companies planning to start airlines in India, if they do a few who are making money will also cease to do so. The malaise of the sector, like the travel trade is that there are too many players. Most airlines are surviving on the promoters’ goodwill. He, however, believes that there are grounds for optimism, particularly for the period 2015-2016.

Voicing his views on the long-term opportunities in the Indian market, Sanjay Kumar, COO, Indigo said, “Despite the dynamics of market forces, with more competition coming in, we believe in the long-term growth story of the business. There is a huge opportunity for creating a complete value chain for customers.” Air India expects the 787 to be a game changer for the airline – in terms of the bottom line and also better service for passengers. “We have invested millions of dollars in operations control centre to ensure on-time performance. We are proud of our Delhi hub, after Melbourne and Sydney, we are looking at new destinations in Europe,” mentioned Shyam Sunder, ED commercial, Air India. Thanking the travel agents for supporting Emirates year after year, Sunil Kallyat, regional manager – commercial, Emirates said, “There are immense opportunities we can make together.” The session ‘Principal agency relationship – the way forward’ saw many TAAI members getting vociferous, seeking answers from the representatives of airlines on the transaction fee/commission issue.

Optimising tourism

Indian tourism has emerged as an important sunrise sector and is an important driver of equitable growth. However, in 2012, it was 6.6 per cent of the GDP, which was less than the global average. “In last 10 years only, some growth has taken place. There are also a large number of domestic tourists who want to travel and explore the different cultures in the country. Community based tourism model should be encouraged in rural areas. This also ensures education, cross cultural interaction, women empowerment, etc. It leads to economic growth,” pointed out Dipak Haksar, COO, ITC Hotels, adding that there is a need to understand the role of the sustainable aspect of tourism. He mentioned that the new pattern of travel and tourism will not only be green business but will also create green livelihoods. In this aspect the role of the hospitality industry is very important, particularly for reducing energy needs through intelligent design and planning.

One of the positive developments in the industry in recent times has been the formation of Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality (FAITH), comprising the top ten national tourism and hospitality industry associations. “There is absence of single vision at government level and too many fragmented voices in travel and hospitality,” said Aashish Gupta, consulting CEO, FAITH. The federation has started initiatives like formulating a budget document to unlock tourism and hospitality, engaging with India Convention Promotion Bureau (ICPB), etc.