The TAFI convention was held in Durban at a strategic time, as it was held close to the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban. South African Tourism and especially the region of KwaZulu-Natal did their best for the delegates, which were firmly endorsed by Zakir Ahmed, president TAFI; Praveen Chugh, VP, TAFI, the convention chairperson, Aditi Bende and the entire managing committee of TAFI. The committee spoke in one voice and felt that the convention brought the two countries closer in terms of tourism and there will surely be an increase in tourism inflow into the region. Working in a transparent way is what the president of TAFI reiterated during his opening speech. However as hosts, South African Tourism and the Kwa-Zulu-Natal province offered a perfect platform as they showcased their product effectively with pre and post convention tours and extended their hospitality to the delegates. Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, minister for tourism, South Africa, spoke about the commonalities between the two countries and was positive that the relationship in the field of tourism between the two countries will only strengthen with time.
Hanneli Slabber, South African Tourism’s country manager for India, was also positive about the future of tourism vis-a-vis the countries and she expects an increase in tourism inflow resulting from the convention. South African Tourism has declared India as its core market and has rolled out a new campaign, which will be followed by another one in the near future. From cricket to Gandhi, the leaders felt the two countries have very strong ties that can only get stronger. The importance of emerging countries, the BRICS union and other trade connect also received interesting mentions during the convention.
South African Airways (SAA), which was the official carrier partner for the convention, were probably the best beneficiaries. The team at SAA, namely Gcobani Mangcotywa, regional general manager, Asia Pacific, SAA; Manoj Papa, acting GM-commercial, SAA and Sajid Khan, country manager-India SAA, were unanimous in their opinion that the event helped them showcase the airline to the travel agents fraternity and help them clear myths and misconceptions about the airline’s product and service. Explains Khan, “The agents were very pleased with our world class service and were happy to have received an opportunity to experience the same. It was a fruitful experience for us at SAA and we do have a quality product at hand which was witnessed by a strong fraternity in the trade.” The team of the province of KwaZulu-Natal lead by Michael Mabuyakhulu, MEC for economic development and tourism, province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa were upbeat about hosting the event. Mabuyakhulu spoke strongly on relationship building between the two countries in the field of tourism and especially the benefits that his region will gain after this delegation of agents. He was glad he and his team could execute a well structured and seamless convention experience for the TAFI delegates and was hoping to welcome Indian tourists into region as an extension of this programme.
The keynote message
The travel agent fraternity as they stand today are passing through troubled times and the only hope is to adapt to changing times with caution and prudent calculation. The message given out at the convention was to focus on motivation and taking the next step ahead. This was articulated by the convention keynote speaker, Rahul Bhatia, group managing director, InterGlobe Enterprises. His address was focused on how big issues need big interventions. He added that it is very crucial for people to stay motivated for the collective good and that growth has to be inclusive. He also mentioned that there is huge amount of work to be done in the field of travel and tourism and the country hasn’t even started yet- the potential is immense. He highlighted the importance of the 5 Ps in business namely, 1) Partnerships, 2) Policy, 3) People, 4) Planning and 5) Planet and felt these points play a major role in defining one’s business direction.
There were in total of five business sessions spread across two days, which largely focused on keeping the agents motivated in troubled times, on changing mindsets and strategies. The real time issue of commissions, taxes the importance of agent-airline relationship did receive only a soft mention in one of the sessions. The sessions were spread as follows, 1) Winning the battle for relevance, 2) Golden horizon, 3) The Big Five, 4) Power of Today, 5) Sahshtra Dhara.
Lars Thykier, managing director of the Association of Danish Travel Agents & Tour operators, and elected chairman of WTAAA (World Travel Agents Association Alliance), highlighted the future relevance of IATA and its New Distribution Capability (NDC). He mentioned that NDC is for real and it is time the trade understands it better. Kapil Kaul, CEO-South Asia, CAPA, who was the moderator of the session `Power of Today’ felt that one needs to be well informed and it is essential to understand change. Deepak Brara, commercial director and board member, Air India felt that we need to decide as a country how much we need to import with reference to the fact that more foreign airlines are making inroads in the country. Otto de Vries, CEO, ASATA, highlighted the fact that associations also need to do some restructuring and they have to be dynamic to address the industry’s pressing needs.
Gavin Smith, regional vice president-Asia Pacific, Royal Caribbean Cruises; Graham Wood, managing director, Southern Sun; Stephan F Ekbergh, founder and CEO, Travelstart; Dhananjay Saliankar, regional director, Starwood sales organisation, South Asia, who were the panelists for the session named Sahshtra Dhara, gave the audience a perspective on what should be done to stay ahead of the curve providing both tangible and intangible suggestions to be implemented and incorporated. Bill Lawler, vice president, global customers group, Amadeus Asia Pacific also shared some vital points in his session.
Motivational speaker, Michael McQueen, founder the Nexgen group, in his session `Winning the Battle for Relevance’ spoke about the value of innovation and how leaders become complacent and tend to lose the plot. The ones most responsive to change will survive. Brenda Eckstein, a motivational writer and speaker, highlighted the importance of networking in the business and spoke about the importance of Fun Leadership and Growth (FLAG), as she calls it. Simon, Nowroz, global VP, business development-Travelport, spoke about on the importance of probabilities vs possibilities amongst a host of other relevant business management tips. The session ‘Big Five’, had some astute speakers who spoke about the relevance and significance of BRICS and its strong growth over the years.
Speaking to the agents during the convention highlighted few important observations. The reactions were more or else in the same tone as mentioned by Nilay Tejani, director, Trambak Travels. Tejani felt that, the one big learning that he received from the TAFI 2013 convention was that change in this industry is inevitable and there is a need to adopt and learn and progress through changes. There were some good speakers and good interaction, the venues were good and local suppliers were willing to welcome. However, the expectations were a bit more from the convention when it came to addressing the commission issue. He felt, there could be more on the commission and transaction fees which were not completely met as he feels crucial issues of the agent’s today is still that of commission and transaction fees on tickets. He was also candid in mentioning that there were many families present and as a result the seriousness of convention was lost, in future if families are to be allowed it has to be only after the convention is over. Interestingly the TAFI committee was also emphatic in their voice while addressing this issue, but one guesses the committee will have to enforce more stringent rules to overcome this problem.
Anil Kalsi, managing partner, Ambe World Travels, felt that the contents of the business sessions were very informative and added value to the members. TAFI had made efforts to get the best speakers on the most important issues concerning the industry. He felt the conventions help add value in terms of knowledge and leads to brain storming sessions on current issues that are facing the industry. Kalsi said, “The networking between travel partners and principals is integral. While the content was there, the airlines majorly stay away from conventions making networking options limited. It is sad that some of the airlines we sell are not even primary members of agents associations and choose to disregard the IATA travel agent community.” He also felt that the IATA agents are going through most difficult times. The airlines are undercutting their published CRS fares on their websites. The anomaly of fares has created an uneven playing field for the airlines distribution channels, the IATA travel agents. While the airlines are not willing to look at giving a meagre commission to sustain the IATA agent they are cutting fares on the website and promotions at all times. The ensuing weekly payment will further add to agents woes and have major cash flow problems. The inability of the agents to charge a transaction fee and not be paid commission is a livelihood problem that needs urgent redressal. I don’t understand what stops the airlines to make a fair commission apart of the fare. Service tax needs immense clarity. There is dual taxation of service tax and that needs immediate remedial measures. He summed it up, “The convention held fantastic value in terms of content and cost. The free FAM were truly a value add and the members and showcased South Africa to the agents for further business growth. Associations must all come together, and have one voice. The agency community can’t wait for split voices.”