Interviews

‘None of the travel agent associations are doing any justice to the trade’

Enterprising Travel Agents Association (ETAA) which was established in
1998 has been growing at a steady rate, bringing non-IATA members in its folds,
since its inception. Recently the North Chapter of the association met to
announce the way forward which includes setting up of working committees to
consolidate operation and forge a better relationship with various industry
units.

Enterprising Travel Agents Association (ETAA) which was established in
1998 has been growing at a steady rate, bringing non-IATA members in its folds,
since its inception. Recently the North Chapter of the association met to
announce the way forward which includes setting up of working committees to
consolidate operation and forge a better relationship with various industry
units.

In an exclusive interview with India Tourism Review, Pankaj Nagpal, the Director – National Board and Chairman – North
India Region (ETAA) explicitly
talked about the various issues that concern Indian travel trade fraternity and
how ETAA aims to address them.  Need for
a regulatory body to organize the largely unorganized tourism sector in India
and impart some professionalism in the industry were the main issues bothering
the industry, he said. He also submitted his surprise on the fact that a highly
specialized profession such as that of a travel agent has no entry barriers.
Nagpal thinks that with the advent of internet, the role of travel agent has
become more important, rather than becoming redundant, as people normally feel.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Q: The space is sprawling with a new travel
trade association coming up every other day. Is this symptomatic of
dissatisfaction among the travel trade or simply a movement towards specialization?
Is it good for the health of the industry?

The first association
was TAAI, then came TAFI, and then we came up with ETAA. Now, ETAA was formed
because TAAI and TAFI were for IATA members. But non-IATA members were growing
in numbers and there was no organisation through which they could make themselves
heard. So ETAA was formed to give voice to the concerns of non-IATA agents.

Yes, some of the new
associations do specialize in particular segments, for example, ADTOI is for
Domestic Tour Operators while OTOAI is for outbound tour operators.

But to be honest,
being a member of all these associations myself, I think none of these are
doing any justice to the trade, including ETAA. There are, say 6 different
associations who go to the Minister, they don’t speak in one voice. There is no
single voice for the trade. And with so many associations in the space,
everyone wants that one-upmanship; take the credit for anything that happens.
The lack of a unanimous voice confuses the authority, and in effect nothing
really gets delivered or takes a lot of time.

The problems of the
travel trade, irrespective of the association, remain more or less same. For
instance, one of the biggest problems that the fraternity is facing is that every
second person can become a part of travel trade. How have all the associations
simply ignored this extremely valid and important point? There is no
professionalism in the trade which is so specialized. Other countries conduct
exams, a registration and a license is mandatory, but it’s not the case in
India. The standards are going down and this is not acceptable.

Additionally, for
example, ETAA has about 650 active members and 900+ affiliate members, but they
are also members of other associations. There is membership overlap and the
problem is that there is no unity among these associations. There is nobody who
has taken united stand. FAITH was formed, and it was supposed to fill that
vacuum. But there hasn’t been any significant movement there too.

 The need of the hour is to come together and
chalk out the common agendas. There could be particular issues concerning
particular segment specific association, but they are all part of the same
travel trade and there has to be a combined effort. We need to come together,
so that things are brought to the notice of authorities and action can happen. Having
too many associations is actually diluting the stands taken by the travel trade.

Q. So by forming ETAA didn’t you also add to the
problem and isn’t the association creating another horde of travel agents and
diluting the standards of professionalism, which you say is a problem?

There are criteria
that associations need to follow while awarding membership. We have very strict
rules and norms for giving out our membership at ETAA. The person in question
needs to be in the business for more than 12 months or else we don’t consider
his application. They have to submit the credentials of their directors and we
verify the background of each applicant in the trade. We don’t give our
membership to anyone and everyone who says that he has an agency.

Q. So how significant then is this conscious departure
from IATA membership?

 See IATA has its own parameters. When it was
formed, tourism industry was at a very nascent stage. That was the time when we
had very few travel agents, but now there are more than 25000 people associated
with the industry. Given that the number of IATA agents have not grown
proportionately, most of the travel agent are non- IATA. Now there is a
necessity to regulate this group of people, to bring some standard.  

So ETAA has a charter,
a prescribed code of conduct that we expect our members to follow. If there is
a defaulter, something which is brought to our notice, say, an ethical
misconduct, we take action against them. Since we are not a legally sanctiond
body, we take action in our own capacity as a congregation of travel agents.

Q.  How
does becoming an ETAA member help the travel agent?

Apart from
representing the voice of increasing non-IATA members, as we grew stronger, we
got into a lot of business deals, which did not involve monetary benefits for
the association, but added value. Say for example, the association partnered
with Ezeego1 who are big B2B players. They give deals to all travel agents, but
since ETAA signed an exclusive membership with Egeego1, our members get over
and above benefits, such as more commissions on booking. Similarly, we got into
a deal with Travel Tag, who are into travel insurance. We are using our
resources to bring additional benefits.

But having said that,
how are the associations really adding value to the trade? Maybe they help you
get some free FAM trips. But even if I am not a part of any association I may
get that invitation based on my business.

Say, for instance, we
recently tied up with DTCM and they sent 100 invites for FAM trip for our ETAA
members. We obviously passed it on to the members, but it is the tourism board
which takes the final call. They scrutinize the profiles of individual travel
agents and select people based on their criteria. So ultimately it settles down
to the business profile of the particular agent. All we did was create a
platform.

We become the
facilitators, the nodal point to bring together 1500 people and encourage them
to do business together, and that is how we enhance business value. We ask them
to use it as a network.

To add to it, being
an ETAA member, if I do business with another ETAA member, there is an assurance
that if there is some problem, the association will take care of it. There is
credibility building because ETAA will act as an arbitrator in case there is a
problem.

Q. How do you think is the travel trade space changing
or has changed in the last few years?

Change is bound to
happen. But, importantly, traditional way of doing business is going down very rapidly.  Fifteen years back the customer was totally dependent
on the travel agent. But now with access to so much knowledge, the nature of their
need has changed. Today people are well travelled, they gather a lot of
information from friends and family, and obviously, from other sources on
internet. As a travel agent you need to be updated, you need to have complete
knowledge of your product, because customers know a lot. They have done their
research on the internet, they go down to the level of locating particular hotels
that you are booking them into.

Travel agents who
can’t cope with this pressure, who can’t deal with the expanding knowledge base
criticize the wholesale change that internet has brought into the trade.
Everybody has access to everything so the idea is to keep changing, updating
yourself.

Q. So, with internet coming to the rescue of
travellers, isn’t the role of travel agents becoming redundant?

I will say that the
role of the travel agent has become more important and they need to keep
updating themselves to have an edge.

For example, we do a
lot of MICE business and we need to send a large number of people. The
corporate traveller before approaching us does all the study depending on his
budget and other requirements. Again since we have conducted such tours before,
the fact that we have been to that place, that we have executed it, we are in a
better position to guide them. Because the travel agent is more educated in the
profession, we are the specialist of this business and the quality of knowledge
differs.

Q. Is that where OTAs can’t encroach upon your
business?

OTAs are good for
ticketing or hotel bookings, you may get a good deal etc, but if you are
planning a holiday package you need personalized attention because holiday
packages need to be customized..

If you call up the
OTA’s customer care, there will be one person taking your call, after an hour
it will be another. They have your booking history, I agree, but travel agents
will give you more personalised attention. That one person will take you from
your planning stage to your actual on-ground services at the destination. You
can call him up in case you need something, or want to do some other negotiations,
make other changes. That edge will always remain and in India there is more
reason to remain so because we do business on that kind of personal relations.

Q. What are the major challenges that the
industry is facing vis-à-vis outbound tourism?

Outbound travel has
been growing steadily except for the last two years which was bad for the
industry as a whole because of extreme fluctuations in the value of rupee. The
major challenge has been the service tax issue. Unless people don’t have money
to spend, they will not travel to foreign destinations.

Q. How do you look at all the talk about good
sentiments and expected boom in travel industry doing the rounds? Do the travel
agents have reasons to anticipate achche
din
?

A major push can be
expected as far as inbound tourism is concerned. But the government needs to
consider the issue of a regulator for the trade. There are no entry barriers.
To be able to maintain a quality standard in the products and services that are
being offered, some sort of intervention is needed.

Firstly, there should
be a license. How can you operate without a license if you are a travel company?
Nowadays a taxi operator calls himself a tour operator. He isn’t a tour
operator, he is a transporter. How do you differentiate? Anybody who is doing anything
related to the travel business calls himself a tour operator. A way to
differentiate and to filter needs to be developed. You must have a certain
amount of knowledge base to qualify as a tour operator.

For example, to be recognized
by MOT you need to follow so many guidelines. That is why IATO is the most organized
travel agents association because they have certain codes of conduct mandated
by the Government. There is no code of conduct imposed by the government for
other associations. These things need to come from there, from the authorities.

Yes, there is
definitely a feel good factor about the economy. But according to me, for the
economy to take off, real estate has to boom because that is from where the
money will start circulating. Once that happens the change will start coming
into effect.

Direct tax code needs
to be brought in. Drastic change in income tax slab is required; the whole
thing needs to be revised so that there is money in the hands of the customer
to spend. 

Q. Is India a good market to promote new
destinations?

It’s not very
difficult to promote new destinations in India. In the last three years we have
seen major changes in consumer behaviour. People are becoming more open. Ten to
five years back most of the people who were travelling were first timers; they
were going to limited places. They have been to these places now many times.
They are no more scared about things like the kind of food they will get there,
whether they will be accepted etc. Because of that, consumers want newer
destinations, they want to explore. And plus the influence of Hollywood is a
major push. Say, Ek tha Tiger was
shot in Turkey, which inspired people to travel there. Turkey is booming destination
now. After Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara,
Spain became a fad. 

Youth which comprises
70% of our population is always on a look out for newer, unexplored
destinations. It is becoming easy for these new destinations to come to India.

There is also a rush
for new activities. Today Indians are going for adventure tourism, for things
like bicycle trails. There are itineraries for New Zealand of 10-12 days that
we are promoting which allows tourists to cover 30-45 km everyday on bicycles.
They are going through the countrysides, to villages, meeting people, they are
going everywhere, doing all sorts of things and it is selling.

Today travel agents,
despite OTAs being there, tourism boards and hotel chains are showing interest
in getting directly connected to travel agents. If they know you have
potential, they will give you all the support, they will pamper you with all the
knowledge about the destination.

But yes, it’s
circular. See, India didn’t have that kind of weightage in terms of being a
source market. It was not on their radar till few years back. Today, Brand USA
is conducting a workshop every six months. They are giving 10 years visa to
everyone. These things were unthinkable only 3 yrs back. Because India has the
number, and we are good spenders, we like to spend on good hotels, on shopping
and other things at the destinations.

Q. Tell us about some of the unexplored
destinations which have a lot of potential.

Vietnam, Cambodia,
Indonesia. Indonesia, for example, has so much to offer but there is no direct
flight to Bali. Vietnam has only one flight. It does not help. There are
destinations in Europe which are unexplored. All we talk about is Zurich, Paris,
Amsterdam, at the most. Nobody is talking about Sweden, Eastern Europe like
Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary etc. These destinations are much better in
terms of cost-effectiveness. They are very beautiful destinations, have many
things to do, natural beauty, good Indian restaurants but very less Indian
movement. Russia is a beautiful country. It is expensive by Indian standard.
Visa immigration norms are a little tricky. But some have easy visa yet we need
more penetration.

 

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