Travel firms up their tech game to stay relevant

Travel firms up their tech game to stay relevant

A virtual reality headset that allows travellers to preview Singapore attractions such as the River Safari and Merlion Park - even before setting foot here.

Websites which allow customers to pick from a menu of attractions and put together their own travel itinerary the way they might create their own salad or pizza. On such websites, routes are mapped out, with admission fees calculated.

At least three agencies - Sohu Travel, Albatross World Travel & Tours and Quotient Travel Planner - are eschewing the image of a typical ticket-booking agency by introducing services catered for the savvy traveller, so as to stay relevant in the Internet age.

These days, many travellers are bypassing traditional agencies to book holidays directly with airlines and hotels, or through third-party booking sites.

Traditional travel agencies struggling to survive

A survey by travel search engine Kayak found that only 26 per cent of respondents used a traditional travel agency to plan their holidays.

It had polled 1,000 people from Singapore as part of a worldwide survey of more than 12,000 people in April.

Of these, 61 per cent said they consulted online travel agencies to plan holidays.

This spells bad news for the more than 1,200 travel agencies here, which are mostly small and medium-sized.

Battered by surging manpower costs and growing Internet sales, many travel agencies struggle to survive.

In 2014, 112 agencies ceased operations, and last year, 116 agencies followed suit.

In the first eight months of this year, already 112 agencies have shut their businesses.

Acknowledging the challenges faced by traditional agencies, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) and the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore launched a plan last month to help them redesign their businesses.

The Travel Agent Road Map focuses on three areas: business transformation, technology and manpower.

Travel agencies hoping to improve their business processes can also get monetary support through STB's Business Improvement Fund and Experience Step Up Fund.

STB chief executive Lionel Yeo said then that agents "must rethink their businesses in order to value-add and remain relevant, competitive and productive in a dynamic travel landscape".

Giving Chinese tourists a glimpse of Singapore through virtual reality

Mr Bao and Ms Li hope the novel experience they offer through the virtual reality headset will boost their business. Photo: The Straits Times

At Sohu Travel's sole China office in Hangzhou, near Shanghai, customers who want a glimpse of what Singapore has to offer can temporarily be transported here - through a virtual reality headset.

They can pick from 100 attractions, including the Singapore Zoo and Marina Bay Sands SkyPark, and get a 360-degree experience of the place before buying tickets.

Mr Paul Bao, 31, founder of the agency - which is not linked to the Chinese website Sohu, said: "Customers have many choices (of attractions to visit) but not enough time. A common question we get is 'Is the attraction nice?' but it's difficult to answer, so we let them preview it themselves."

In the short time since he launched the service in June, ticket sales have soared 80 per cent from the previous quarter. He hopes to expand the service to include restaurants and hotels.

His firm is also tapping beacon technology - using small transmitters that interact with mobile devices - to help customers navigate attractions like the Merlion Park.

Users of WeChat can turn on their app's "Shake" function at the Merlion Park and real-time information about the nearby attractions, retail and food and beverage outlets will pop up on the screen.

A mobile app set to launch next month uses augmented reality software to place information about a place on top of buildings in the user's phone camera.

Mr Bao and his business partner Megan Li, 26, hope the new technology and the firm's focus on inbound Chinese tourists will help turn business around for the five-year-old agency, which has closed three outlets here and is operating its only one in Chinatown.

Tailored trips to suit customers' travelling style

Quotient Travel Planner co-founders Javiny Lim and Lim Hui Juan developed a website that allows users to pick from a list of basic itineraries and add on activities, day tours and trip extensions. After making their payment, a booklet with their travel tickets and a guide book is sent to them. Photo: The Straits Times

Going on a holiday arranged by a travel agency usually involves waking up early and being shepherded from one place to another.

But at Quotient Travel Planner, customers can put together a package to suit their travelling styles.

Co-founders Javiny Lim and Lim Hui Juan, both 37, have developed a website that makes holiday planning akin to making a salad.

Users can pick from a list of basic itineraries and add on activities, day tours and trip extensions. After they have paid, a booklet with their travel tickets and a guide book will be sent to them.

Prepackaged tours with fixed itineraries do not work for everyone, said Ms Lim Hui Juan. "There may be people who want to go to Italy, but museums may not be their thing. But (all the available packages might take) them to museums in every city."

The basic itineraries include the sequence of travel - for example, whether the customer should go to Rome first, then Venice or Florence - so that first-time travellers do not have to spend time doing their own research.

The company spent a six-figure sum developing the website - which was launched in 2012 - and other working tools, with partial funding from the Singapore Tourism Board.

The packages on the portal are "definitely not the cheapest", said the two co-founders. The prices do not include airfares and so customers have the flexibility to book their own flights. Popular itineraries include a six-day package to Hokkaido, which costs from $4,108 a person, and a seven-day package to Finland, which costs upwards of $3,856. These do not include the costs of flights.

"If you plan the trip yourself, you can definitely do it cheaper," said Ms Lim Hui Juan. "But we have all the experience, we don't take any risks, and there is an emergency hotline which customers can call if, say, they lose their passports or get robbed."

Website allows travellers to customise Bintan itineraries

A website launched in March allows customers of Ms Sim's Albatross World Travel & Tours to book and pay for packages online. The laptop display next to the chief executive is of a personalised planning tool used to customise an itinerary to Bintan from scratch. Photo: The Straits Times

When Ms Crystal Sim bought over a 10-year-old travel agency in 2011, its employees' main task was to book transportation tickets and hotel rooms for customers.

Customers would fax in forms, with full names and passport numbers handwritten on them, and staff had to painstakingly transcribe these details into booking systems - which was not just time-consuming, but error-prone.

"We needed to revamp it," said Ms Sim, 52, chief executive of Albatross World Travel & Tours in Circular Road.

Its chief operating officer John Ching, 64, added: "We decided that it could not carry on like that. It created a lot of work and was liable to mistakes. The prices were also manually computed and would sometimes be wrong."

The solution was a website, launched in March, which allows customers to book and pay for packages online.

It was built at a cost of about $140,000, with partial funding from Spring Singapore and the Singapore Tourism Board.

There was initially some resistance from older employees used to doing things manually, but the convenience eventually won them over, said Mr Ching.

The firm, which specialises in trips to the Indonesian island of Bintan, did not stop there.

In May, it added an option on its website for customers to create customised itineraries to Bintan based on their budgets and interests.

They can pick from a menu of attractions and the system will map out a route linking the chosen destinations, taking into account the travel time needed and opening hours of each attraction. Admission fees and transportation costs will also be reflected.

Customers can then book and pay for the trip via the website.

"We want to help customers tailor-make their holiday," said Ms Sim. "The aim is to create a memorable experience for them."

This article was first published on September 05, 2016.
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