REGARDLESS of how old you are or how long you've been in the industry, you must embrace technology. Everything is 24/7 in the digital age - even tourism. Those who can't adapt will be in trouble, Prof Datuk Seri Dr Victor Wee predicts.
The former Tourism Ministry secretary-general and Tourism Promotion Board chairman, now a professor of hospitality and tourism at Taylor's University Malaysia, is focused on research and innovation.
Travellers - especially those among the tech-savvy young generation - bypass agents. They're confident and comfortable making plans online.
"My travel agent friend says it's his children who plan the family holidays. They go on the Internet and figure it out themselves. Even seniors go online especially for budget airline tickets. Nowadays, you can shop at your desk," the industry veteran points out.
Global media consumption is rapidly shifting towards the digital world and so it's only apt that we follow suit and go where the future lies, Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said during the launch of Tourism Malaysia's integrated Digital Marketing Programme in 2013.
Advising industry players to move forward and not "feel so threatened", Wee says digital tourism is so much more than just having a website. It's how you brand and market yourself, clinch a deal, and respond to clients.
Only specialists who can add value to the traveller will still have a role online.
"The digital platform has many advantages but it can't do what humans can. Having soft skills like sound communication and good service is how you can compete against the machine.
"Inefficiency in responding will result in failure. Agents must use digital platforms the way travellers do. They must compare and do all the research for the client," he says, sharing how travel agencies can "beat the Internet":
Offer a service that clients want.
Don't just rely on sales commissions. Enhance their experience. Professional, experienced staff can give solutions and information that aren't available online, like new hotels in the area, special deals, and upgrades and freebies.
Improve your knowledge and increase your agency's professionalism.
Have your staff check out the places on the agency's list so the company's input becomes invaluable.
Look for niche areas like corporate travel, honeymoons, destination weddings, adventure travel, eco-tourism, the mature market, incentive travel or travel for the disabled.
Make every client feel valued.
The best agents don't just make a sale - they establish long-term relationships. If you're professional, clients will always return.
Meet changing customers' buying habits.
Constantly keep an eye on your markets and change with emerging trends.
Use both online and traditional marketing tools.
A savvy mix of both can give your agency a boost.
Have an active social media presence.
For some young people, if you're not on social media, you don't exist. Use social media platforms to build brand awareness, influence decision, drive sales, grow loyalty, and get real-time feedback.
Pay attention to what others are doing.
Look at what sites like TripAdvisor are doing, as travellers rely on these for vacation planning.
Link up with big global agencies.
Find out how to link up for mutual advantage with regional and international agencies.
These tips are all in line with "Digital Malaysia", the nation's programme to move towards a developed digital economy by 2020 through the promotion of ICT in all aspects of the economy.
The Government has actually paved the way already. Under Budget 2016, RM1.2bil was allocated to quadruple Internet speed to 20Mb/s in rural areas. E-visas for tourists from Canada, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the United States were also announced. With tourism marked as high as the fifth priority area, the Government is targeting 30.5 million arrivals.
Last year, Malaysia-based providers of integrated amusement park solutions and services in Asia, Galasys Plc, launched its Intelligent Tourism Cloud Marketing Platform (ITCMP) which lets tourists select attractions, restaurants, accommodation, transportation, shopping and entertainment from one integrated platform.
Payments are via an online travel agency or payment gateway. Yangzhou, China, was the first district that deployed ITCMP, attracting millions of tourists on free-and-easy trips. Plans to invest in and deploy the ITCMP in Malaysia and other cities in Asia are underway.
Many, especially those in the upper scale, have embraced the digital platform, observes Datuk Hamzah Rahmat, Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) president.
To go global, small and medium size agencies must consolidate. They cannot continue to depend on group bookings from the public sector.
"The Government must train and expose these agencies to digital tourism. Travellers have gotten smarter because they've done lots of research. So, as agents, we must know even more before we can compare and offer alternatives to suit the tech-savvy traveller."
Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association deputy president Uzaidi Udanis shares how the association is working with the Malaysia Tourism Council to help agencies leap onto the digital platform.
Initiatives include organising virtual seminars and Q&A sessions, integrating ticket sales for everything from ferry and bus services to tourist attraction passes online so travellers won't have to queue.
"Clients want immediate confirmation for their hotel bookings so agencies must 'hold stock' - it's a big capital investment. We want to assist the small agencies by exposing them to the 'blue ocean strategy'.
"Volume talks. We can also negotiate better rates and rooms for the smaller agencies but they must band together," he suggests.
Wee also says, don't just rely on MATTA to organise training and seminars. Be proactive. The agents themselves must have the initiative to step up, he feels. Some aren't ready because it involves serious money. Players must go digital even if they can't do it on a large scale. It's a question of survival, Wee warns.
Kate Ang, 20, planned her family's visit to Taiwan in December with help from Google. Travel agents are slow and rigid, she says, preferring to take charge herself.
Search engines provide everything a traveller would need, she enthuses, from where to go and what to eat to detailed maps on how to get there. She zeroed in on the hotels online, called them to get details like public transportation routes and nearby attractions, before finalising the bookings.
"All you need in Taiwan is a smartphone because the apps are so convenient. It's very easy to get around. Even the locals use apps to explore their country. With a travel agent, we'd have to follow a rushed schedule. It's easier and more fun to do things at our own pace."
According to travel search engine Skyscanner, 2014 saw 60% of Malaysian travellers make flight searches on their mobiles. Desktop and tablet searches were at 30% and 10% respectively.
Lawyer S.P. Moo, 38, sees herself as a part-time agent - a second career of sorts AirAsia helped kickstart. She spends less than three months to plan a trip and enjoys trawling the Net for reviews.
"AirAsia was a starting point for me. I book cheap flights then hunt for the best accommodation deals and ground tours. It's more flexible than signing up for a tour that mainly offers packages. I want to save money and be in control."
She doesn't want to be fitted into a schedule, sharing how her friends who joined a tour to Rome were served Chinese food and only had a "stop-snap" moment at the Colosseum. "I don't want to follow some guy waving a flag on tour. I want to eat what I want, not some fixed menu."
Agents only take you to the must-see spots, Moo laments. And travellers can't tell agents what they want because they don't know what's there until it's too late.
"If you don't know about the special attractions you can't ask for it to be included in your itinerary.
Agents don't tell you about them because there's not enough time in a typical tour and it would cost more.
"When I was in Rome, I walked inside the Colosseum at night and visited the Vatican Scavi beneath St Peter's Basilica - these experiences are not included in the traditional tours. I only knew about them from the Internet."
Having planned everything for her friends and family to local and foreign destinations like Australia, China, Europe, Laos and Thailand, Moo feels she does a better job than travel professionals.
However, she does think travel agents still have their supporters.
"It's convenient for the elderly to follow the (tour guide) flag. Tour packages will always be popular especially with senior citizens," she offers.
Thirtysomething manager Kelly Lee says she doesn't have time to plan her own trips. She relies on travel agents but "only internationally established ones". While she does some research online, it's just to familiarise herself with the destination.
"I pay more compared with my friends who plan their own trips but I don't have time to be monitoring flight ticket prices and making ground tour bookings myself. My work deadlines are already so stressful, I don't want to worry about my vacation too!"
The main benefit of signing up with a tour is that an agency will settle details like accommodation and transportation, she says.
"The tour itinerary is just a framework for me. If there are places I don't want to visit - like the obligatory factory outlets, I'll just do something else when I'm there," she says, adding that she thinks travellers opt for "DIY trips" to avoid "template tours".
MATTA's Hamzah also points out that a travel agency can better deal with the unpredictably of travelling, citing the terror attacks in Paris and lockdown of Brussels in November last year as examples.
"Imagine being stuck there. If you had an agent, you'll have someone to help. Otherwise, you're on your own," he says, adding that on average, it only costs 10% more to book a holiday through an agent.
Advising travellers to "watch out for the fine print" if they're planning their own vacations, Uzaidi of the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association cautions that the terms and conditions of online offers may leave you with no recourse if something happens.
"What happens if there's a cancellation? With an agent, you can customise your tours either face to face or on the phone, particularly if you have a request or would like to organise a special activity."