Natas and travel agents toil to find common ground

The National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) is trying to address the concerns flagged by some of its members, as 24 travel agencies make plans for a travel fair in March to rival the Natas one.

Association president Devinder Ohri, just six months into helming the body representing 340 travel agents, said at a press conference on Thursday that Natas would make admission to its fairs in March and August 2015 free for members of the public.

And it will also lower fees for exhibitors by between 18 and 22 per cent.

These changes are the result of a meeting it had with its members on Thursday; 120 representatives from more than 70 travel-related firms had turned up for the talks.

Mr Ohri said: "We are quite close to achieving what we set out to achieve, which is to have one fair rather than two competing fairs. I hope that will become a reality."

But when The Business Times spoke to the organisers of the "breakaway" travel fair - since named Outbound Travel Fair - compromise between the two sides still seemed quite far off.

Alicia Seah, a spokesman for the Outbound Travel Fair told BT on Thursday evening that the rival fair would go ahead as planned in March.

Ms Seah, the director of marketing communications at Dynasty Travel, said: "As we see it, resolution is still far from the 80 per cent that Natas has cited.

"That said, we will work towards sincere reconciliation of differences, although the stakes do get higher as significant resources have been expended in organising the fair."

The Outbound Travel Fair will be held at the Marina Bay Sands from March 27-29, the very weekend of Natas' March edition of its travel fair; the trade body has held its fairs every March and August since 1987.

On Tuesday, 24 travel agencies, including established names such as Chan Brothers Travel, CTC Travel and Dynasty Travel, announced that they were pulling out of the March Natas Fair, and organising their own.

They say they have lobbied Natas repeatedly in the past to tackle various issues, but with little success.

Among these are sliding visitorship to the Natas fairs, the poor marketing efforts for them, the high exhibition fees, a lack of transparency surrounding the fair's financial reporting and the general admission fees for the public.

Visitorship at the August fair this year slid 10 per cent year on year to 56,189, which exhibitors said hurt their sales.

Already, the travel industry has found itself in a challenging operating environment, one hobbled by Singapore's rising business costs and consumers' migrating to the Internet to do their travel bookings.

Mr Ohri said at the press conference on Thursday that the free admission for the public and the lowering of exhibitors' fees would be in line with Singapore's 50th birthday celebrations next year.

He said that Natas had already planned to lower the admission fee for the public from S$4 to S$2 a head, but decided to sweeten the deal further to meet its members' expectations.

After 2015, the fee structure will be reviewed to ascertain the impact on visitorship and sales, he said.

Mr Ohri acknowledged that the changes would hit Natas' revenue streams for next year, but added that the association had set aside a budget for its SG50 plans.

He went on to add: "It is a commercial decision if our members choose to organise their own travel fair; we have no issues with them doing so.

"However, we are of the opinion that having a single travel fair will benefit the industry and consumers the most in the long run. We will continue to engage our members to bring this matter to a swift resolution."

At Thursday's press conference, some members of Natas' executive committee touched on other areas flagged by the travel agencies, and on plans to improve the upcoming fairs. For instance, an open balloting system will be used to assign booths, instead of allocating choice booths to the biggest exhibitors.

On boosting market efforts, the chief operating officer of Natas Anita Tan said the association will look into ramping up marketing efforts online and on social media platforms to engage younger consumers.

Natas will also look into ways to differentiate its March and August fairs so as to pull in more customers.

On Natas' alleged lack of transparency in financial reporting, Mr Ohri stressed that the association's audited accounts are transparent and have always been available in Natas' annual financial report, although non-disclosure agreements signed with partners did apply to some information.

The committee behind the Outbound Travel Fair said Natas could have been more forthcoming with addressing members' grievances.

Ms Seah pointed out that the waiver of entrance fees was but a temporary arrangement, and that the reduction in booth rentals for certain categories was made known only this week.

This article was first published on November 28, 2014. Get The Business Times for more stories.