Surviving and planning for recovery

Singapore MICE agents share their strategies

NATAS president and UOB Travel Planners, executive director, head of travel, Steven Ler. Credit: UOB Travel Planners

SINGAPORE - M&C Asia spoke to several agents who deal with a large segment of MICE clients on emerging trends and how unity will help them to survive.

Value of agents
These days, besides sending staff on relevant courses to upgrade their skills, and planning new strategies for the market upturn, Mr Steven Ler, executive director, head of travel, UOB Travel Planners, is educating customers on the intrinsic value of travel agents and what agents can do to assist clients during emergency.

Mr Ler heads several divisions, namely Leisure, Concierge and MICE. He is also National Association of Travel Agents' president. One of his goals is to educate customers about travel agencies' unique selling points.

He said: "It's not just about cancellation or postponement of flights. It's the whole string of booking arrangements such as car transfer, tour etc that need to be coordinated."

He also shows clients the importance of travel insurance and coverage, and what they should take note of in future and have included on every trip.

"In times of crises, the value of the agent comes in when customers prefer to speak with a travel agent to make and understand cancellation policies, deferment and what is in their coverage or exposure," he added.

"As most travel agents would have direct working relationship with some suppliers, the agent can have better leverage or to help customers for waiver where possible or to make necessary changes."

Unity for survival
Ms Victoria Chong, spokesperson for Chan Brothers, said: "In the face of the current crisis, it is pertinent that the travel industry rallies together in unity and voice. A great example of industry cooperation was the recent effort where various tourism-related committees got together and presented the industry's case, after the Stabilisation and Support Package, to garner more enhanced support specifically for the industry, which was manifested in the various enhanced measures provided in the Resilience Budget."

Darren Tan, managing director, World Express Group said that industry partners have acted collectively and looked to STB or associations such as NATAS or Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers & Suppliers, to lead and he is very appreciative of the efforts made.

World Express, managing director, Darren Tan. Credit: World Express

A lifeline - the Resilience Budget
Under the Enhanced Job Support Scheme introduced by the government last week, travel agencies, hotels, tourist attractions, cruise terminals and operators, and venue operators will receive a 75% wage offset for the first S$4,600 of gross monthly income for nine months, from April - December 2020.

For travel agencies to qualify for this scheme, more than two-thirds of revenue must be drawn from their travel agency business, based on the Annual Business Profile Returns submitted to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 2018.

World Express' Mr Tan said the budget has been immensely helpful in terms of providing 75% wage support to two of the Group's companies, World Express and Sita World Travel.

He said: "At World Express, about a third of our business is MICE and we do both inbound MICE business to Singapore as well as events in the region. Besides MICE, we also have Leisure Travel and a Cruise Division catering to cruise lines calling in Singapore that may need shore excursions and turnaround services. All our divisions have been directly impacted.

Sita World Travel, an air ticketing and outbound travel agency, has also benefited from the 75% enhanced wage support.

World Express Group also operates an Italian restaurant, Pasta Brava, and the F&B business has also received budget support with 50% wage support and rental rebates.  

Ms Victoria Chong, spokesperson for Chan Brothers, said that MICE and educational-related groups constitute the bulk of the company's inbound travellers.  

While the Enhanced Job Support Scheme (JSS) is beneficial in helping protect employment, the higher course subsidies and extended support till 31 December 2020, via the TIP-iT grant will aid her organisation to make use of the downtime to prepare the workforce through employee upgrading and skills development.

She added: "Additionally, the announcement of a $90 million budget set aside for recovery marketing for the tourism industry when the situation improves may help in alleviating the load on our organisation for the recovery period ahead."

Said Mr Tan: "One of the trends emerging, even before this crisis, was the rise in virtual meetings. To be frank, that's a bit worrying for us in the MICE industry, but when things return to normal, there will be a hunger to meet face to face and to travel and experience different destinations first hand."

Chan Brothers' Ms Chong said: "What we may see moving forward as an opportunity for the MICE industry as a whole - venues and event organisers etc - is the pull, more than ever, to integrate human connections with interactive technology, such as Augmented Reality, as part of their overall offering.

"Over the horizon as a MICE travel agent, this may prove to be an exciting opportunity for us to bundle and market more creative and engaging venues/events/programmes to our clients."