Travel agencies have become an integral part of life in Qatar. Face it, although many people state they love the lifestyle offered in Qatar, not least the tax-free salaries, they are also eager to leave the country for a break, whether it be on their annual vacations home of just plain leisure travel.
Qatari nationals, too, find the services of travel agencies useful, especially as they often move out bag and baggage in large groups to destinations overseas, particularly in summer.
However, those involved in the travel business are facing some degree of competition, not just with each other, but airlines and hotels. With online bookings popular these days, where travel arrangements can be made from the comfort of home, travel agencies are working harder to make things easier for their clientele.
According to Yousef Darwish, CEO of Milaha Trading, parent company of Navigation Travel and Tourism (NTT): “Online bookings have affected those made through travel agencies. However, the number of travellers has also increased and we have a sizeable volume of corporate clients, so it has balanced out to a certain extent.”
Mannai Travel General Manager Farukh Sardar, too, states that online facilities have impacted business, particularly in relation to individual travellers, but not so much when it comes to corporate travel. Gulf Star Tours and Travels manager Mohammed Basheer says online bookings have impacted the agency’s business by as much as 50 percent, especially in terms of family holiday bookings and on low-cost carriers.
One grievance related to bookings over the Web is that should something go wrong, it becomes difficult to rectify. A person for example, may have booked himself on a wrong flight or seeks to cancel, and undoing all this could be problematic. Airline call centres are often notoriously unhelpful, leaving travellers frustrated and having to fend for themselves. Not so when a travel agency is in the picture.
Clientele, services and destinations
Seventy percent of NTT’s clientele are expatriates. Darwish says that Qataris tend to travel in bigger numbers and have higher expectations, such as premium service, which the agency “endeavours to meet and exceed”. According to Sardar: “A majority of nationals will travel Business and a small percentage in First.
The overall market majority is in Economy as the price difference between Business and Economy is quite substantial.” Mannai’s customer ratio is 80:20 in favour of expatriates. “All customers are well informed and as such, we need to meet and exceed expectations as professionals across all our customers. We always consider a customer as an individual and strive to meet expectations as our service standard,” says Sardar.
Basheer did not give a percentage-wise break-up of the clientele but says the business depends on the season and family packages. Gulf Star provides entire travel solutions. Other then air tickets and hotel bookings, it offers tour packages, travel insurance, processing of visa papers for Qatar, the UAE and Oman, and assistance in procuring Schengen visas as well as for Singapore and B-1 visas for the US. In a crunch, Gulf Star can provide bookings for the Euro Rail network and cruises.
Darwish says: “We offer a wide range of services that spares our clients the time and effort of having to go elsewhere for their travel needs. Our services include airline and hotel/apartment reservations and ticketing, cruise bookings, car rentals, coach tours, rail tickets, tailor-made leisure packages, visa assistance, international driving licence, and last but not least, travel health insurance.” Mannai Travel, too, offers similar facilities, which are pretty much par for the course with travel agencies in the country.
In his years in the business, Darwish has found summer and the period before the two Eid breaks the busiest times. “In Europe, we have seen most of the bookings to Paris and London; in the Far East, it is to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, while Cairo and the UAE are the favourite Middle East destinations for our clients,” he says.
Basheer says that most of the year can be considered as busy but January to March and September to November are comparatively slow. “Most of our clients travel within the GCC region and the Middle East, along with gateway points in Europe and the Far East,” he says.
Sardar states the busiest times are the summer break and there are peaks during the spring and Christmas breaks as well as over the two Eids. “The most popular destinations are London, Paris, Munich and Austria amongst the nationals for the long breaks and for the short breaks, it is Dubai and Turkey. As for expatriates it is mostly short holidays and they could be to Sri Lanka, India, Dubai, Maldives, Turkey and package holidays to Europe,” he says.
Travellers generally have an idea in mind when it comes to planning. It is making the bookings which can drive them up the wall, not to mention comparing fares and prices to a particular destination. Competitive fares offered by airlines practically every day manage to keep people on the hop.
Not so with travel agencies here, which bring the best laid plans to fruition and for those who walk in off the street with no particular destination in mind, the agents are there to help. Basheer says while a client may come in with embryonic travel plans, Gulf Star helps these people get organised and give everything proper shape to make travel more comfortable.
Says Darwish: “The vast majority of our clients have their travel plans already made when they come to us, while the remaining clients approach us for advice and ask for more options before coming to a final decision on when and where to go.” Sardar says in most cases, clients have an idea of what they want.
“They come to us to qualify their choice and if we are able to add value, they may end up booking through us. We also have partnerships with airlines and hotels and this gives us the flexibility to meet our customer needs and thus have a win-win for all,” says Sardar.
Per force, most people have to travel by air, so, quite naturally, some have airlines they prefer over another. Chalk this one down to solid advertising or just brand loyalty. Darwish says:
“Our clients tend to prefer Qatar Airways due to its network of direct flights from Doha. Many of our clients are also members of Qatar Airways’ frequent flyer programme, which also influences their decision to fly the airline”.
Basheer has noticed a similar trend with Qatar Airways being preferred for its direct flights to destinations all over the globe. Emirates, Etihad and others are also in the fray, but to a lesser extent in the case of flights out of Doha. Meet and assist services offered by airlines are also important to clients, says Basheer, especially if the flyer is a first-time visitor to a destination. And, if travelling with the brood in tow, the service makes things so much easier.
It is natural for people to seek out the best service at the cheapest rates. While airlines are cutting fares right and left in order to garner business, as well as promotions during off-seasons, travel agencies cannot offer discounts beyond a certain point. Darwish says: “We try to remain competitive by offering our clients the best rates with a reasonable service fee, and that impacts our ability to offer discounts beyond what is announced by the airlines.
Our Qatari clients generally prefer travelling in First and Business class, and while expatriates prefer travelling in economy. We are seeing a growing segment travelling on Business class, especially with the discounted and promotional Business class fares available.” Basheer notes that Qatari travellers prefer the premium classes.
Direct flights are the most preferred option for flyers. However, according to Sardar, if an indirect flight to a destination can save a customer substantial amounts of money they do not mind making stopovers along the way.
According to the Mannai Travel official, agencies cannot offer rates below what an airline charges. However, he adds: “We do have ways to work around the pricing to find the best value by using the permitted combinations and playing around with the routing and dates to come up with a better fare than what the online website of an airline might offer.”
Clearly, Qataris, who are famous for being big spenders, will not compromise on their air travel, while the more budget-conscious expatriate has little choice but to opt for Economy. Promotional offers and seat upgrades thus are seen as a major boon for the budget flyer.
Corporate accounts and discounts
Companies, especially those with plenty of expatriate staff, provide good business to agencies in the country, through corporate accounts. The omnipresent mandoob can only do so much and many firms rely on travel agencies to make bookings, whether it be leisure or business travel.
Basheer says: “We have tie-ups with more than 40 corporates and immediate families of the employees. However, we do not offer discounts on corporate deals but provide credit facilities.”
NTT, on the other hand, as is the case with many other travel agencies, does offer discounts, with some conditions. Darwish sates: “After negotiating an agreement with airlines or hotels, employees can benefit from corporate discounts, which are usually based on a guaranteed and fixed minimum volume of business.”
With 200 corporate accounts, Sardar says that if a company has the volumes, an airline may offer some incentives to the individual and business traveller. “Our top 20 accounts do have some form of airline deals that bring them some savings and these could be considered as bulk discounts.”
One cannot help but notice that many agencies in Qatar also serve as general sales agents (GSAs) of various airlines, often for multiple carriers. Darwish explains: “Some travel agencies are appointed GSAs when a specific airline is convinced that the agency has a sizeable volume of traffic on the airline’s network, which would then financially and operationally justify the appointment.
Therefore, being appointed a GSA of an airline is an additional selling tool for the agency, and will, of course, prompt the agency to influence passengers to fly on the particular airlines they represent.”
It must be pointed out though, that those travel agencies who act as GSAs will not forcefully bundle a traveller into a specific airline, bound and gagged! There are also partnerships with airlines and hotels with which the respective agency has a large volume of business.
Addressing the GSA issue, Sardar says: “Normally (pushing in favour of an airline) is not permitted but it does happen. Yes, of course, the focus of such agents would be to promote the airlines they represent and this is also valid to a point as in today’s world, the traveller is well-informed and may make their final choice based on what they consider fair value.”
Airlines and hotels do their bit by keeping agencies abreast of the latest developments. Updates are provided via email, fax, or by site visits conducted by sales representatives. Periodic industry road shows and seminars are also a way to keep up with the latest offers.
A service-oriented business like a travel agency depends a great deal on repeat business. This benefits a client in the maximum manner possible, with travel agencies going all out to make sure the traveller has nothing to worry about and can proceed to the airport with peace of mind.
Gulf Star and Milaha both state repeat business is a crucial aspect of the trade and feedback, positive or negative, is always welcome. Mannai Travel conducts customer surveys and the feedback has been positive.
“We listen to them and take corrective steps to feedback we get so that we make sure that we see ourselves from the customer’s perspective,” Sardar says.
Either way, the motto appears to be ‘The customer is always right’.