CATERING TO DIFFERENT CULTURES GROWS IN IMPORTANCE; ELECTRONIC MEDIA KEY TO NEW COMMUNICATIONS ENVIRONMENT;
CREATIVITY ESSENTIAL TO MAINTAINING TOURISM POSITION; OFFERING A MULTI-DESTINATION ITINERARY TO RETAIN COMPETITIVE EDGE
Mergers and acquisitions challenge industry
This year saw major mergers and takeovers among tour operators, with Thomas Cook and MyTravel joining hands and TUI's acquisition of British travel services company First Choice.
However, this movement seems to be centred in Europe, and has not yet hit Thailand.
"It seems that the big overseas wholesalers are the ones that are merging among themselves," said Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA) president, Apichart Sankary.
"The problem for agents is different.
It is more about investors taking over hotels in Phuket and elsewhere.
" He added this takeover trend has tripped up Thai agents.
"They (the investors) aren't contacting tour operators, and they want to close reservations to upgrade their properties from now through October 2008.
" On top of Mr Apichart's list of temporary hotel shutdowns for rebranding, and far from alone, are projects being re-flagged under the Marriott umbrella.
These include the Tipviman Hotel in Cha-am and the Kamala Bay Garden Resort in Phuket.
"These hotels have a lot of contracts with local tour operators.
I get calls from our members who have already booked rooms for this coming season.
They ask, 'what should I do?' I've reported this to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, and they say we have to talk more with the investors.
" He said ATTA has called many of the hotels that suspended operations while undergoing upgrades, "And they say, 'We won't be open in time for the high season.
' So we ask, 'What about the bookings?' And they simply say, 'Stop selling.
'" With high season here, Mr Apichart said: "Who will take responsibility for the bookings already made?"
Catering to the evolving arrivals demographics
Thailand's travel and tourism operators have been broadening their radar screens to cover new inbound markets like China, India, the Middle East and Russia.
However, embracing these diverse markets, which greatly depart from the traditional western domains, brings with it a different range of cultural issues.
"It takes a cultural change from both sides.
With certain markets such as the Middle East and Russia it is easy to find a half-way communication," said Diethelm Travel Thailand managing director, Maarten Groeneveld.
"China and India are proving to be more difficult, and we feel that targeting these markets should be done by employing Chinese or Indians.
" Association of Thai Travel Agents president, Apichart Sankary, views the situation as one that requires innovative travel products that are better suited to these cultures.
"Western Europeans mostly fly to domestic destinations, but new markets such as China, India and Russia like to travel overland to see the culture," he said.
"Only the Russians seem to have really changed, and want to visit the north more.
The Chinese just want to go to Bangkok and shop, and then go to the beach in Pattaya because of the cheap prices.
"We need to do something about this.
We need to sell the culture of the country, and we have a lot to sell.
" He said much of this culture lies in the north.
"But, selling the north is not easy," Mr Apichart said.
He also suggested a novel approach to shift attention towards northern Thailand's culture.
"We need a bullet train that goes 180 km/hr to save time.
We have to show them something different, and if they go by train during the day, they have something to see.
We need to direct them to our culture," he said.
Electronic communication taking over
With the travel and tourism sector embracing electronic media with open arms, the venerable brochure could be relegated to a niche role.
According to Diethelm Travel Thailand managing director, Maarten Groeneveld, Diethelm Travel has said goodbye to paper and ink.
"We do not print brochures anymore.
All information we provide is digital now," Mr Groeneveld said.
The printed marketing collaterals once found in travel agent's racks, on trade show tables, and in customer's mailboxes are being replaced with websites, CDs, power point presentations and emails.
"We distribute our annual tariff on CD by direct mail to our clients," Mr Groeneveld said.
"Most of this CD is also shown on the internet.
Furthermore, it is handed out to selected agents during trade fairs.
" However, Mr Groeneveld hasn't cast the death knell on all of the aging printed media just yet, and still sees a role for brochures.
"I feel printed flyers can attract more attention to a specific product, as long as information is clear and kept short," he said.
He said general brochure mailing "would be a waste of money and time" as the average outbound agent is flooded with information.
With tour agencies vying for new markets like China, Korea, the Middle East and Russia, the question of multi-lingual collaterals comes up.
"We have our information, itineraries, and website in English, as it is simply not economically viable to service our wide variety of clients in their own language," said Mr Groeneveld.
"For instance, with a specialised agent focusing on the Korean market only, I can see the need for Korean language brochures and Koreanspeaking staff," he said.
Creative use of video
Travel and tourism increasingly utilises the internet in its operations, and is constantly pressured to stay abreast of the latest innovations.
This is particularly prevalent in marketing quarters, where serious players must keep pace and adapt to wave after wave of new online media tools.
According to Softech Business Solutions internet consultant, Michael Looney – who also manages the Pacific Asia Travel Association website – online video is the next must-take route.
"For travel and tourism operators in particular, online video provides the ability to create a viewer experience that was previously restricted to TV travel shows," he said.
"Video cannot only show more of what you want your audience to see, it can also engage their emotions and motivate action in a way other media can't.
" He said professional, broadcast quality video is no longer a luxury, due to recent technological advances in digital video cameras, editing and encoding.
"Watching digital video on the web is now normal consumer behaviour," Mr Looney said.
"It is an affordable medium for all kinds of messages: short-term messages, targeted messages, and multiple versions of the same message.
"Just as important as the drop in production costs is the new opportunity for internet distribution.
Much has already been said about web 2.
0 and UGC (User Generated Content).
" He cited hotels using web films to present their various properties as well as highlights of their locations.
Lonely Planet launched six channels in April as a resource for travellers, and the Tourism Authority of India has jumped in with a channel on YouTube.
In the aviation sector, Delta Air Lines has opened a channel on which its flight attendants share travel experiences and present information about the carrier's destinations.
Thailand retains competitive edge
The public and private sectors acknowledge that regional competition for arrivals is heating up, and they are now struggling to agree on ways to face it.
Since September 2006, Thailand has steadily been losing business to other regional centres who seem to be managing their marketing co-ordination a lot more efficiently.
As business has been drying up for Thailand, in-fighting in the industry and discounting has become rife between tourism operators and products attempting to retain their market share — to the detriment of the profitability of some organisations.
"Within the industry as tour operators and hotels, we still have too much competition amongst ourselves and do not have a unified stance," said Diethelm Travel chief operating officer, Richard Brouwer.
"There are too many people arguing nittygritty issues for themselves instead of getting together for the greater good of the industry and its long-term health.
" Tourism Authority of Thailand governor, Phornsiri Manoharn agrees.
"I would like the industry to unite to help Thailand remain in the forefront of the minds of the world's consumers," she said.
She sees marketing activities as crucial to the effort, citing the rise in competition at regional trade shows.
Diethelm Travel Thailand managing director, Maarten Groeneveld takes a more regional perspective.
"The industry should be able to offer more than only Thailand," he said.
He suggested including surrounding countries with combination packages, noting that Thailand is still running strong.
"Due to good value for money, entertainment, healthcare, and the ease of travel in Thailand, we believe that Thailand will keep its competitive edge in the near future," he said.
"However, there are threats that other countries will indeed become comparable, and therefore take on more business.
In a tourism industry growing worldwide, there should be enough room for all of us."