I used to work for an online travel classifieds startup in my early undergraduate days and work with a lot of travel agencies in Singapore. The nemesis of these local agencies, I was often told, is the internet. With the advent of the internet and social media, local travel agencies are losing business due to the “more perfect” knowledge that is readily available at the click of the mouse. These traditional businesses are sometimes run by the older generation, with a huge inertia to adopt new and innovative methods and customer acquisition channels. On the other hand, with more information available, travelers are no longer keen on following packaged and guided tours, in which offline stores often specialized. With these two factors combined, travel agencies realize that they are slowly losing market share - and sales. But those who prevail are the ones who embrace and use technology to their advantage. One such Singaporean travel agency, Maple Aviation, is an example. It has been around since 1988, and prides itself as the first local travel agency to adopt social media as its primary platform to reach out to its customers. It is also the TransAsia Airways Singapore’s general sales agent (GSA), and so it takes charge of all TransAsia Airways bookings in Singapore. More recently in May, Maple Travel launched a “Book My Flight” tab on TransAsia Airways’ Facebook page that allows users to book Singapore to Taipei air tickets direct without having to leave Facebook. It has also integrated PayPal as its payment solution, which streamlines and simplifies the purchasing process for customers, thus enhancing the purchasing experience. It has since seen over 200 return flights sold through Facebook in the first three months. Tan Meng Aun, director for Maple Aviation, also shared with us that 20 percent of its customers are between 18 and 24 years old and 50 percent are aged between 25 to 34 years old. It is mainly made up of students, couples, young working adults, and newlyweds. Unsurprisingly, these customers are also the ones who are constantly on the popular social network, adopters of PayPal payment services, and look to blogs as well as online guides to prepare for their next holiday destination. Meng Aun also adds that with Facebook, it brings the brand closer to its customers:
They are able to answer their questions and solve their problems on a platform that the customers are already very comfortable with. This is in contrast to a static website where customers are unable to ask any questions or have to call in and hold before being able to speak to a company representative. With Facebook, they can simply leave their question as a message and later check the answer on their mobile phone while on commute. In addition, having PayPal integrated seamlessly together makes it easy to streamline the purchase process and improves the customer service experience when businesses merge these two platforms.
This also means that local travel agencies are able to coexist with the internet, when technology is embraced. Meng Aun adds:
While the internet is certainly muscling its way in to be a dominant sales channel in the travel industry, the local travel agencies are still able to find their niche, especially in the form of the customer service they provide. Airline ticketing and hotel bookings are no longer a major value proposition for travel agents to pitch to customers, as these customers are able to do that themselves on the internet. However, the nature of travel is always complicated. [For instance,] if a flight is cancelled or if the passenger’s travel plans change, and this is where the immediate service a travel agent can provide, will prove to be of value to customers. Hence, while the internet will continue to grow its dominance in the travel industry and the roles of the local travel agencies continue to evolve, the local travel agencies will never become redundant.
But really, how many local travel agencies, especially the smaller ones, would have the resources and money to integrate a platform like this? Not many. Perhaps the bigger ones will survive, but it’s still a tough task for the smaller players to take their business online.