Sailing through the pandemic

As borders and airports start opening slowly, has been initiating their new strategies. Jaal Shah, Group Managing Director, Travel Designer Group says that they tracked the pandemic right from early stages and had plans for different scenarios. As a result, when the lockdowns began, they were prepared.

Shehara Rizly

Q What are the main issues you faced during the lockdown and what kind of impact has Travel Designer Group seen on their business?

Travel industry is one of the heavily impacted industries during the COVID-19 pandemic and Travel Designer Group is not immune. As an organisation, we went through one of the most challenging times throughout our existence since 1999. Fortunately for us, we started tracking the developments of COVID-19 as early as January. When some parts of the world started going into lockdowns, we started preparing, in early March, for a similar scenario in the countries where we operate. This ensured that we did not face any major issues to our operations and helped us to settle seamlessly to work from home.

In terms of business impact, I think it is similar to all other organisations in the industry. The main characteristic of this pandemic is the steep fall in business starting mid-March. The drop was sudden, and no one could have done anything, considering that it was induced by government-led travel restrictions around the world. With leisure, business and M!CE restricted, the only business left was from stranded travellers and quarantine requirements. It is all behind us now and we are seeing green shoots in some of our major markets. We should see more recovery in the coming months.

Q How did you keep clients confident during lockdown?

Looking back, we are quite happy with what we achieved in the last few months. We launched REZ2020, redesigned booking engine to suit the new age requirements. Our operations and accounts team worked tirelessly to refund all COVID affected reservation to our clients in their original mode of payment. And, our sales team engaged with all of our clients updating them about COVID impacts, travel advisories, health and safety precautions by hotels and attractions and new product updates from Personally, I spoke with over 400 clients globally via video conferencing to thank them and to learn about their post-COVID business expectations and how we can work together to emerge stronger. I intend to reach out to many more clients in the coming weeks.

Q What steps have you taken for Travel Designer Group to deal with the pandemic?

Travel Designer Group is founded based on strong financial fundamentals and we had been profitable since inception. Further, over the last two years, we analysed all risks associated with our business model such as currency exchange, credit and business disruptions and strategically worked on strengthening our organisation on all these aspects. These efforts paid off during the pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, we tracked the pandemic right from early stages and had plans for different scenarios. Hence, when the lockdowns began, we never had a moment of indecisiveness.

I would classify our pandemic response into four stages.

Rest: The entire senior management took few days break during the initial phase of lockdowns to introspect on how we will handle the pandemic.

Refund: Our first goal was to refund travel agents in their original mode of payment, and we were clear that we will not issue credit notes. Fortunately, many of our supplier partners stepped-up and announced force majeure. This helped in quick resolution of reservations affected by COVID-19. As we speak, we have refunded all the affected reservations and our client feedback is testimony to our efforts.

Restructure: In my assessment, I think the earlier expectation of a V shaped recovery is no more realistic. Looking at the modest rebound in some of the markets, where business is opened to near normal, I think that the recovery will be steady but slow and it will be at least a year and a half to two years before we can rebound to 2019 levels. With that assessment, we also had to restructure our organisation set-up to reduce our cost, align it to current business levels and strengthen it for sustainable business. We had to take some tough decisions and let go of some wonderful talent we had. However, we ensured that we were transparent right from the start and tried to minimise the impact in all possible ways.

Rebound: This is where we are now. In the last two months, we worked on every little feedback that we received from our clients about our product to bring many new innovative features that made our platform more robust and user-friendly. Our sales teams across all markets are working closely with clients, educating them about possible travel trends post-COVID and how we can together emerge with a sustainable business model.

Q When do you think inbound tourists will start their journeys to the UAE?

The UAE has done remarkable work in its COVID-19 response. As we speak, the country is completely open, and most restrictions are removed. With visa restrictions also removed, we are expecting to welcome inbound tourists from September and have a good inbound winter season from October. Of course, there will be a significant reduction in numbers compared to 2019 as travellers’ confidence for air travel is still low. However, the UAE is currently one of the safest destinations in the world and we believe, will be a sought-out destination this winter.

Q Do you think travellers will be different in terms of their requirements after or during the pandemic?

Safety and hygiene will become a key point. Recently, we reached out to a number of hotel chains, standalone hotels and attractions to gather information about their safety and hygiene practices during this time and we are heartened to know that a lot of thought and effort has gone into making guests feel safe and comfortable. Cleaning procedures, social distancing and contactless service has taken centerstage. This might also prompt guests to choose well-known brands, where they can feel comfortable. We can also expect many safety precautions followed by airlines and airports to become a norm post-COVID.

Q Will domestic tourism become a better revenue earner at this point in time?

Right now, domestic tourism looks attractive. With international border restrictions prevalent in majority of the countries, we have seen a surge in domestic bookings. We are also seeing some support by governments to encourage domestic tourism. Case in point is the success of staycations in the UAE in the last two months. After the huge downturn, the staycation business during Eid holidays was like a breeze. Having said that, domestic tourism cannot replace outbound tourism by volume as we move towards normalcy.

Q When will tourism bounce back?

This depends on multiple factors. First, international borders must open and then the restrictions related to COVID testing and self-isolation must be relaxed for leisure travellers to comfortably take vacations. Availability of a vaccine would remove these pain points. Then it is down to economic conditions and disposable income of people. Global economy is expected to shrink this year and would most likely recover over the next two years. Tourism will also recover steadily, and I am confident that we can see pre-pandemic levels in a year to year and a half.

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