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18 Jun, 2001

Life Set To Begin at 40 For Thai Tourism Industry

It is said that life begins at 40. That is certainly proving true for the Thai travel & tourism industry which last week witnessed four press conferences that were amply indicative of the shape of things to come.

The TAT announced details of its new Tourism Action Plans for 2001/2 in which it is going to attempt to reshape both itself as well the future directions of the industry at large. Thai Airways unveiled plans to restructure the way it does business and also revamp its financial, management, products and service delivery. Both THAI and the TAT were ‘born’ in 1960.

Deputy Prime Minister Pongpol Adireksarn, who oversees the TAT, presided over a glittering function to promote Thailand’s growing facilities for meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibition (MICE) facilities.

And Northwest Airlines launched an Internet website to enable consumers to make direct bookings, avail of special promotional offers and earn frequent flyer miles.

All four events reflect the dawning of new realities in Thai travel & tourism. Making a hasty exit are what Deputy Transport and Communications Minister Pracha Maleenond called “the old ways of thinking” in conducting business.

As with any process of change, some cushy lifestyles of the past are going to be affected even as new challenges emerge.

What will not change, however, is that no matter what service or product is promoted, it will have to be matched by a smooth, seamless and functioning infrastructure to ensure delivery of the promised service and a quick and efficient fixing of any problems that may occur.

The promotion of the MICE business is intended to help fill space in the many conference and exhibition facilities that have sprung up all over Thailand. Because conference and exhibition participants generally travel on company expense, they tend to be a little more generous with their personal expenditure. Research indicates that MICE delegates spend upto four to six times more than regular tourists.

In a way, this is a classic meeting of minds – higher expenditure is exactly what the national economy wants in line with the additional 50 billion baht tourism revenue earnings target set by the Prime Minister. Most MICE delegates also travel Business class, which would benefit THAI Airways.

It is one of the clear niche-market areas where a team-spirit atmosphere between the TAT and THAI Airways can make a fundamental difference. Both have declared that they plan to work more closely together to tap the emerging opportunities as far-reaching changes take place in the reasons why people travel, the way they book travel and the destinations they choose.

In classic management jargon, both THAI and TAT are now trying to ensure that they can build upon the traditional strengths of the Thai tourism product while addressing its many and growing weaknesses.

Unfortunately, these weaknesses have exacerbated over time, lending credence to the claim that Thai tourism has long been a marketing genius but a management dunce.

One of the more severe weaknesses, still prevailing, is the relatively under-nourished state of the country’s travel & tourism training schools, one of the major reasons why many Thai students leave for further training abroad. Had adequate amounts of money been poured into these schools in the past, the level of industry professionalism would have been higher.

Note that inspite of claiming to be the ‘Aviation Hub of Asia,’ Thailand does not have a Civil Aviation Training Centre of a calibre that can match Singapore’s. For many years, Bangkok was home to the regional headquarters of the International Air Transport Association and still hosts the regional HQ of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

The help of both these organisations could have been counted upon to set up a professional training centre, had such help been sought.

It is a fact that high-calibre training schools produce professional industry managers who in turn set up good management systems. Thai tourism has long suffered from this problem. Indeed, a study of the amounts of money that have gone into marketing the country as against the amounts that have gone into bolstering its infrastructure educational systems will easily show up the big gap and explain many of the prevailing weaknesses.

This same problem is now set to affect outbound Thai travel agents most of whom grew up in the days when business was done on the basis of a straight nine per cent commission paid on airline tickets.

Today, the role of a travel agent is changing fundamentally, and there is probably not a single industry grouping that can help Thai travel agents make that change similar to the help that has been given by the National Association of Travel Agents of Singapore to its members in dealing with the revolutionary new business practices made possible by the Internet.

That is why the Northwest function is effectively another wake-up call for local travel agents selling outbound tickets. While the Internet is not yet widely used as a means of booking tickets by Thai passengers, it is only a matter of time before that changes. THAI Airways has a similar facility, but it is not bilingual.

Northwest made clear that its bilingual facility will make it easier for bookers of business travel, especially those who travel on short notice. As other airlines begin to follow suit, local travel agents are in a for a rough ride and the all-too-predictable choice between going bust or selling out.

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