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24 Apr, 2012

TAT Slags “Insulting” Remarks by AirAsia Commercial Marketing Exec

Bangkok, 24 April 2012 – The Tourism Authority of Thailand has taken a senior marketing official of AirAsia to task for “insulting” its personnel and making a number of inaccurate and “ignorant” remarks about TAT policies and activities. In a strongly-worded letter to the editor published in the Bangkok Post today, TAT Governor Suraphon Svetsreni rebutted a number of remarks attributed to Kathleen Tan, the regional head of commercial marketing in an earlier Bangkok Post report on 12 April 2012.

The following are the full texts of the original interview published in the Bangkok Post and the response by the TAT Governor.

Headline: Time for a tourism tune-up

Published: Bangkok Post, 12/04/2012

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) needs to embrace new technology to engage a new generation of travellers, scale back its typical promotional tie-ins with travel agents, come up with country-specific promotional campaigns and refocus its marketing away from the West and toward Asia, said Kathleen Tan, a seasoned marketer known for being instrumental in helping the Malaysian low-cost airline AirAsia transform into the continent’s market leader.

The Singaporean executive is largely basing her suggestions from her experience in China, one of the world’s largest travel markets, where she helped AirAsia get a foothold in 10 cities.

“The TAT needs a big change. The people at the top there are very conservative and old-fashioned,” said AirAsia’s regional head of commercial marketing.

“They need to invest and use the cyberworld and understand the paradigm shift to see where growth is coming from.”

A fast-growing segment is Gen X and Y travellers who use smartphones and tablets and are IT-savvy, she explained, asking the TAT, “Are you communicating with them?”

AirAsia was quick to adopt social media platforms to communicate with independent travellers. Some 85% of its bookings are made through the internet.

Social media allow AirAsia to communicate directly with its clients, fans and potential customers interested in travel. They can ask questions and share ideas, said Ms Tan.

AirAsia’s Twitter accounts in various countries have 514,852 followers, while the Mandarin-speaking Ms Tan’s account, which she started in 2010, has about 70,000 followers in mainland China.

“People [in China] follow me; I’m like Lonely Planet to them,” she said.

She feels the TAT is not addressing independent travellers — not only backpackers but also young families and small and medium-sized business that use the internet to book and are changing the market pattern.

“The top executives at the TAT are old people who don’t seem to understand technology and how to take advantage of it in driving business,” she said.

The TAT also tends to work with travel agents to drive Thailand’s tourism through roadshows abroad, rather than engaging media, which AirAsia has found to be more effective in promoting destinations and tourism activities.

“The TAT likes to go to European trade fairs, but they need to be aware that Europe is in recession and the growth is coming from Asia,” she said.

She added that Thai tourism authorities need to change their mindset about low-cost carrier passengers being “cheap” travellers who do not contribute much to national tourism revenues.

“That’s so wrong. A lot of my friends who are relatively well-heeled travel on AirAsia and save on airfares to stay at five-star hotels,” she said.

The TAT’s misconception resulted in AirAsia being unable to cooperate with authorities on marketing to bring more foreign tourists to Thailand, she added.

The airline attempted to promote Thai tourist attractions in Chongqing, China earlier this year, even offering to foot the bill for travel and expenses if the TAT would take part.

“We could not get the TAT to participate as they said it was not a priority and they were busy with meetings,” she said. The agency gave AirAsia a video for the promotion, but it was tailored to an international audience and seemed to focus on Europe, she added.

“Is it really that hard to prepare a video to cater to the Chinese market?” she asked.

Ms Tan suggested Thai tourism planners become more creative in offering something beyond the typical attractions like royal palaces to attract the new breed of traveller who is more adventurous.

She added after AirAsia’s collaboration with Tourism Malaysia, tourism flows from China to Malaysia have now surpassed Thailand.

“Thailand has so much to offer and is in a perfect situation for tourism. The challenge is to market it well,” she said.

The latest forecast by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports was for tourism revenue of 1.25 trillion baht this year, with foreign visitors reaching 19.8 million.

Response to the article above by TAT Governor Suraphon Svetsreni

Published in the Bangkok Post, 24 April 2012

The article contained many inaccurate comments from an executive of AirAsia about the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Firstly, the AirAsia executive’s comments were rather insulting to the TAT, stating that: “The top executives at the TAT are old people who don’t seem to understand technology and how to take advantage of it in driving business.”

The TAT’s senior executives are highly experienced leaders with proven track records in making Thailand one of the world’s leading tourist destinations.

Digital and online marketing has been a key pillar of the TAT’s strategy for several years and we are highly active across the entire digital marketing spectrum. We are determined to maintain our leadership in online tourism marketing to drive growth across many market segments, especially in Asia.

The AirAsia executive then claimed that the TAT is not addressing independent travellers and young families. She is also wrong about this. We are addressing the Free Independent Travellers market through our many online and social media initiatives, as this is the most effective channel to reach this demographic worldwide.

The AirAsia executive stated that the TAT also tends to work with travel agents to drive Thailand’s tourism through roadshows abroad, rather than engaging media. Certainly, travel agents and roadshows remain an important channel for tourism in some markets, but her comment indicates the AirAsia executive is not aware of the TAT’s many media activities and marketing initiatives.

She also states that the TAT likes to go to European trade fairs and that it should be aware that Europe is in recession and the growth is coming from Asia. Again, this displays the AirAsia executive’s ignorance of what the TAT is actually doing. The TAT participates in trade events in key markets around the world. Our overseas offices in markets throughout Asia participate in smaller-scale local travel, exhibitions and promotions on a continual basis to reach as many Asian travellers as we can. The TAT’s efforts to make Thailand a favourite destination for Asian travellers are delivering solid results.

The AirAsia executive also claimed that the TAT believes that the TAT does not value low-cost air carriers. Again, this is not correct. We work with all airlines and a full range of network partners to the fullest extent. We have long been providing support to many low-cost operators in many markets worldwide, including AirAsia.

In terms of the launch of the Chongqing-Bangkok route, while AirAsia invited the TAT to attend, our executives in our new Chengdu office, which covers Chongqing, were unable to. The TAT Chengdu office was in the process of starting operations and the assistant director had a prior commitment in Shanghai that he could not cancel. The TAT Chengdu office, however, was able to support AirAsia with promotional materials, statistics, and market analysis data.


Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand