Hong Kong's strong economy means most local residents have a little extra spending money and less need to economise. They are therefore far more inclined to book fun weekend breaks, as well as to plan longer trips further afield when their annual leave comes around.
On these occasions, the most popular option is still to join a tour, but nowadays many more people are willing to travel independently. "In the past, they worried about the language barrier and were not as experienced in the ways of international travel," says Susanna Lau, general manager of Hong Thai Travel Services Limited. "However, today they generally speak more than one language and will probably have been to major Asian cities such as Bangkok, Taipei and Beijing."
Consequently, a lot of outbound tourists now prefer to buy an air ticket, book a hotel and then arrange other parts of the trip for themselves. That is easy enough to do when they are just visiting one destination city. However, if they want a more elaborate itinerary involving special transport arrangements, the option of joining a tour is still preferable. To boost this type of business, travel agents are also actively exploring new destinations and creating tours with special themes to give travellers options which are fresh and exciting.
However well a tour is organised, problems can occur, especially around the time of public holidays when more people are on the move. Recognising this, Hong Thai set up a 40-member emergency task force in 2000 to handle the aftermath of any accident, or a crisis caused by a natural disaster. In late 2004, the team came into its own when the Asian tsunami struck. They were able to give the families of tour members immediate information about the situation and keep them briefed on developments. This proactive approach was favourably reported in the media and also won widespread praise for the company's tour leaders. "What we did really impressed the public and has given people even more confidence in our services," Ms Lau explains.
Other initiatives have been taken in response to customer demand or competition in the market. For example, various travel insurance policies are now available at very reasonable rates and, after the necessary training, all frontline staff will be licensed as travel insurance agents by the end of this year.
To minimise the risks for outbound groups, the company makes sure to choose its overseas partners very carefully. As an extra measure, tour leaders monitor the level of services to the extent of checking a driver's qualifications and the condition of hotels and vehicles, when abroad.
On inbound tours, Hong Thai caters mostly for mainland tourists and Ms Lau is optimistic about the opportunities for development. She notes that the government is actively building new tourist attractions, but that improvement is still needed in the general standard of retail services and to alleviate the problem of air pollution. "Both issues must be given proper attention for the good of the tourist industry," she says.
Meanwhile, there is steady demand for competent staff and no shortage of candidates. For instance, when Hong Thai advertised around 100 vacancies in a recent recruitment drive, they received nearly 600 applications. "When hiring, we believe in finding the right person for each job," says Ms Lau. "That's the way to get the best results for the company. We prefer to leave a post vacant for a while rather than taking on someone who is not suitable."
The key qualities she looks for are a positive mindset and an interest in dealing with people. Staff must also be flexible, particularly if asked to work overtime or non-standard hours during the peak seasons.
The positions most regularly available are to handle ticketing services and hotel reservations. These frontline vacancies and jobs as tour leaders usually attract Form five to Form seven graduates. Every year, Hong Thai also has about 10 openings for university graduates to join its management trainee programme.
- Tour operators are offering new destinations and packages
to attract business
- A special in-house team is trained to deal with travel-related
- Overseas partners are carefully selected and closely monitored
- Tour leaders and staff in frontline positions must be
flexible and show initiative
Strive for excellence
In January 2006, Hong Thai became the first and only travel agent in Hong Kong to be awarded the ISO 9001:2000 certificate issued by the British Standards Institute. This was in recognition of quality services in the design and provision of escorted tours, incentive and group sales tours, ticketing and hotel reservations.
Ms Lau attributes this success to the company's strong team spirit. "By understanding one another's difficulties, our staff are able to work together more effectively," she says.