One sign of increased confidence in the strength of the local economy has been the growth of outbound tourism over the last year or so.
"People have once again started to think of overseas vacation trips as a necessity rather than a luxury," says Steve Huen, the executive director of Evergloss Tours. "They are working hard and need the chance to relax and get away from day-to-day pressures."
Mr Huen says that the general move towards a five-day week has also had a positive impact on the tour business. "Having longer weekends, people are more inclined to take short breaks during the year and not travel only for their annual holidays," he explains. As a result, bookings are up and seasonal fluctuations are not as pronounced as in the past.
However, while people may be travelling more frequently, the average amount spent per trip is down. Noting this trend, Mr Huen also points out that ten years ago most customers selected seven-day tours, but now more than 50 per cent of the packages sold are for five-day trips. "Instead of taking long-haul trips to Europe or the US, more people are choosing to visit places such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, which are only about four hours by air," he says.
In the last decade, China has become one of the most popular destinations and Hong Kong tourists no longer regard it as under-developed in terms of hotels and other amenities. Most visitors to the mainland still join all-inclusive tours, but Mr Huen has noticed new patterns emerging, in particular for customers going to countries in Southeast Asia. More often, they are opting for hotel-only packages and making other arrangements by themselves. He puts this down to tourists now having better language skills and knowing what to expect overseas.
This, though, has helped Evergloss achieve substantial growth in its hotel package business, increasing staff from four to 60 in the last 10 years. Mr Huen also attributes this to being able to offer a greater variety of products and services, which he believes is essential for the long-term development of the business. Other key factors have been to provide extra value and increase sales volume by winning repeat business and referrals.
The current plan is for the company to open two or three new branches during the next 12 months and hire 100 recruits, split equally between frontline and back-office staff. Candidates for tour guide or counter sales roles will require at least a Form five education, but good language abilities are crucial, especially if someone hopes to lead long-haul tours to Europe or Australia. There is already a fast-track route for frontline staff, and the intention is to introduce a management trainee programme for university graduates interested in the tourism industry.
To ensure a high level of customer service, the company will continue to put special emphasis on staff development. All frontline staff receive 10 days' induction training to learn about the corporate culture, different products, operating systems and procedures. In the following three to six months, they gain on-the-job experience at one of the branches under the close supervision of a senior manager.
Mr Huen says that, nowadays, tour guides must be quick thinking and innovative. "For example, instead of expecting customers to wait at the hotel lobby to get their room keys, we would assign rooms in advance and prepare a small package with the key and detailed information about the weather and what to prepare for the next day's activities," he says.
This attention to detail also extends to pre-sales services. Counter sales staff and customer service officers at call centres are trained to have the professional knowledge to answer any type of enquiry with maximum efficiency. In doing that, they must follow clear guidelines which specify such things as how to greet a customer and to summarise key points in the course of every conversation.
Since Internet sales are increasingly popular, Evergloss will also upgrade its own website in order to make it more user-friendly and enhance the security of online transactions.
Essential qualities for tour guides
- Language proficiency
- Good communication and interpersonal skills
- Pleasant personality and a ready smile
- Proactive and responsible attitude
- Conscientious and willing to work during public holidays
- Bonus scheme — altogether HK$10 million has been distributed in bonuses in January, June and October this year
- Performance-based pay — annual salary increases in April ranged from one to 100 per cent. The basic salary for tour guides was almost doubled from HK$1,860 to HK$3,500
- Guaranteed minimum income — frontline staff are guaranteed income from basic salary plus commission of at least HK$16,000 every two months
- Professional training — staff with potential may get sponsored study leave overseas
- Numerous opportunities — fresh graduates can become a long-haul tour leader within two years