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The age of the independent tourist travel
Staff are needed to cater for vacationers who prefer short, flexible trips and cruises to nearby locations.

20 June 2008
South China Morning Post

Hong Kong travellers are becoming more independent and discerning, preferring to travel on their own rather than with a traditional tour group, and travel agents are gearing up to meet these changing needs.

"The demand for short-haul tours and independent travel products is increasing," Wing On Travel general manager Jo Jo Chan said. "Customers now look for variety and creativity in itinerary design, usually implying a 'mixed experience' of nice dining, drinking, shopping, sightseeing, fun and excitement-seeking. In short, they are always looking for that extra something."

Hong Thai Travel Services general manager Susanna Lau Mei-sze said: "People would like to travel on their own, whereas previously they preferred to travel in groups. More travellers like to buy their own air tickets and hotel stays. Or they might take a [flexible] package."

Holidaymakers are also travelling more frequently and for shorter durations, resulting in an increasing demand for trips to nearby locations. According to Ms Lau, popular destinations include Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and China. In response to these shifting consumer preferences, Hong Thai Travel has designed a package called Your Own Tour, a 'free and easy' flexible package with an option for a half- or full-day guided tour. "The rest of the stay in the destination is on your own, so you have your own time," said Ms Lau.

Cruises are also becoming more popular with Hong Kong tourists in anticipation of the cruise terminal scheduled to open at the old Kai Tak airport site in 2012. "Many cruise lines are looking at this market and industry players are trying to grab a share of this market. Everyone is promoting cruises," she said.

Hong Thai is establishing a cruise centre to meet demand.

World-class cruise companies are strengthening their presence in this region and offering four- to seven-day Asian itineraries at competitive prices. "They see the potential for Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore as the gateway to explore the bigger Asian market," Ms Chan said.

Another important development for the travel industry has been the pervasiveness of the internet.

IT-savvy travellers prefer the convenience of booking air tickets and hotel rooms from home and travel agencies are scrambling to ensure that their websites are able to meet this demand.

Swire Travel managing director Andrew Leung said: "The implementation of e-ticketing signals a turning point in the travel industry. Travel nowadays is no longer simply a matter of ticket issuance. Instead, it is the professionalism of the travel consultant that makes the difference.

"Personalised professional services provided by travel consultants cannot be replaced by technology," Mr Leung said, adding that a travel consultant should have sound product knowledge and good interpersonal skills. "Travel consultants should be able to give professional advice such as restaurant recommendations, theatre ticket reservations and transport arrangements to ensure that customers make the most of their trips," Mr Leung said.

Travel agencies are now looking to employ travel consultants. Hong Thai Travel is looking to employ more ticketing staff and travel consultants. The firm is seeking about 30 new staff and the main vacancies are for assistant ticketing officers and above, IT programmers and junior tour escorts.

Wing On Travel is also looking for ticketing officers. It has more than 50 vacancies for senior and junior staff, especially frontline staff. Ms Chan said: "We need well-trained people who are knowledgeable and have a good service mindset," Ms Chan said. "We also welcome fresh candidates with the right attitude who are willing to take up the challenge because this is a demanding industry with long working hours. Getting started is not easy," she warned.

The present talent shortage means attracting and retaining good staff is tough. Ms Lau said: "Staff mobility is high, especially among young people. They like to job hop. They are always looking for higher pay and better [benefits]."

Ms Chan said: "It gets more difficult to recruit experienced staff because the whole industry is expanding and senior staff are in high demand. But for junior staff or fresh graduates, the situation is much better. We are able to provide training resources and a clear and rewarding career path for them to follow."

Hong Thai Travel has moved to ensure that it gets the right workers by contacting educational institutions directly, Ms Lau said: "If we need assistant ticketing officers we contact hotel and tourism students. This is more specific and targeted rather than just placing an ad in the newspapers. We have been doing this and it works."
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