We will never be prepared enough in life. Although it is said that the chances for people who are well prepared to succeed are higher, we must also realise that we may still face some unforeseen circumstances along the way.
In late 2022, our two-month winter outbound tours and the number of participants in each tour soared past the 2019 level, something we never expected to happen.
Even though we have more outbound tours now, coordination in various aspects (personnel and resources, mainly) is still lacking. For instance, a new employee who is supposed to start work today may not turn up for work at the last minute. Or the group tickets booked with an airline company have to be rescheduled in the eleventh hour, forcing us to top up the price difference or opt to cancel the whole flight.
Additionally, the hot spring hotel that we’ve booked could just notify us that our room package (inclusive of dinner) will no longer prepare food for us due to labour shortage. Such unexpected changes are very common in the tourism industry nowadays.
Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility of human errors in some cases, too.
By the way, for people specialising in outbound tours like us, the biggest resources are actually manpower and air tickets. Now that business is booming again, we will have to start recruiting new people while at the same time finalise group ticketing with major airline companies’ sales representatives.
Anyway, these two things are the most challenging tasks currently because not everyone is comfortable enough to travel abroad yet; at the same time, group tickets are also hard to come by these days.
The thing is, if a travel agency plans to increase the number of its tour groups, then the above two factors must be addressed, before anything can materialise.
Sometimes I really feel sorry for our loyal customers. This is a major problem and a responsibility all outbound travel agencies must shoulder. The customers have made payments and of course they expect us to deliver the service without any excuses.
I believe many consumers may understand the so-called “new normal” way of doing things now, because the same issues involving staffing, logistics and inflation are faced by almost every industry worldwide. Life is tough and different for everybody now, and all we can do is to learn adapt as we move on.
Having just done with an unprecedented surge in tour activities in December, we then had to deal with the peak holiday season during Chinese New Year. This year’s festival came a little early and we had a relatively short period (about 10 days) to deploy our festive tour groups. (These are “happy” problems, though.)
Notably, this was the first CNY after most Covid-19 travel restrictions were lifted, and everyone was rushing to go on holiday during the short festive season.
To complicate things further, the new normal “issues” started to creep up on us one after another, such as delayed flights that kept passengers waiting for hours at the airport and of course, late arrivals at destinations.
By the time we finally touched down at our destination airport, long lines of passengers had already formed at the immigration counters. Such a commotion is ubiquitous at all airports across the world and we simply had to be a little more patient.
When we finally cleared immigration, we had missed the regular meal time and the restaurant we booked had closed. As if that wasn’t enough, there was an unexpected cold snap with a winter storm ravaging outside.
Due to the lack of professional coach drivers, lorry drivers that were unfamiliar with tourist routes had to be called up to service the tour groups. To make things worse, some seasoned tour guides who had not been working in the same line for the past three years were now both physically and mentally exhausted, so much so that they were completely at a loss and didn’t know what to do.
Under the new normal, these tour guides and managers often find themselves the target of the wrath of picky customers, with some even threatening to take them to court. Of course, there are other more understanding travel buddies who would offer a few comforting words of encouragement instead.
To vent their frustrations, some of the more aggressive customers would take to social media to blast the company, followed by an ultimatum to the travel agency boss that reads something like this: “If I don’t get a satisfactory answer from you soon, I will get social media folks to do me justice!”
To be honest, we as travel operators are extremely fearful of cyber bullying, as people unfamiliar with the situation will start passing their own judgments, and this could easily kill the branding we have spent so many years and hard work to build. Perhaps this is the new social justice system of a new generation of people, and it seems that the older generation like us will have to learn to adapt to the paradigm shift for our own survival.
Although consumers still book their tickets online, make their own ground arrangements, plan their own itineraries, and face the same uncertainties as we do, at least they are willing to bear the consequences if something goes wrong.
However, if they have entrusted everything to a travel agency, anything that doesn’t work out well will be conveniently blamed on the travel agency.
Undeniably, we have to ready ourselves constantly to take the blame for something which probably even isn’t our fault.
As a matter of fact, we are well aware that organising a tour group after the pandemic will invariably put us face-to-face with the challenges arising from various factors of uncertainty. That said, we still try our best to minimise the errors.
More importantly, even during such trying times, we will still do our job conscientiously with a spirit of professionalism and dedication, taking our travel buddies all around the world to enjoy the sceneries and good views. Honestly, my greatest wish is that our regulars will always stand by us, enjoying the itineraries we have worked out for them and experiencing everything together with us, including the new normal way of doing things.
As movie director Chong Keat Aun said during a recent gathering with writers from Sin Chew Daily, “We should count our blessings being able to live safely. What do you say?”
In short, no matter how well we have planned ahead of time, we will never be able to keep up with the unexpected changes, and more changes that will come following a phone call thereafter.
Let’s enjoy the journey of life.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
Leesan, the founder of Apple Vacations, has travelled to 137 countries, seven continents and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.