Efficacy Of The KTM Booster!
Is India's tourism industry arrivals-ready?
The morning sun sliced through cloud cover - a brief respite from the intense heat over the past few days - and made way. As the wheels turned fast crossing the Venduruthy Bridge offering long forgotten sights of the Cochin Shipyard and a host of ships and fishing boats, optimistic expectations took over. Online and hybrid is giving way to face to face. Travel trade shows are finally going physical.
From one of the side roads on Willingdon Island, a familiar sight - suit-clad young executives representing a hotel group are carrying heavy boxes of brochures to the stall. Another person hurries back to his vehicle to grab that which got left behind.
Three giggling colleagues emerge from another lane carrying bags and folders excitedly make their steps toward the exhibition centre, but are suddenly stopped in their tracks by a phone call.
The first sights of Kerala Travel Mart 2022! A set of brand new Caravans proudly displaying themselves to the 150-odd international travel agents, and more than 400 domestic agents.
A mix of Kerala’s traditional ‘Kalari’ and the cool ‘Changadam’ welcome delegates showcasing the worlds of culture and natural bliss.
Familiar name boards and logos announced existence and lured attention to stalls of resorts, hotels and tour companies of various ilk.
Hundreds of smiling faces welcomed visitors with open arms and bear hugs. Sounds of wild laughter, friendly slaps on the back, old friendships renewed and ‘all the best’ wishes hung in the air until official and pre-fixed meetings began.
Soon the floor was set ablaze with non stop discussions on destinations, itineraries, experiences and products.
Domestic agents scampered to ‘discover new worlds’ in order to help their customers ‘travel for good’. Foreign agents found their way around in search for ‘new experiences’ and ‘something different’ in “God’s Own Country” and beyond.
Cards were gladly exchanged followed by detailed presentations; promises were made to ‘send emails with specific packages’, and papers were signed.
Lavish quantities of food were served on each plate at the Seller’s dining area. ‘Pandhal’ offered a mouth watering Roast Beef Sandwich in addition to their iconic RYE Bread loaf. ‘Somatheeram’ sold hot ‘Chukku Kaapi’ and ‘Eat By Citrine’ dished up iconic ‘Keralan’ delicacies. At certain stands like Nikki’s Nest, fresh brews of tea and coffee flowed.
The joy of physically meeting industry colleagues and associates was hard to mask.
After The Sun Sets
As the sun sets on one more edition of the Kerala Travel Mart, are we really arrivals-ready? SATTE takes place next week, and the Arabian Travel Market is currently on. Here are a few issues the travel & hospitality industry needs to address in order to provide travellers a great experience
First, The Positives
International travel trade fairs are still finding their feet globally. A handful of events that took place were greeted with skepticism and resulted in far smaller exhibition floors and buyer numbers. Uncertainties continue to loom, and the travel boom is largely restricted to intra-regional or domestic - much like in India.
The spike in summer travel in India gave hope to a strong resurgence in the industry’s fortunes and its future. Kerala Travel Mart, aimed at creating a more positive outlook, furthered it. The crowd of domestic and international agents who flocked down south and their eagerness to look for new destinations and products leaves Kerala hopeful of a good season ahead.
That international agents chose to come to Kerala / south of India for the first time, and those already familiar with the region were in search for new DMCs, new properties, new itineraries and regions to explore, is even more reassuring. The Kerala story that took India and the world by storm after the first edition of Kerala Travel Mart 22 years ago, is still full of life. And is certainly helping the cause of a wider southern Indian travel experience.
Yet, the Mart and the general travel scenario in India throws light on a few things that the industry and tourism boards will be better off taking note.
Staffing and Training
A large majority of hospitality and travel staff who were forced to leave their positions during Covid have not been able to get back, or have not been taken back. This has created visible cracks in the quality of particularly front-end personnel, who play an important role in creating first impressions to travellers:
When Front Office executives behind the counter are unable to differentiate between a venue for the inaugural (KTM) and the exhibition venue, that is bizarre. When guests waiting at a hotel lobby are told that there are no shuttle services to the exhibition venue, and the shuttle bus driver is repeatedly told that there are no guests waiting for the shuttle, it gets worse. When the shuttle bus is not allowed to park at a space where guests waiting at a lobby can see, it is startling!
Just who is responsible here - uninformed (or not bothered to be informed) executives, or their higher ups who failed to inform them?
Understandably due to Covid shut downs, hotels and resorts have had to be closed for a considerable period of time. But when rooms are made available for guests, is it not a given that those rooms are well appointed, kept free of bad odour (dust) and at the least have equipment that works? At a famed hotel in another city in Kerala recently, the spacious bathroom resembled a worn out old facility with badly stained tiles, and at yet another city, linen had the smell of being unused for long.
At a 4-star hotel in a northern Indian city two months back, after entering the room I realised there were no soap cakes or shower gels. On checking, I was told - “Sir, we have no more soaps left in stock”!! Thankfully, the pan shop nearby had those at Rs. 10.00. At around 11 in the night, I was the last customer there!!!
At least they could have told me something else, isn’t it? And even arranged one?
Kerala’s tourist vehicle drivers are particularly known to keep their vehicles clean and neat. Apparently, not anymore. In recent times, at least on three occasions cabs that came for pick up, more in northern Kerala, though functional, were shabby and with dirt. Ironically, the focus now is more on promoting north Kerala’s destinations! I also heard of a similar story in another part of Kerala where clearly the chauffeur wasn’t informed of a trip in time, and eventually took the vehicle uncleaned.
The industry as a whole needs to beef up numbers and quality of their staff, and urgently train them to ensure gaffes and gaps are avoided. They affect the destination’s reputation*.
When travel was first opened up in Karnataka in November 2020, a Bangalore-based tour company initiated a specific training on hygiene and safety issues for chauffeurs. Apart from the Govt. of Karnataka’s top functionaries, top industry experts were roped in for the half day training. It boosted the morale of the chauffeurs and gave them a new sense of ownership.
Similarly, India’s industry must conduct training programs for staff and ensure a certain standard of readiness to welcome travellers all over again.
Sustainable? Responsible? “I don’t want that type of guest”.
Kerala has the distinction of having one of India’s best institutions and some of the better industry operators that promote Responsible and Sustainable Tourism. The Responsible Tourism Mission takes the lead in regularly introducing new products and experiences for the industry.
At the KTM though, I ran away from a resort owner who prided in having DJ facilities “as much you want, and as loud as you want”. While largely, there is no problem with that, this resort was located on top of a mountain destination, and ecologically sensitive. In the urge to secure business, can you blatantly disregard the environment and offer such “flexibility” and be insensitive?
At another stall, I was elaborately told how they were going to ensure an “explosion in room availability”, again, in an ecologically fragile location. “XX more cottages, all air conditioned and with cemented walkways so guests are safe”!! Sorry, who is safe??
Yet another resort owner rued the fact that there is “too much talk about sustainability… I don’t entertain such people; I don’t want that type of guest.”!!!
Kerala by the way, is also home to a number of award winning resorts and companies recognised globally for following sustainable and responsible practices.
This is a big challenge. International agents gave the feeling that as long as airfares stay high (due to whatever reason - Ukraine or mindless Profiteering!), international travel for leisure will grow slow. The situation is not so different for the domestic sector either.
What this is bound to do, is to discourage long haul domestic air travel for leisure, and limit travel to drive-down destinations, thus depriving hotels & resorts, tour companies, transport operators, tour guides, restaurants and the like full advantage of a sector on revival.
Can tourism boards, industry associations, hotels etc. get the airlines to be a bit more patient in recovering their losses?
Despite a successful KTM, SATTE or other events, we must be mindful that there are 5000+ other destinations for travellers to head to*.
India and its travel & hospitality industry must be arrivals-ready, friendly, sensible and humble. We must not allow hard nosed business sense to puncture the common sense required to bat long (one tour operator confirmed that already a few Five Star properties from a highly reputed Indian destination signalled trouble with artificially puffed up rates!).
The moment Sri Lanka revives, and other destinations appear better, we would have lost business and revenues in the long run.
The booster efficacy has to run its course, and we need to enable it.