Navigating future with brutal lessons from 2020

A2A Safaris co-founder Jose Cortes and his wife Kitty under quiver tree in Great Karoo, South Africa in Nov 2020.
A2A Safaris co-founder Jose Cortes and his wife Kitty under quiver tree in Great Karoo, South Africa in Nov 2020.PHOTO: JOSE CORTES

There is no hiatus for safari specialist Jose Cortes, even if the global pandemic has upended the world of travel. Instead, the co-founder of A2A Safaris actively brings the African wilderness to the screens of clients across Asia.

Based in Cape Town, he has lost count of the number of Zoom getaways he has crafted since last March to teach nature photography, introduce safari-chic interior design and let kids play "safari detective" by spotting camouflaged animals.

His luxury safari company has also published an e-cookbook with recipes and cocktails from Africa and Latin America.

A combination of virtual events now and bespoke service over time has ensured client loyalty - almost all the bookings for trips have been postponed to future dates, not dropped. The 2 to 3 per cent who cancelled are older folks in the high-risk category for Covid-19, he says.

"The biggest thing we've learnt from the pandemic is to be empathetic - with our clients, partners who own safari camps and our team members," he says. "We are so much wiser now than back in March last year."

Like him, other industry leaders are gleaning insights from a brutal year to anchor or amplify their businesses in the years ahead.

Global online travel agency Trip.com "processed tens of millions of refunds and booking alterations" and ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into the industry to help partners weather the storm, says its chief executive Jane Sun, who is Shanghai-based. "2020 truly reinforced the fact that Trip.com has to be a company that is focused not just on its own success, but equally, if not more so, ensure customers are valued."

These efforts are bearing fruit, she reckons, with many domestic markets showing signs of recovery.

Trip.com has also learnt from the crisis to build a "more resilient travel ecosystem", she adds. This includes boosting technological strength.

In Singapore, Woopa Travels, a tour operator, created six new virtual tours last year, including one of one-north. Founder Suen Tat Yam says: "Although it was a difficult year, it gave us the chance to explore new opportunities and we learnt how to look at the business from different angles."

The company will continue with these virtual visits as they are a sustainable revenue stream. It also makes travel accessible to all, he says.

More personally, the travel chiefs value their teams afresh.

Mr Fazal Bahardeen, founder of halal travel consultancy CrescentRating, says: "The most significant positive from 2020 was that we have managed to step into 2021 as a much stronger and resilient team. We did not let go of anyone and, in fact, our team grew last year."

Though they worked mostly from home, colleagues bonded better and helped one another to excel, he says. Last year, too, personal development was introduced "to better prepare the team to navigate the uncertainties ahead of us".

Mr Teng Wee, the Singaporean owner of luxury superyacht Dunia Baru, also believes his crew is vital to navigating the future. "It's hard to overstate the importance of a well-run yacht - our crew is crucial to Dunia Baru and many of them have been part of her family since she was built in 2014. It's been a tough year, but that has been one area we have been determined to keep intact."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2021, with the headline 'Navigating future with brutal lessons from 2020'. Subscribe