Travel agents to get help with tech solutions for digital age

Tech firm Zumata, which has developed chatbots like the insurance one pictured here, is helping travel agents design chatbots for their own customers.
Tech firm Zumata, which has developed chatbots like the insurance one pictured here, is helping travel agents design chatbots for their own customers.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Singapore Tourism Board and the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore are holding the 2nd Travel Agent Industry Forum on Nov 15, 2017.
Singapore Tourism Board and the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore are holding the 2nd Travel Agent Industry Forum on Nov 15, 2017.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Visitors to the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) travel fair at the Singapore Expo on Feb 18, 2017.
Visitors to the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) travel fair at the Singapore Expo on Feb 18, 2017.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Travel agents in Singapore will receive government funding to speed up their adoption of technology such as developing mobile apps to give customers a better experience.

Instead of traditional travel agents coming up with the solutions and asking the authorities to help with the funding, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) will identify a range of technological fixes to common problems, and offer them to the agencies.

This initiative will be launched by the second half of next year (2018), said Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry, and Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann on Wednesday (Nov 15) at the Travel Agent Industry Forum.

Travel agencies also need help to upgrade their hiring practices, said Mr Steven Ler, acting president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), which organised the forum with STB.

In his opening speech, he said that many agencies hire through newspaper advertisements or word-of-mouth recommendations, a time-consuming process that does not necessarily lead to them finding the right job applicants.

Mr Ler said that Natas would therefore launch a talent development platform by the end of next year, which will connect job seekers and travel agents on a single platform.

Giving an update of the Travel Agent Roadmap, Ms Sim said that more than 40 projects were funded by STB's business improvement fund (BIF) and experience step-up fund, which are both aimed at making travel agents designers of travel experiences.

Both funds financially support up to 70 per cent of projects that cost up to $500,000. Ms Sim added that five times as many travel agents were supported by either fund this year compared with last year, and encouraged more agents to apply.

Ms Sim cited Dynasty Travel, which is developing a mobile application with the BIF's help. The app will help customers make bookings, write reviews and contact the firm in emergencies, which will help it to tailor travel experiences and build customer loyalty.

The Travel Agent Roadmap, initiated last August, aims to improve the travel agent industry through technology, business transformation, and manpower.

Another firm that benefited from the funding is Best Tours, which is developing an interactive kiosk that can be placed in the lobbies of hotels in Singapore.

Founder Naveed Durrani said his firm applied for the experience step-up fund last October, and received a 70 per cent subsidy from STB. In January, he plans to start launching the kiosks in hotels around the island.

The aim is for more than 300 hotels to have these kiosks, which will allow tourists easy access to all of Best Tours’ products.

Another agency, Quotient Travel Planner, is looking to integrate tech into its operations in a different way - via chatbots. Co-founder and director Lim Hui Juan said that her firm is creating a chatbot with tech firm Zumata for customers to access their services whenever they need it.

“We’re seeing a lot of clients requiring a quick response to certain situations, or wanting to tweak their experiences on the go, and that’s something we think a chatbot can help with. We’re a little apprehensive though, because we don’t want this to be a mechanical interaction.”

Ms Lim expects the chatbot to be ready within a year, and despite her concerns, is taking an adventurous view. “We think it’s going to be fun to see if this new technology can really help us.”

Ms Sim also announced the launch of the Business Transformation Playbook, which guides travel agents who want to adopt new business models through features such as a self-assessment kit.

She said: "The Government has been supporting our travel agents to grow and thrive in an increasingly competitive tourism landscape... but we also need our travel agents to join us in this journey.

"We encourage you (agents) to find out more about the roadmap's initiatives, seek out the opportunities that lie amid the challenges, and tap these resources to reach new highs."

The forum was held at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre.