SUNIL D’SOUZA

Oman 2021 | TOURISM | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Sunil D'Souza, CEO of Travel Point, about the evolving needs of travellers, government support, and looking to the year ahead.

How have your services evolved since you joined Travel Point, and how do they reflect the needs of travellers?

When I joined Travel Point in 2018, we had a presence in the market but needed to move our services to the next level. The company was looking at deploying a B2B portal, so within three months of joining I picked the supplier that could deliver the goods, and we deployed the service. We put our content on the B2B portal and gave it to about 600 small and medium travel companies that currently buy from us. We also digitalized most of our core processes and streamlined the service delivery mechanisms. For us, quality and customer care are extremely important, so I helped bring in that element of international standards to the system. We were the first company to get the ISO9001:2015 and the first to get the PCI certification from the US. The idea was to deliver impeccable services to our customers and, at the same time, upgrade our technology and the skillsets of our employees. COVID-19 caused a great deal of disruption, and we had to realign and restructure to present the services and products in different ways as the trends and customer travel patterns changed. As a result, we had to go back to the drawing board and redesign the products and services. Today, we are talking about a new normal and whatever services models we deployed earlier became defunct, as they were not making sense commercially and operationally. I am optimistic, as things are changing, and vaccines are already being rolled out. Some airlines have already vaccinated all their employees, and IATA is suggesting vaccine passports that store the data for PCR tests and vaccinations.

What role does technological innovation play in your mid-term strategy?

COVID-19 pushed us to come up with an innovation strategy, and we looked at two things. The first is the technology innovation modifications and process enhancements. The second is about the things we can do for the people in the country and are limited to just moving inside the country. Doing something here is why we came up with “staycations," where locals can stay in places around Oman, and we have been launching such new packages every week. Another opportunity is what we call the “quarantine packages" for those who are restricted from traveling directly to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. We have booked close to 2,000 people so far for such 15-17-day staycations, and this is climbing so it will help fuel our growth in 2Q2021.

What are the other major trends in Oman, and how are you incorporating them in your strategy?

The changing patterns of travellers, in addition to the fact that the regular flights have been thrown out of the window because of COVID-19, have brought in new trends. The previous trends were predictable but the current trends aren't. When the new more contagious variants of the virus emerged, governments around the world got spooked and shut down their borders again. The only hope is that people are getting vaccinated, and if we also have vaccine passports then it will become easier for everyone to travel. The question is when this will happen. It may take three to five months or more; perhaps vaccine passports might become a reality in early 2022. Until then, the conventional methods of using a face mask, sanitization, and having PCR tests done will suit those who are in dire need of travel or have emergencies. Business travel will not even happen because of the quarantine required in different countries. Governments need to cooperate with each other and come up with mechanisms to allow such travel.

What key elements should the government work on to give the tourism industry an extra push?

Governments across the world are doing a tremendous job, especially in Oman. The government is extremely supportive of businesses. However, governments have to work with each other in order to have scheduled international departures happening. For us to be effectively moving into at least 50-60% of 2019 levels in terms of revenue, governments have to work together instead of just using bilateral /Bubble agreements. They need to reach out with an understanding about the restrictions that will prevent more infections, but at the same time ease the travel process. There should be government coordination and close work with IATA in order to come up with innovative means and approaches to measure, contain, and control these infections. Also, closer coordination between health authorities, ROP & Ministry of tourism authorities for a swifter /realistic actions on the ground. They also need to ensure that vaccine passports are deployed as soon as possible once base level inoculations are done. They could come up with another approach, where people who travel regularly for business are given the vaccines first. This will allow people to travel without the PCR test requirement for travelling.

How do you expect the demand for travel to evolve in the midterm, and how will that impact your services?

The demand for travel was better in January compared to February, when it went down by almost 35%. If this uncertainty continues further, there might be a further decline in the revenues of airlines and travel companies. We are not talking quarter to quarter at the moment, but week to week, and this is directly linked to the announcements of governments. We are understanding how tourism organizations could work closely with governments across the world, starting with Oman, deploy their vision in terms of making travel safer for people and also for people to follow the instructions related to COVID-19 protocol. Currently, the quality and timing of data is extremely important and has to be brought to the attention of people. Anyone traveling to another country wants to know the rate of infections, so in our systems we have the travel health index percentage that tells our customers the infection rates and the number of deaths at their destination. We can gauge that in real time and advise them on the destinations to avoid and the ones that are safer. This is one of the unique approaches of Travel Point. You cannot expect governments to babysit their citizens in terms of following COVID-19 health protocols. It is everyone's responsibly. This way, things might improve in the third or fourth quarter of 2021.

What are your growth priorities, and what challenges do you expect?

Quality over quantity is key now, as we do not have 2019 levels of volumes. The larger companies like us work on bulk volumes, and that is where we have the leverage over the airlines/Hotels in promoting and building critical mass. We have to look at optimizing our costs, services, and yield. The strategy we have laid out for 2Q2021 is to double our yield, even if our volumes have dropped 50-60% compared to previous years. If the yield goes up, we can meet our revenue targets and our cost objectives. Importantly we need to take good care of our employees during these challenging times, all companies have gone through the re-structuring process to mitigate high operational costs. Our owners were generous to keep the company afloat during last year, when most part of the year airports were shut, as they felt it is important to take care of people as they took care of our business in good times.