Despite the world opening up slowly, no one has perfected post-pandemic travel quite like the Maldives has, so it remains on top of our summer travel list. Learn more in this roundtable that shares the views of four travel business owners with a Middle East connect and loads of personality
Otium Consultancy, representing the luxury resort operator Soneva, invited TTN to be the media partner for its first at-destination roundtable with four ladies of luxury handpicked from the Arab world. Held at Soneva Fushi Resort, the roundtable focused on preconceived ideas about Maldives, chief concerns of travellers this year, and the challenges faced by travel businesses.
“These women and their businesses are all dealing with international product and contacts,” Annique Labuschagne, Founder, Otium Consultancy, said to kick off the roundtable. “I have been in the industry in the Middle East for 11 years and I think it is fantastic that we have had this opportunity to bring them together. It is definitely something to celebrate that they are all women who successfully own their businesses and are so good at what they do.”
Without further ado, let’s dive into the roundtable discussion.
To begin, can you share your client demographics? Also, what were your leading destinations prior to the pandemic?
Reem: My clients are 90 per cent Saudi, with the other 10 per cent from Dubai, Jordan and Beirut (Lebanon). The age group spans from about 25 to 50. Some 30 per cent of my clients chose specifically Italy and other European destinations during the summer, but there was a rise in South Africa, a rise in places like Indonesia, especially Bali, and Maldives, which is one of those places that is always good for a weekend or a long weekend. I lost the 30 per cent basically when Italy closed down, well with all of Europe.
Mona: Most of my clients are from Jordan because we started there as a company, we also have clients in Dubai, Bahrain, Lebanon and a bit from Europe and the USA. The age groups are older, they are 30 to 50. The destinations were very similar to Reem with Maldives and Bali in Asia and in Europe, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Croatia. We actually had a lot for Peru as well and in the USA, Hawaii was big as well as Bora Bora.
Dani: My clients are 90 per cent UAE nationals and 10 per cent Indian. As I do mostly Emirati families, the adults are from 35 upwards. The destinations prior to the pandemic were Vietnam and Cambodia, and a lot of them for the US, specifically California, where they would spend time in Los Angeles then go down to San Francisco. And in addition, for my clients African Safaris were also popular.
Lara: My clients are older, between 40 and 75. Where they are from has changed over the last five years: It used to be 90 per cent Qatari, this has gone down to 50 per cent. Some of the reason for this is that I left Qatar, and out of sight, out of mind. Also, some Qatari high net worth families started having travel agency divisions within their offices, which would be headed by one of the internet-savvy younger family members. So, with this drop in Qatari clients, I had to look at other markets. I was fortunate enough to have had roommates in university that were top echelon Sindhi (an ethnic community from the Indian Subcontinent) who helped opened doors for me. These contacts are now expatriates in Lagos, London, and Hong Kong and through them I have locals from those markets, including Nigerians, a few British and Americans. In fact, my first ever booking was for a Sindhi client for 100 people at Lake Como.
But since Covid happened, suddenly all my Qatari clients are now writing to me as they remembered me from their honeymoon booking or need my expertise in a confusing time like this.
Destinations prior to the pandemic included chiefly Europe – particularly Spain, Greece and Italy – but Maldives always was at the top of the list.
When the borders started to open post Covid lockdowns, Maldives was one of the first countries to welcome back guests, did you have immediate bookings?
Reem: With my clients being mostly from Saudi, our situation was a little different as our borders didn’t open until mid-May, so I had to look at different source markets. So, I contacted my clients in Dubai and had them start booking. I opened a contact in Kuwait through an influencer to get a foot in the door there to try and survive the months when Saudi market was closed.
Mona: I did a lot of staycations and incoming travel. I had quite a few clients coming to Dubai from Germany.
Dani: When the Maldives opened, I had immediate bookings that continued until December, and one was a booking for a private island. In November and December, I had incoming from the United States and these where Americans (Texans) coming to Dubai for Christmas and New Year, who had found my contact, which was great, as I didn’t really handle any staycations locally in Dubai.
Lara: I had a lot of domestic travel in the UK – manor homes, villas in the countryside. The same in the US for domestic and into Porto Rico as I had just spent a lot of time there. The Maldives has continued throughout since re-opening and one of my bookings was six weeks.
Tell us about some of the concerns your clients have/had? Do they prefer private jets or commercial airlines?
Reem: When Saudi did open, I was expecting to see a surge of people wanting to book having been locked down for 18 months, except domestically, but I was surprised that there was only two or three families that called. I wanted to find out why, so I contacted my clients and some of the reasons were: they hadn’t been vaccinated or didn’t want to get vaccinated. Others who were vaccinated were worried about their children. It wasn’t about having to get the PCR test, it was more about the children and not being allowed to leave Saudi Arabia.
I also had a feeling the Saudi market was waiting to see what was going to open in Europe. They knew the Seychelles and Maldives were opened, but they wanted to know what to do with their summer plan.
When the requests came in, all the requests where for Kenya, Seychelles and the Maldives. We have more last-minute bookings than before, they call and want to travel next week, and as they had been sitting on their money for the last 18 months, they didn’t care about the cost really, they just wanted to get out. With all this, you do need to know the rules and restrictions – be on the ball.
Clients with private jets are the ones that don’t want to travel. All others are on the commercial carriers and for the Maldives, for example, Saudia’s schedule is such that the clients can either come for two nights or for six, so we know for sure they will come for six.
Mona: I had faced a lot of reluctancy. Sometimes it’s understanding all the different rules, which becomes frustrating. You may have clients where the wife is in one country and the husband in another, trying to figure out where they can meet up. The hassle has put a lot of people off. This is where a lot of my staycation business came from. I did have a lot of villa requests for privacy and seclusion – even the staycations request was for villas. And when they did decide to go abroad, it was for much longer periods.
Dani: My clients were eager to get out, they saw people on social media that had travelled, and it encouraged them, but they were somewhat scared. With the Maldives being the place they could come to, they didn’t want seaplane transfers, so that if they needed to leave, they could get back quicker so the resorts with speed boat transfers did better. They did worry about getting stuck in the Maldives and the word was getting around about a 14-day quarantine so I had to spend a lot of my time explaining what would happen if you did get quarantined. Especially with Soneva, for example, having the laboratory at a nearby airport proved a little more comfortable.
So, I guess a lot of the time was spent on risk management and trying to make clients feel a little more comfortable. Also, I had some clients who did book and then cancelled as they hadn’t been vaccinated. Those who were vaccinated, also needed to know which vaccines were accepted in which countries (like Sinopharm for example). As for Private Jet verses commercial flights, my high-end Indian clients take private jets, whereas the Emiratis prefer to fly commercially.
Lara: To avoid all this, I remove myself from the equation and provide them as much information as I can. They all want to know about insurance as well so even if they are paying more, or even the same as before, they want a guarantee. The main question is what happens if I get Covid at destination. I now have a performa letter for all the resort/hotels with a different list of questions that I would have had before. What is the resort/hotel policy and what is the government policy as these can be different? What is the name of the hotels that they would have to quarantine in? What is the policy of testing again in case of a false positive? For instance, in Greece they test you twice but here in the Maldives, you can only test once. So, this puts the onus on the hotel, whereby if the information provided is wrong, then they have to cover the cost of any possible quarantine. They have had a year and a half to scroll through social media and start getting ideas they have never had before. For example, I just had my first client who had never considered a safari, saying let’s go for it, life is too short, anything can happen. In terms of private jets verses commercial – it has not changed. Those who flew private jet continue to do so and the same with commercial travel.
All the ladies were in agreement that with so many countries having different rules and clients coming from different countries and various apps for proof of vaccines, PCR test etc, guiding clients is much more
With a number of European countries opening up, are you finding clients interested in booking these destinations, and that this may result in a slight decrease to tourists in the Maldives? Or as rules and regulation fluctuate in Europe and Maldives seems to have been consistent, Maldives will remain strong?
Reem: The Saudi market is still limited in where they can travel. I have seen requests for Greece but I have also had requests for ‘new’ destinations like Mexico. Requests for safaris have also picked up – especially from clients looking for space, with the large tents, large villas that are super private. I have even had buyouts of whole camps. If anything good has come of this pandemic, it is that you can now book a safari during migration at the last minute! Before you would have had to book way in advance. I have also noticed that airlines (like Saudia) are opening new routes that they have never flown before.
Dani: The Maldives will always be there for a quick break. Clients also want to open up their horizons a little bit. I have requests for places such as Tanzania – Zanzibar for a bit of beach, then on to the Serengeti. Europe, with Greece, Turkey, Italy and the Seychelles are also being requested/booked. I have also had requests for Mexico, where there is no quarantine or need for vaccination, and Moscow. With Fly Dubai opening back up routes, you can fly direct to places like Bodrum and Mykonos, but these are usually only short visits. I am also finding that clients want information on every destination. They are ready for travel, they want options, but now they are spoilt for choice and so they are not sure what they want to do.
Mona: Let’s not forget the weather, I don’t think they are choosing Europe over the Maldives only because Europe is opening, it’s because of the weather as well. They are opening at the right time when the weather in the Middle East is getting hotter.
Lara: My clients, I would say, are 50/50. Those who were reluctant about Maldives earlier are now asking for this destination.
I know you are all bespoke travel, but are you finding that people are coming back to travel agents more than before, do they use OTA for research and even book?
Reem: Booking.com is my biggest competitor. But I do think people have started to realise the importance of having an adviser because now, more than ever, no one knows what’s happening. Not that I know what’s happening, but I do know more than he or she does! I charge a fee, and I will keep charging a fee, because at the end of the day, you will be taking them out of trouble if they get into one; online sites will not. We have the relationship with the hotel, you can pick up the phone and personally tell them about the client’s situation.
Dani: I think this situation has helped us, even though business has gone quieter. When the Covid hit in March, I cancelled 25 holidays for my clients. Luckily, they all got a full refund (I don’t book flights) and it really made them realise the importance of going through someone like us, we have the knowledge and we can support them, hold their hands, guide them.
Mona: For me, before Covid, if a client was booking just a hotel, they would just book it themselves online, but since Covid until now, even if it’s just a hotel, they book through me. They really are worried now about losing money by booking themselves.
In terms of Soneva, prior to the pandemic, what were Soneva’s feeder markets?
Annique: My market is the GCC. However, the UK and Continental Europe, just by nature of the product and the brand awareness, are some of the key feeder markets. Soneva celebrated 25 years last year (2020). The GCC market has always been a good market as it is a short flight away, but more recently with the pandemic, Maldives was one of the only destinations GCC clients could access safely and a have a change of scene from having been couped up. From the GCC, the UAE had a huge increase from both the expat and Emiratis. As some of the other GCC markets are still unable to travel, from these markets, it has just been ultra-high net worth families and diplomats. Russia has also been a very strong market.
We saw a drop in the likes of South East Asia and China. We also have different source markets by property. Soneva Fushi predominately was strong pre-pandemic with Russians, as they prefer the beach villas. Then we saw a huge shift, as there weren’t that many resorts available, there was an increase in Soneva Jani for the first time for the water villas.
It’s been an interesting time because when you just position a certain way, then restrictions of course affect that.
Dani: I want to touch on the weather in Maldives, in particular. It is tropical .. if there is a little bit of rain, it dries up quickly. Generally, Maldives has good weather all year around. If it is raining on one island, it isn’t on another. So, people do not have to worry about monsoon season.
Tell us about your personal journeys that shaped you and brought you into the world of travel.
Reem: Over the past 10 or 11 years, the role of the woman has completely changed. When I first went to get a licence I had to ask permission from my dad in order to open a company. Eleven years ago, I climbed Kilimanjaro for charity, and when I came back to Saudi Arabia, I wanted to share with the Saudi children that there is nothing that can stop you. So I asked to go around and speak at schools, and universities for girls. Just to speak about the experience, not how difficult it was, but how, if you want something so badly, you can do/get it and I feel this is the trajectory of my path - paving the way for others.
Dani: Dubai is a place you can make things happen and I am in a relatively new industry for me, but travel has been a passion all my life. I didn’t want to copy and paste another person’s business model; I didn’t want to be a travel agency. I felt I knew what mothers want, what women want, what families want, what my clients want, just from conversations and it can grow organically, but you also know you are on the right path. This is what has led me to where I am today. For me, it’s not necessarily the money but the happiness of being associated with the travel industry, the opportunity of meeting great people that counts.
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