And the livin’ is easy

Lebanese travel agents talk the business of summer destinations

Mykonos, Greece

As the weather heats up, the Lebanese people have turned their eyes to the upcoming summer season, earnestly planning their next grand escape.

Whether potential travelers take matters in their own hands and book through an international or local online travel agency, or whether they consult with one of the many travel businesses in Lebanon, one thing is for sure: the busiest period for many of the country’s travel agents is upon us.

Summer Fun

With school children off for the summer, and employees’ productivity challenged by the long warm days, it is no wonder that around 60 percent of outbound tourism trips are scheduled between mid-June and mid-September, according to travel agencies interviewed for this article. “We cater to the holiday travelers, and the bulk of our work is in the summer – we don’t cater a lot to business travelers,” says Elie Nakhal, general manager of the travel agency Nakhal.

For many Lebanese, the summer getaway is the only vacation they take all year and is, therefore, perceived as a reward for their hard work, according to Charbel Kahaleh, head of marketing and communications at Kurban Travel.

Travelers take many factors into careful consideration when planning for that all-important holiday, the most important being proximity, ease of access, price and activities at the destination, according to those interviewed by Executive.

Bringing the world closer

When traveling for a short getaway (the average summer trip is for up to seven days according to those interviewed for the article) it is very important not to squander precious time in airports waiting for connecting flights.

Indeed, ease of access to a destination through a direct flight is a strong indicator of the location’s popularity among summer leisure travelers. While certain locales may be attractive in their own right, a lack of direct flights can affect their success. “Past experience has shown us that good flight connectivity and easy access can significantly increase the destination awareness to the leisure travelers. The uncomfortable flight connection from Beirut to Thessaloniki is not an ally in our effort to showcase our luxury resort group, and the unique destination of northern Greece and Halkidiki to the Lebanese travelers,” explains Periklis Gompakis, senior market development manager at Sani Resort, adding that they counteract that issue by putting in extra effort into marketing Halkidiki to the Middle Eastern market through industry fairs, press trips and joint activities with their travel partners in the region.

The charter plane

Many full service and some budget carriers fly out from Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport to key business cities – mainly in Europe and the Gulf countries – on a regular or daily basis.

However, there are no such flights to destinations which are more popular in the summer, such as the Greek islands or the south of France. And since ease of access is of such importance to the leisure travel market, Lebanese travel operators have stepped in with charter planes.

Charter planes are planes typically used for full service travel, but are leased to tour operators who pay in advance for the whole plane. They then resell the seats to their clients or to subagents.

Leased success    

During the summer, operating charter planes constitutes the bulk of business for the bigger travel agents in Lebanon. Nakhal, for example, has charter flights to 30 destinations known for their summer appeal. “We fly to destinations which are summer destinations and which other airlines don’t travel to. Our strength is that we allow travelers to reach their holiday destinations through direct flights,” says Nakhal, giving the example of how they fly to Venice and Naples during the summer while MEA or Alitalia only have flights to Rome and Milan.

These travel agencies use their chartered planes primarily for their clients, but they also open them up to subagents or smaller travel agencies in Lebanon. “We fill a lot of it and small travel agents, which are many in Lebanon, who don’t have the capabilities to charter planes benefit from this and go through us,” says Kahaleh. Kahaleh explains that there is no need for daily charter flights to these summer destinations. “There is not enough demand or volume to have daily charter flights in Lebanon. Two to three times a week is more than enough,” he says, explaining that flights are scheduled based on their experience with the Lebanese market, with most travelers wanting to travel on a Thursday and get back on a Sunday.

While customers can book just the charter flight ticket through the agencies, they are also encouraged to book accommodation. “The client does not have to reserve his entire trip through us, but once we have him looking into our flight information, we offer him the option to book the hotel and guides through us. Why not? They are booking the ticket through us and can get the whole package from one place.” says Nakhal. In this manner, the charter flight becomes a tool to rake in profit from accommodation as well.

The classics

It is when winter creeps in and dreams of seasons in the sun are put aside for the year that travel agencies begin planning for the upcoming summer.

Agents consider several points when deciding on which destinations to work on for the summer.  “We try to combine curiosity for new destinations with convenience. We think of whether the destination is worth it, if it would be interesting for the client. The city has to have many aspects they can take advantage of, such as visiting a new destination and spending time on the beach,” explains Kahaleh.

Some destinations, such as Greece or Turkey have become classics. While security concerns in 2016 affected the flow of Lebanese tourists to Turkey, it seems the appeal of affordable prices and proximity was too much to resist. “People are still going to Turkey, especially the islands. For example, twice as many people went to Bodrum this year, compared to the same period last year. The demand is still there because we changed the system of pricing and had heavy negotiations in the area to reduce costs,” says Nakhal.

Kahaleh also speaks of Turkey’s popularity pointing out the lack of visa requirements as one of the major allures. In fact, Nakhal says he was encouraged to charter direct flights to Georgia this summer because he knew from experience with Turkey that the lack of visa requirements would appeal to his customers.

A whole new world

For the seasoned leisure traveler, going to the same destinations, however popular, can be redundant. Travel agents are aware of that and add new destinations to their portfolio on an annual basis. “Lebanese like to discover new places and not stick to classical destinations. Therefore, I keep the same destinations, but also add to them, offering the opportunity for the Lebanese to discover new destinations in a convenient way. This allowed the market to grow,” explains Nakhal.

The relatively new summer destination on the block for the past five years has been Dubrovnik, Croatia, with both Nakhal and Kurban offering direct flights there. “Dubrovnik is a requested destination, and it combines a winning mix: beach destination, amazing scenery, site seeing, landscape and nature. [It has] affordability and proximity, with a Beirut/Dubrovnick flight duration of around two hours and 30 minutes,” says Kahaleh.

Beyond the quick getaway

While many opt for a close beach getaway for their summer break, there are still others who prefer to do something different with their vacation.

Wild Discovery specializes in tailor made packages that cater to those individuals. “Wild Discovery is the specialist for customized packages and personalized travel experiences. Our selection ranges from simple stays in vibrant cities to honeymoons in exotic islands to unconventional stays, which include, for example, a 13 day tour of Argentina, Peru, or Japan,” says Johnny Medawar, marketing director at Wild Discovery.

For those who want to combine many cities into one trip, Kurban Travel offers guided tour packages to a collection of adjacent destinations typically over a period of seven to eight days. These packages are often in Europe, with the most recent addition being a trip to the Baltic countries. Kahaleh says that these tours appeal to a variety of travelers explaining, “It is always a good idea to discover several cities when you don’t get the chance to travel more than once a year.”

Another way to see a lot in one trip is to take a cruise. All the travel agencies Executive interviewed spoke of their affiliation with international cruise liners, which provide trips as near as the Greek islands and as far off as South America.

If you can’t beat them

This April, Nakhal launched an aggressive marketing campaign across all media forms with one specific goal: to market Nakhal online for flight booking. In 2015, Kurban Travel had a similar campaign for GoKurban.com, their online travel agency site.

The market share of online booking has become too big to ignore, even in Lebanon. “A growing number of people in Lebanon these days prefer to book their trips online, whereas this was not the case in our early years. We’ve had the online flight booking system for a decade now, but previously, we only gave access to our employees and to other travel agents. This year, we decided to open it to the public,” says Nakhal.

Lebanese travel agents see their online presence as a means of gaining back the customers they lost to online booking sites by offering the service themselves – with a little edge over the international booking sites.

According to both Nakhal and Kurban Travel, Lebanese customers have two main concerns when booking a vacation online. The first is the insecurity that Lebanese feel when using their credit cards online. Nakhal believes their secure payment system with Bank Audi should reassure their customers that their financial information is safe.

Meanwhile, Kurban Travel allows their customers to complete and pay for the booking online or opt for a pay in cash option through money transfer or a personal visit to the agency’s representative offices.    

The other drawback is the anonymity of the big international online booking sites, as opposed to the familiarity of names like Nakhal or Kurban to Lebanese travelers – a fact which both agencies promote fully. “We have the local edge in that we have a cultural proximity with our clients. Besides, they can get instant assistance from our travel consultants via the ‘live chat’ feature on the website or talk on the phone on a dedicated line, for example – they feel there is a human element behind the technology,” explains Kahaleh.

Another advantage that both Kurban and Nakhal have over international booking sites is the availability of flights on the charter planes they themselves operate from Beirut. “Although [flights] can be found on international booking sites, they don’t provide the direct charter planes and packages that we provide from Beirut to other destinations,” says Nakhal.

Year-on-year comparisons from travel agencies indicate that more Lebanese have traveled so far in 2017, compared to 2016, with 10,000 Lebanese going to Sharm el-Sheikh over the Easter break, according to Nakhal. If this is any indication of what’s to come, then summer 2017 is going to sizzle.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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