The summer season, when schools are off for two months and productivity at work slows down, is usually seen as the best time to leave one’s home country for a well-deserved break and discover new cities around the globe.
Whether booked independently through airline search engines or planned as an all-inclusive package through travel agencies, leisure travel is often anticipated by travelers as the high point of the year, and by businesses as an important source of revenue.
In Lebanon, the idea of a vacation abroad is becoming more and more common, says Nakhal Travel’s general manager Elie Nakhal, who sees this as a positive sign for travel agencies.
Summertime and Lebanese travel agencies
According to the travel agencies interviewed for this article, the summer season traditionally constitutes between 40 and 60 percent of their annual turnover in terms of leisure travel. “In the summer, the leisure business increases at the expense of business travel, while the opposite is true in winter,” says Nakhal, “though leisure travel still constitutes a bigger part of our business with roughly 60 percent.”
Johnny Modawar, marketing manager at Wild Discovery Travel and Tourism, explains that many Lebanese only travel during the summer vacation, as opposed to traveling during other school or national holiday periods. This concentrates a lot of holiday traffic across the same period from the end of June to mid-September. Some people, especially couples and those with no children, postpone their trips until mid-September onwards to avoid the crowds in the traditional vacation spots such as Mykonos, Greece or Ibiza, Spain. “Spa offerings are highly booked in September and October, mainly by couples, and in hotels that are known for their spas or regions that have curative aspects, like Evian in France,” says Modawar.
For the past few years, the month of Ramadan has been falling during July, which has delayed the typical vacation time until the approach of Eid, making August the peak travel month for 2015. “Usually, people who fast don’t travel during Ramadan so we consider it a low season. Speaking for myself and others in the business, we don’t start our charter plane operations until Eid onwards with August being the main month for vacations in Lebanon and leisure travel decreasing by the end of September,” explains Selim Boutros, director of Kurban, a travel agency in Lebanon.
ONLINE VERSUS TRAVEL AGENCY
The case for the live agent versus the online website
With the popularity and ease of use of online travel booking sites, it seems that many are foregoing agencies for the “do it yourself approach” in order to benefit from last minute discounted prices or other special offers. Yet, travel agencies insist that they bring added value to travel planning and provide services or reassurances that online booking sites can’t.
“It is true that online booking has become very popular, but the role of the travel agent remains necessary due to many factors. Today when you book online there is no one to really advise you on the kind of hotel you want and even if you do check the online reviews, it is not the same. We as travel agents, and based on our past experience with our clientele, are able to advise clients on which hotels or destinations suit them best,” says Nakhal.
Another reason Nakhal gives to justify the need for travel agents is that “everything is good until something goes wrong and when that happens, travel agents have a role to help in crisis management.” In his opinion websites are impersonal and follow guidelines blindly, so if a traveler books a trip online through a booking engine and something goes wrong, there is no one to negotiate with. He gives the example of how, when the July 2006 war took place and Lebanon’s airport closed for 30 days, Nakhal was able to reimburse the full amounts paid for planned trips, with no cancellation fees, to their clients, while those who had booked directly through Nakhal’s partners (such as Costa or Club Med) were not able to get their money back. “We are their partners and they know we are serious. The rules online are strict, and there is no room for maneuvering,” he explains.
Modawar explains that the role of the travel agent is especially viable in Lebanon where people are more used to having services provided for them rather than doing things for themselves. “Lebanese still like having a personal contact or someone to be able to refer to, and would pay extra to guarantee satisfaction,” he says giving the example of Wild Discovery, which plans to launch two more offices in Lebanon in 2016 as evidence of how big the demand for travel agencies still is in the country.
Tech savvy travelers
Yet, the prevalence of all the online travel booking sites cannot be denied and although the travel agents interviewed for this article do have an online presence, they say that people still tend to book their trips at the physical agency.
“Today what we are facing in Lebanon is, from our experience, that people are still visiting our agencies and taking our offers but also having a look online to compare and benchmark prices. The internet lacks the complete package of airlines, hotels and programs but instead has pieces that you blend on your own. This type of travel has its clients but these are not our core clients who are people who are still coming for our agency for the consultancy and expertise,” says Modawar explaining that this trend of online browsing and benchmarking places a positive pressure on them as agencies to always be up to date on the best hotels and deals.
Boutros gives the example of Go Kurban, their travel booking website which he describes as a “dynamic catalogue and online agency”, saying that in the five weeks since they launched (at the time of the interview late June) they have had more than 21,000 original users and 25,000 visitors but that people have yet to adopt the website and actually book online instead of just browsing the packages. “People are still afraid of online payment but I think it is just a process of adoption and we will get past that,” explains Boutros, enthusing about the plans they have to increase their online presence which include a new mobile website and a regional expansion of what he calls a “hybrid online agency”.
The early bird catches the worm
While Europeans and Americans tend to plan their leisure trips almost a year in advance, benefitting from special offers and discounted trips on hotels and airlines, the Lebanese are last minute planners, Boutros explains. “Previously, our flights didn’t fill up to maximum until two weeks before departure, which is really last minute. Starting from three years ago, we are seeing bookings coming in earlier and earlier so this year we were selling Easter packages along with our summer packages,” says Boutros, despite admitting that the bulk of their reservations still come at the last minute.
Choice of destinations
While Lebanese travelers may book their vacations at the last minute, the travel agencies charged with planning their vacations begin their work for the summer during the previous winter. “We choose to launch new destinations according to market segmentation and product strategy. First, we identify who is our target (profile, age bracket, purpose of the journey, types of needs to answer: honeymoon, family, adventure, relaxation trips etc.) We analyze the potential of this new destination to attract people then we build the product looking at the main interests of the destination, the airline connections out of Beirut, the leading hotels and resorts to partner with etc. We have our proper methodology when selecting hotels and many factors are to be taken into consideration such as the hotel’s location, amenities it offers to specific profiles such as families or honeymooners, hotel overall status and recent renovations and obviously its rates and flexibility towards clients,” says Modawar.
From a quick glance at street billboards, it is easy to see that most Lebanese travel agencies provide the “classic” destinations, namely the Turkish islands Bodrum and Marmaris, and the Greek islands of Mykonos or Santorini.
Boutros explains that the Turkish islands are the most popular destinations among Lebanese, chiefly because no visa is required to go there which presents a significant drop in cost if travelling with a family, in addition to saving time on the inconvenience of visa appointments. “Marmaris is our most popular travel destination because it is budget friendly and suits everyone, from families to young couples, with packages starting at $400,” says Boutros.
Indeed, the recent financial turmoil in the southern Mediterranean has an impact on holiday makers. “Greece is quite affordable this year because of the low Euro rate in general and because of the country’s economic situation [with the European Union] in particular,” says Modawar, who adds that hotels are giving guests more flexibility e.g. guests are no longer required to book for a full week, and instead can enjoy just a few days, which they couldn’t do in 2014. Modawar considers Kalamata, in southern Peloponnese Greece, as one of this summer’s new destinations by Wild Discovery, with the Costa Navarino Luxury Hotel Resort that presents a capacity of more than 700 rooms and amenities suitable for families and couples, as its main attraction.“We selected it in the winter and we arranged it with our airline partner Aegean Airlines to have direct flights there.”
It’s a chartered world
The destinations which are relatively new to the Lebanese market are promoted by travel agencies with the creation of direct chartered flights. “Wild Discovery charters its own planes only with national airline companies such as MEA, Croatia Airlines, Aegean Airlines (national carrier of Greece), for quality and safety measures. The distribution channel of our charter flights is divided into two parts: either we sell these seats through Wild Discovery’s nine branches, meaning to our own clients, or we sell these seats through our network of subagents we deal with in Lebanon so they fill our planes with their own clients. Smaller travel agencies cannot charter planes on their own. The cost of operation, financial exposure and filling capacity is naturally very high, which is why they would rather buy from us,” explains Modawar.
Chartered planes make summer traveling more convenient and less time consuming. Nakhal cites Vienna, Austria, and the Czech Republic as the ‘new’ destinations they are promoting this summer, through chartering direct flights to these places. “This makes it much more convenient for travelers who no longer have to take multiple connecting flights, which is why we consider this a creation of a ‘new’ destination, as chartered planes really encourage people to travel to these cities”. Nakhal explains that during last summer they chartered direct flights to Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Montenegro. This saved travelers from having to take three connecting flights to get to these places, and thereby opened a new market for these destinations, attracting both the high and medium end travelers.
According to Boutros, this summer offers a lot of new destinations as “chartered [flights] are going everywhere.” For example, Barcelona is fast becoming a popular travel destination this summer partly because Kurban chartered Vueling Airlines to travel twice a week from Beirut. Kurban has also opened up Belgrade, Serbia, as a new destination for the Lebanese this year through collaboration with their airline partners.
The lodgings plan
In parallel to planning chartered flights, travel agencies secure hotel rooms at the selected destinations early on as well. Boutros explains the process by highlighting their choice of hotels, which is based both on the selected destination and on their experience in past years. “Most of our rooms for the summer are prepaid at the beginning of the year and it’s an internal strategy as to whether we are conservative or aggressive in the number of rooms we get,” says Boutros, giving the example of Mykonos, which he says is tricky as it’s a very popular destination among travelers yet has few hotels. This causes a problem for many agencies, which are frequently left with more chartered flights than rooms.
Modawar also speaks of strategy when it comes to booking rooms, saying that agencies have to take risks to ensure availability before promoting the destination: “We fly to Mykonos twice a week so we have to guarantee room availability in this period, therefore we lock them in beforehand. These destinations are also in high demand in Europe and since we all take vacations at the same time (July to August) it is even more important for us to be ahead with both airlines and hotels,” he says.
The cost of traveling
The generally dismal economic situation in Lebanon and the lower purchasing power among most Lebanese has taken its toll both on the choice of vacation and on travel agencies. “From the five star clients to the low income ones, the number one factor for all our clients is cost. I wish I could say value but it is more price: everyone is after a better deal,” says Boutros.
Modawar explains that the situation in Lebanon is causing agencies to promote quality travel but at very competitive prices, as not everybody can afford to go to luxurious destinations like the Caribbean or South Africa. Places like Croatia, Turkey and Greece have become a necessary part of a travel agency’s portfolio. “We are not always selling the 600 dollar packages but we have to have them,” he explains. Travel agencies do say that, while many of their more wealthy clients may skimp on the airline tickets, they tend to splurge on accommodation once they get to their destinations. “Our products cater both to the high end and mid income level markets. Our packages attract everybody but their choice of accommodation, number of nights, and specific cities reflect their income level,” says Nakhal. Whether on a budget or five star trip, it seems that travelling for vacation has become part of many Lebanese families’ summer plans, and travel agencies can subsequently accommodate and benefit from all price ranges.