It’s not every day you hear about a travel agency that’s been in business for 30 years.
PAX sat down with Nazir Hirji, president of HB Travel Corporation to talk about bygone days, and how he has prevailed through a sea of change in the industry.
PAX: Why did you decide to start a travel agency and how did you create HB Travel?
Nazir Hirji (NH): I actually started it by default. The agency I was working at in 1988 was closing down and I saw the opportunity to continue. I just wanted to look after our customers. So I designed a logo, incorporated the company, and HB Travel was born.
PAX: What was it like to sell travel 30 years ago?
NH: Back then everything was done manually. Most bookings were done over the phone and some hotels bookings were booked via Telex machines that often took one to two days to confirm. We had to write down client requests, and look up flights manually with the OAG (Official Airline Guide), for those who remember. Complex tickets required phoning the rate desks and fares were all handwritten on paper tickets.
On the plus side, all travel was booked through a travel agent. Commissions were paid on all types of travel and by all airlines. Those were the good ol’ days!
PAX: 30 years later, how much has changed?
NH: The GDS can now price complex itineraries, make bookings and changes in minutes. As a result, the onus of the travel agent has shifted from operational knowledge to providing travel knowledge, advice and customer service.
There is definitely more competition now too. With the arrival of the internet, clients are now much more informed, and have many options, including direct bookings and points redemption for travel. The rise of home based agents and the introduction of e-tickets means travel agents can offer their services worldwide. It is now more important for us to differentiate ourselves from everyone else.
PAX: What are some of the challenges your agency has gone through and how did you prevail?
NH: The most difficult period for us was when airline commission cuts were implemented. We had to introduce service fees and customers could not understand why they now had to pay for a service that was always free. We did successfully implemented the fees, built value for our customers and negotiated incentive contracts with the airlines. But our solid client relationships was key in our success.
PAX: What’s your formula for staying in business after all these years? Any tips and advice you would like to share?
NH: Every day, we strive to provide consistency in service for our clients. We put ourselves in their shoes, and constantly strife to improve our service. Keeping up with latest technology and innovations, and being flexible to make changes when times change are also important to ensure our success.
Lastly, my staff are my rock. We have 11 team members, some of whom have been here for 15 to 20 years. We have regular meetings where they all have input in setting our company goals. I also empower them to make decisions based on our company values, and encourage them to build relationships with our customers. Being empathetic and caring about my staff fosters a great working environment. Happy staff means happy clients, and that’s good for business.
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