LATTE chats to Sujata Raman, the regional managing director of Australia/APAC, A&K, about predicting travel trends, upcoming hotspot destinations and how to stay ahead of the game in the ever-changing travel industry.
1. Tell us about your career progression. What attracted you to the travel industry initially? Is this the same as what interests you about it now? What have been some of the highlights of your career?
An economics degree at university didn’t really prepare me for travel! Like many young people, I was attracted to the industry because I wanted to see the world and enjoyed the process of discovery. I soon learnt that introducing others to what I loved made for a perfect job. It’s what keeps me here today.
The growth of A&K both here in Australia and globally has been an amazing journey. There have been many challenges along the way with political or civil unrest in some of our destinations. I am immensely proud of how we have handled these. The Arab Spring is a great example – we had over 800 passengers in country at the time with no internet or mobile service. We were able to successfully evacuate them all even before the US or
Australian governments brought in their charter aircraft.
2. Tell us about the people who have inspired and/or challenged you.
I look at my colleagues in Australia and around the world who make A&K what it is – from front line sellers who craft the perfect journey, to on ground personnel who bring these to life and back office staff who make sure the detail is never forgotten. I aspire to learn from them every day.
3. How important do you think technology is to the travel experience?
In today’s world, technology is important to every aspect of our lives. That doesn’t mean technology can replace the experience of talking to a real person who genuinely understands your needs and can share an experience. Technology can, however, free us up from the mundane and the routine, to focus more on our customers.
4. What are some of the biggest travel trends you’ve seen over the years? What are the next hotspot destinations?
Travellers want to be doing rather than just seeing. There is far more emphasis on involvement and participation. Travellers are more active, more curious and definitely better informed. They want to engage with companies and destinations that have a social conscience.
There are a couple upcoming hotspot destinations. Firstly Norway, which has become as much of a winter destination as summer with unique opportunities to meet the Sami reindeer herders, ride snow mobiles into the winter wilderness and go dog sledding. Secondly, the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Armenia where old world European charm blends with extraordinary alpine landscapes and magnificent churches in the most unexpected locations. What many people don’t know is that Georgia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity and has the world’s oldest wine industry.
5. How have you seen the travel industry change? How do you stay ahead of these changes?
Travel has changed as have most other industries. Much of it has become commoditised and that part has unsurprisingly become automated. The rise of peer to peer forums such as TripAdvisor has made word of mouth recommendation easier and no less important.
6. How do you go about curating a hosted journey? What on-the- ground assistance/set-up is
required for an A&K luxury adventure?
We work very closely with our partners on the ground. There’s significant work to be done, not just in the logistical movement, but also in researching new and authentic experiences. We will have several pre-trip trial runs and are constantly massaging and tweaking itineraries. In some places, we might set up our own luxury camp if the accommodation is poor, or bring in our own food if the standards we expect cannot be met.
7. What type of itineraries and destinations are Australian travellers drawn towards? Which destinations are most on the rise? What do you hope the next five years hold for you and A&K in Australia/APAC?
Active, off the beaten track, educational experiences. Family holidays and places to celebrate milestone events with friends and family.
Travel is booming and Australian travellers punch above their weight relative to our small population! Africa is always popular; Egypt is coming back very strongly and Sri Lanka is being rediscovered.
I believe we will see extraordinary growth in Australia/APAC. Our plan is to open up increasingly remote parts of the world, bringing amazing experiences to travellers. AKP (A&K Philanthropy) is an integral part of the business and will also grow as A&K does. We currently have 34 projects in 18 countries across the world with A&K offices intimately involved in supporting the cause.
8. How do you predict where people want to go? What factors are taken into consideration when planning an itinerary in a new destination?
We talk to people all the time! And, being avid travellers ourselves, we know what trends are being seen around the world. Whether it’s a new destination or a new experience in a destination, the process is the same. There’s a lot of detail that goes into the planning, but it’s important to leave time for spontaneity. The better an itinerary is planned, the less scripted it looks.
9. What direction do you see luxury travel, particularly luxury adventure, taking in the coming years?
I think the word ‘luxury’ will increasingly come to define the luxury of space and time, rather than just the luxury of accommodation. The experience will determine what luxury is – the opportunity to really immerse oneself in a destination and to genuinely engage with local communities.
10. As destinations that were once off-the- beaten-track (Cuba, for example) grow in popularity, how do you find the next unknown gem?
The world is opening up and places are easier to get to. West Africa for instance, has been considered remote and inaccessible, other than by cruise ship, for many years. This year we launched an itinerary visiting Ghana, Togo and Benin which has attracted a lot of interest.
Another example would be India, which has been immensely popular for generations – we recently launched a philanthropic tour which has virtually sold out. So it’s not just a question of finding a new destination, but often of relooking at a destination to find a new experience.
LATTE signature question: What’s the best coffee experience you’ve ever had?
Just across from my office in South Melbourne at a tiny coffee shop Giddiup! I love the passion with which they approach everything including that perfect cup.