This week, LATTE catches up with Abercrombie & Kent‘s Regional Managing Director Australia/Asia Pacific, Sujata Raman to hear her thoughts on the significance of the travel agent when it comes to booking luxury travel – and we learn more about her upcoming guided tour of West Africa.
Raman also gives us her opinion on the potential for growth in the China market from Australia, space travel and lets us know what itinerary she would recommend to travellers if money wasn’t a concern.
Travel has become so much more accessible – and equally, there is a higher propensity and desire to spend disposable income on travel experiences. Luxury has been redefined – it’s now all about the exclusivity and quality of the experience rather than the accommodation.
Why are front-line travel agents so important to Abercrombie & Kent?
Successful agents become respected advisors and have close relationships with their clients. Some years ago, the common thinking was that the travel agent was fast becoming an extinct species and many suppliers learned to their detriment that this was far from true. Unless you have a discount/online model, travel agents are your bread and butter. A good agent makes honest recommendations, understands the client as well as the holiday offering and is able to put these together for a good result.
Why do you believe there is a growing trend in travellers seeking a luxury holiday?
People are increasingly time-poor and time has in many ways become a luxury. Time-out for holidays is precious and travellers want things to run seamlessly. They are also looking for experiences that they can’t access themselves – behind-the-scenes, after-hours access, meaningful contact with local communities, etc. All of these have become the new luxury.
You’re heading off next year to lead a tour through West Africa. What three things are you most looking forward to on this journey?
- The unspoilt nature of the destination. Ghana, Togo and Benin are off the beaten track and are only recently emerging as fascinating cultural hotspots for discerning travellers.
- The voodoo culture. I’m intrigued about meeting a witch doctor, visiting a fetish market and attending a voodoo ceremony.
- The art and craft scene. Benin has a vibrant art scene and we’ll be visiting the region’s first contemporary art museum as well as seeing the extraordinary fantasy coffins of Ghana, which are crafted in the shape of objects connected to the deceased’s life. In Togo we’ll have the chance to shop for the flamboyant wax-print cloth which has become so famous.
If cost wasn’t a concern, which itinerary in A&K’s vast stable of destinations and itineraries would you highly recommend to a friend, and why?
Antarctica and South Georgia. There are few places on earth that can still evoke such emotion – a sense of gratitude for being lucky enough to visit. It’s not just about the scenery or the wildlife, the stark beauty or the knowledgeable lecturers on board; it’s about the remoteness and solitude that are increasingly impossible to find.
Is A&K keeping its options open for space travel, pending the success of Virgin Galactic and other space agencies?
We always keep all our options open! Seriously, we are constantly looking at how we can push boundaries. I think space travel is still a long way away, but it’s definitely on our radar.
Recently, A&K’s China specialist and director Gerald Hatherly suggested to LATTE that the China region has greater potential for the Australian market. Where do you see growth opportunities for Aussies in that region?
We believe there’s a real opportunity for travel outside the main Chinese cities – beyond Beijing and Shanghai. The Silk Road is a highlight and little visited. It’s an epic journey that we operate for a small group following the great trade route from Xian to Kashgar in far western China just a few kilometres from the Afghan border. There are visits to ancient Buddhist cave galleries, a remote part of the Great Wall, the fabled Sunday market at Kashgar, rewarding cultural encounters with Uighur locals and much more.
To the west of Beijing, the atmospheric Ming-era walled city of Pingyao is a little-known, but utterly charming destination with traditional courtyard compounds, temples and lantern-lit laneways. It combines nicely with Datong to the north, an ancient capital which is the stepping-off point for the awe-inspiring Yungang grottoes, one of China’s most outstanding Buddhist treasures.
The mountainous Yunnan province is another area which we expect to see growth in. This is all about natural beauty and cultural heritage. It’s the most geographically diverse province and home to a third of China’s ethnic minorities plus a wide variety of plant and animal species, dramatic landscapes and a rich Buddhist heritage.
What advice do you offer people considering entering the travel industry? Where should they start? What should they know in advance?
Travel is entirely a customer service industry. To be successful in travel, you must enjoy customer contact and be willing to work irregular hours. If there’s an emergency, you have to be available any time of the day or night – we can’t just shut shop at 5pm and switch off. Many people enter the industry thinking it’s a glamorous world – and of course, it’s enticing and enthralling – but at the end of the day, it’s all about service.
Who inspires you with your work?
As I’ve said before – 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, to back-office staff who make sure the detail is never forgotten. I aspire to learn from them every day.
Last time we chatted, you suggested your favourite coffee was served at a coffee shop in South Melbourne, called Giddiup! Is that still the case?
Absolutely! It’s even better than ever which is why I struggle from caffeine deprivation when I travel.
Sujata, thanks kindly for taking your time to talk with LATTE.