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Tue 31 Oct 2006 08:00 PM

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Give the customer choice: calling on more niche tour operators to set-up-shop

The Middle East outbound travel market is as diverse as they come, boasting many cultures, including a large expatriate community.

Leisure travel demands span from luxury around-the-world jaunts and long duration family holidays, to short city breaks and the annual VFR (visiting friends and relatives) trip.

Many sectors of the community, notably GCC nationals and Western ex-pats, boast a higher than average disposable income and are willing to spend cash on not one, but several trips a year.

This trend has been noted by Etihad Holidays, which has been studying the profiles of customers that have signed up to the new Etihad Airways customer loyalty programme, Guest.

According to Nick Wood, general manager, Etihad Holidays, some customers are taking up to six leisure trips a year, as opposed to just one summer break.

This evolution of outbound travel patterns, coupled with the high percentage of High Net Worth travellers, calls for a more sophisticated and responsive travel trade environment.

At present, there are very few outbound tour operators of note, particularly in the GCC. Emirates Holidays is the major player and airlines such as Qatar Airways and Etihad are catering to the mainstream leisure needs of their respective markets.

They are succeeding, because the demand is there, but none of these operators are independent. They don’t specialise and they don’t tap into the top-end market that is ripe for the picking; the customers who require often elaborate tailor made packages, put together by travel professionals with in-depth product knowledge.

There are signs that times are changing, however. Dnata Holidays has revealed plans to “specialise” in 25 destinations and four- to five-star accommodation only, in a bid to cater to “the discerning traveller”.

But many industry professionals, and potential customers for that matter, have told me they “just don’t get it”. Why is Dnata Holidays offering the same destinations as its sister company, Emirates Holidays? Where is the point of difference?

Surely it would make more sense to focus on niche genres; spa retreats, adventure holidays or boutique properties?

The market is crying out to be surprised and stimulated. Customers demand choice and they are willing to pay for it. You only have to look to the European and US markets where professional niche operators are thriving to understand where the gap in the Middle East market needs to be filled.

The team at newly established destination marketing and events management company, Gulf Reps, must therefore be given a big pat on the back for recognising this void and taking action to rectify it.

The Dubai-based firm has signed a deal to represent Australian operator Tempo Holidays (see front page), and if it plays its cards right, could steal a march on a market that is yet to be cornered.

Painting holidays in France, cookery lessons in Italy, adventure holidays and exotic destinations such as Latin America, which are yet to be offered to the Middle East market, are just some of the niche products in Tempo’s portfolio.

The company is not owned by an airline and in this sense, will be the only truly independent tour operator in the GCC.

Both Tempo and Dnata Holidays claim they are looking for a healthy business mix; split 50/50 between the consumer and the trade. They have also vowed to invest in agent training.

In the coming months, I look forward to witnessing the two companies go head to head in their bid to capture the untapped niche travel sector. If only more companies would acknowledge the need to do the same.