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Thu 6 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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Knowing me, knowing you

Brothers Nabil and Basel Abu Alrub reveal their plans to shake up service levels in the travel sector with their new personalised travel consultancy service, Utravel.

Knowing me, knowing you
Basel and Nabil say they want to bring a new kind of individual, personalised service to Dubai’s travel sector with Utravel.

Step into Utravel’s bright and shiny new ground floor office space located in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers and you immediately get the feeling this isn’t going to be your typical travel agency.

The usual line-of-consultants behind a desk, racks of well-thumbed brochures and faded destination posters that you find in countless agencies up and down the country are nowhere to be seen. Instead, customers are greeted personally at the door before being lead into individual private ‘lounges’, featuring plush leather sofas, wall-mounted plasma TV screens, and brightly painted walls with funky flocked wallpaper and chandeliers, to embark on a personal travel consultation with a difference.

Utravel is the brainchild of brothers Nabil and Basel Abu Alrub who dreamt up the concept to cater to what they see as a gaping hole in the local travel market for a “bespoke, personalised service”.

So great was this need in fact, that the half-Syrian, half-Palestinian brothers both ditched lucrative careers in management consulting and investment banking and invested “millions of dirhams” of their own capital to fund the business. They plan to break even in two years time.

Now, six months into the operation, it’s been by no means an easy start for the fledgling agency — the first ever to open its doors inside a freezone, but the brothers are optimistic that their message of tailored travel is starting to gain ground.

“We have a different concept, a different vision for the future,” explains Nabil. “We have opened really far away from the rest of the market because we want to distinguish ourselves from the rest.”

“People today want to feel that they are receiving something personal, and they can’t find that in agencies here,” adds Basel. “That’s why people are resorting to other ways of booking travel.”

He explains the concept of the agency: “We try to provide a solution that fits your personality, your purpose, your expectations, and your level of travel expertise. So let’s say you want to go to Paris. Have you been before? If you have, you don’t just want to visit the Eiffel Tower. You might want to experience a certain cuisine, meet a certain chef, try cooking lessons or maybe you are interested in French music or fashion...”

Utravel plans to capture a niche of the leisure travel market — one that is seeking hands-on service, provided by knowledgeable travel consultants — something Nabil and Basel say is lacking in other agencies in the region who remain focused on servicing the corporate travel sector.

“This industry is concentrated on corporates and it drains the resources, the time and the effort,” says Nabil. “Agencies here process a lot of numbers, and so the individual is forgotten.”

So how is Utravel doing things differently? “I think the wages in this industry are very low and hence you get a level of service that is not really up to par,” says Basel. “Our biggest asset as an agency are our consultants. Our pay structure is different from other agencies — our base salary is higher than the market level and we have a very flexible bonus structure so we treat our staff as partners — whatever I make, they will have a cut of and the more we make in terms of profits the higher we make in commissions.”

Staff at the agency have been “handpicked” and come from fields as varied as IT, real estate and hospitality. “We picked them because they have the passion for service. Anyone can learn how to book a hotel room but not everyone can sit down and have a truly genuine conversation and get to know you. We want your holiday experience to be established from this office,” says Basel.

All Utravel consultants have been trained in the principle of ‘invisible service’ — or “how to go the extra  mile without being noticed.” “It’s about the extra touches,” explains Basel. “These are the things that can only happen when the consultant knows the guest on a personal level.”

He cites a recent example of an Austrian family visiting the UAE. While Utravel arranged all the usual excursions for them, the consultant also discovered the family’s preferred music tastes, and prepared a personalised CD for them to listen to in the car. “We are very creative. We come up with this stuff because we have strong suppliers and we are able to cater on all levels,” says Basel.

After facing numerous headaches, the brothers are proud to say that Utravel is fully licensed to operate in all sectors of the tourism industry, with a dedicated inbound and outbound division. “We wanted a fully-fledged agency that could handle everything under one roof,” explains Basel. But gaining this status has been far from easy.

“First a license has to come from the Civil Aviation Body — and this door is closed. You have to have some connections, or some influence in order to obtain this.

“To carry out tourism activities they make it difficult and you have to put down some quite hefty bank guarantees and quite a hefty insurance policy in place.”

Looking towards the future of the business, the brothers admit that the biggest challenge will be “cashflow and liquidity.”

“No business can survive without considerable working capital,” says Nabil, “and I don’t think the rules and regulations in this region support an SME as it should. There have been some initiatives, but in our industry there is no place to start a business with our vision. Every 15 days we have to pay IATA, so we really have to manage our cash.”

And in such a price-driven market as the travel sector, where clients can compare prices online; and will routinely switch to a different travel agency just for the sake of a dirham off their holiday package — how does Utravel intend to stay competitive?

“There are many ways of acquiring market share aside from the price,” states Nabil.

“But I’m not saying that price is irrelevant— it’s very relevant, and that’s why our consultants have been trained that before they send a quote for a hotel or a package they should always compare it online, because as a guest you will always log onto a website and compare.”

Nabil adds that Utravel is able to keep its packages competitive by “developing very strong ties with our suppliers — be it tour operators in other countries or tour operators here.”

“We have our tricks that allow us to beat the system,” adds Basel. “For example I don’t have to issue airline tickets from here — I can issue them from abroad where they could be cheaper.”

And in the future, once the Utravel brand has been established in the market; the brothers say they plan to leverage their top-notch service offering to introduce a  ‘consultancy fee’ —  with a view that customers will be willing to pay money for decent service if it is of a high enough standard.

“We are still new in the market and we are creating a brand so we don’t have the leverage to charge consultancy fees yet,” explains  Nabil. “But once the customers see, once they try us, they will pay us just to have no headaches. It’s just a case of developing it gradually as we build up our client base and our reputation. This market doesn’t take to [change] very well.”

Despite this, it seems Utravel is set to shake up the travel sector — and there’s even talk of expansion into Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Latin America when the time is right. “I think the future is bright for our industry,” says Basel. “Look at all the new hotels, new airports, and new airline routes. Tourism and transport is the industry that saved our economy during the crisis. Everything else collapsed but travel increased.”

And clients certainly seem to like the idea. “People take the time to call and tell us this level of service is lacking in the market,” he adds. “As one client told us yesterday: “you guys just make it look so easy.”

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