MICE and group travel will need more lead time before returning to Laos, according to Rob Hanson, General Manager at Nakarath Travel. We Are Lao’s John Morris Williams recently interviewed Mr Hanson, whose DMC specializes in bespoke travel, to discuss his view on what it will take to reopen Lao travel.
WAL: How do you see the future for MICE and group travel to Laos?
Hanson: I do see the demand is there. So, if logistical issues in getting here are solved and our neighbours are on track, then I see a bright future. (However,) there are a lot of hoops to jump though in order to get there.
WAL: What are your projections for bringing groups back to Laos upon reopening?
Hanson: We have series with pax booked, and they are getting cancelled about three months prior to travel. For example, two groups confirmed for November had 30 pax, but they got cancelled (in late August). We’ve got groups confirmed for Q1, but if there is no clear plan to open by say October, these will get cancelled as well. So, if Laos takes the approach that they will open and announce it last minute, I’d say we’d have to wait 2-3 months before we actually receive any groups. As Laos is landlocked and lacking in any long-haul flight routes, time is needed for regional airlines to reinstate flights too, and actually make it logistically possible to get here.
WAL: What are the current feelings from your overseas partners?
Hanson: (There is) a general negativity regarding Asia in general regarding clarity of reopening, but not specifically aimed at Laos. Our overseas partners, who sell destinations worldwide, are at a point where they are just concentrating on other destinations that are already open, or have a clear plan to open. For the Asia specialists, of which there are many, it is very tough.
WAL: Do you believe that MICE and groups are the fastest way to bring some sense of normality back when the border opens?
Hanson: If some notice is given (2-3 months), we could bring in groups with big numbers. So yes, it would be the fastest way to bring in significant pax. If we have a last-minute notice, then it is likely FITs will be the first to arrive, but it would be in very small numbers.
WAL: What would you like the hoteliers and your partners in Laos do to begin preparing for reopening?
Hanson: Again a notice period for reopening to give them time to prepare would be essential. I’m very wary that lot of hotels may have to re-recruit from top to bottom, and we as a DMC would need to carefully assess each hotel prior to reopening and manage client expectations. I’ve been speaking to our tour operator partners overseas, and everyone is in agreement that clients will be initially quite forgiving in terms of service for the first 3-4 months. Hotels need to be honest with us though, in keeping us informed on where they stand with management and staff recruitment, tell us where they are, leave the expectation management of the clients to us.
WAL: Would you offer a 2 week or longer MICE package to explore the sustainable side of Laos and get back to nature?
Hanson: We already do. These tend to work best for FITs, as a lot of off the beaten track locations have limited hotel options for larger groups, but we have successfully run a series (16 days in Laos) for a smaller, 12 pax max group. We’ve been doing this for a long time, but it is still a limited market. If you are here for 2 weeks you need to be either okay with roughing it a bit on accommodation, or fairly active and into trekking. For the high-spend pax, a key market for us, that’s not always realistic.
Personally, I’m watching Cambodia, as they seem to be about 3 months ahead of Laos regarding vaccines, and I’m hoping they will reopen as soon as they are rolled out. When this happens and if this goes well (and assuming Thailand and Vietnam are still closed), then Laos would be wise to partner up with Cambodia. The two countries need each other. Cambodia is trying to push themselves as single destination, but they have their limitations, as does Laos, but combined you have packages to suit the full range of clients. Already successful and (previously) heavily booked routes (LPQ-REP, PKZ-REP, VTE-PNH) would need to be reinstated.
WAL: Regarding airlines and their group policies, would you require them to change their views?
Hanson: I actually don’t have too many major issues with airlines and group policies, as long as seats can be blocked and a realistic time frame is given for issuing tickets is given. What I don’t want post-Covid is for airlines to try and ‘cash in’ too much and we have to go back to the tour operators and tell them the prices are going up X amount purely because of the flights, as we are confident in controlling all other aspects of pricing and maintaining rates. Airlines have demonstrated that they have been willing to heavily discount during Covid, and they should continue to be at least realistic in their pricing during the effective ‘soft opening’ where capturing groups is key.
Nakarath Travel: www.nakarathtravel.com