Tim-team Clearinghouse: Asian suppliers feel bullied by European tour operator

Travel Trade Gazette Asia, Jul 25 - Jul 31, 2003

Kuoni UK outrages suppliers

By Jeremy Colson

Leading tour operator’s attempt to seek high-season rate cuts seen as self serving

BANGKOK - Kuoni Travel UK’s attempt to get 200 Asia-Pacific suppliers to cut rates by 20 per cent to stimulate recovery during the September to March high season, has met with angry opposition, particularly in Thailand.

In a message dated July 15, Kuoni told hotels, airlines and NTOs it wanted to launch a “dedicated Far East special offer brochure” with savings of at least 20 per cent from September to March 2004.

Kuoni’s managing director, Ms Sue Biggs, and chief of products, Mr Francis Torrilla, were due to present their idea in Bangkok on July 22 and in Hong Kong a couple of days later. But prior to their Thailand arrival, hoteliers were building up opposition. Royal Cliff Beach Resort, Pattaya director of sales & marketing, Mr David Holden, said: “We’re definitely not going along with it. Business is picking up quite well without discounting.”

Amari Hotels & Resorts director of sales & marketing, Mr Duncan Webb, who said the group was already working with business partners to come up with short-term tactical offers supplemented by airline-driven discounts, added: “We question the wisdom of renegotiating existing contracts which could have a long-term impact on business. The Kuoni proposal is too far-reaching.”

And Dusit Laguna Resort Hotel (Phuket) general manager, Mr Sam-Erik Ruttmann, was concerned a special discount to Kuoni would not be fair to Dusit’s other business partners.

Meanwhile, Mr Torrilla, told TTG Asia Thailand’s position as the number one destination for the UK tour operator was being challenged by the Maldives. He declined to quote figures, but TTG Asia enquiries revealed UK outbound to the Maldives grew only four per cent in 2003, compared to 10 per to Thailand.

Mr Torrilla said forward bookings for Asia was at least 20 per cent down on 2002, but he could not specify the countries.

He said Kuoni was in discussions with Thai Airways International (THAI) in London and although the response was positive, no decision had been made yet. But the Thai carrier in Bangkok told TTG Asia it would definitely not be giving any special discounts to Kuoni.

Mr Torrilla, who claimed reaction from hotels had been encouraging, declined to name any of them, saying no announcements would be made until the Recovery Plan brochure was published in September.

Most hotels contacted by TTG Asia believed the UK operator was once again trying to improve its own position at the expense of the hotel industry.

A Phuket hotelier, said: “This is a crude attempt to gain market share dressed up as a desire to help Thailand.”

A Koh Samui hotelier pointed out a 20 per cent discount on hotel rates would barely make a dent on the retail price unless air fares were also renegotiated. There’s no indication TG (THAI) is about to drop its pants for Kuoni or anyone else.”

‘Cheap’ move irks Hong Kong

By Kevin Sinclair

Hoteliers perturbed by Kuoni’s request to drop contract rates

HONG KONG - Hoteliers in Hong Kong were as perturbed as their Thai counterparts regarding a Kuoni Travel UK request for them to drop contract rates by at least 20 per cent for the September 2003 to March 2004 period.

They said selling Hong Kong as a cheap destination beyond the immediate traffic recovery exercises until end September was counter-productive, adding Kuoni had to explain the full impact of the rate reductions.

Langham Hotels International vice-president for marketing and development, Mr Kevin Murphy, told TTG Asia: “Recent studies for the Hong Kong Hotels Association show ROI (return on investment) is not sustainable at today’s prices, threatening the destination’s future development and necessary infrastructure standards.”

He said selling Hong Kong as a cheap destination, if not accompanied by correspondingly low air fares throughout any later period did not indicate “serious intention to promote the destination”.

“It indicates a major player’s way of just ensuring extra bargaining power to ensure its own position in the home market over its competitors, who may well be interested in our destination also.”

Mr Murphy added: “They, and others, have had advantage through the five years of economic meltdown in Asia. They were neither inclined nor interested to start promotions to restore confidence in travel in 2003 until initiatives now available to them were offered by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, airlines, hotels and ground operators.

“Volume for volume’s sake beyond September is counterproductive to the return of profitability to the industry. It is time for the emergence of more serious specialist players offering deeper experiential tours that pay more heed to cultural and social differences in destinations such as Hong Kong.”

Mr Murphy was concerned high service levels would only return with better yield.

Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts group director of sales and marketing, Ms Carmen Lam, said she was reviewing Kuoni’s request and needed to understand the situation better.

“It is one thing to come up with a special rate for a special season. But it is more important for us to fully understand the impact of that rate reduction.

“Kuoni has to tell us if the resistance to travel to Asia is mainly a rate issue or an issue of confidence. Is it more sustainable to drive business back to Asia by offering rate reductions or are we better off in the long run by putting more effort in bigger and better promotions or publicity to raise the overall appeal of Asia to the potential traveller?”

Ms Lam indicated more talks with Kuoni were needed on this issue.

Sounding a slightly different note, Grand Stanford InterContinental general manager, Mr Gerhard Hecker, told TTG Asia: “Rates should be upheld from October onwards. (But) we do not know to what extent people abroad are still worried about SARS resurfacing later in the year.

“Looking at the pickup for October for the Canton fair period, our on-book situation is still rather low for such a high-demand period, indicating even businessmen are waiting to see what happens.”

Mr Hecker questioned Hong Kong’s ability to “beat perception and fear”, saying it was “hard to condemn Kuoni’s request for a rate dive in view of the uncertain business flow expected” and “in view of the fact that they will genuinely pass the benefit onto their clients”.


IN any business, finding the right partner can make or break a company. In Asia, potential partners are wined and dined in a complex courting ritual. It is just the Asian way. But to those more used to cutting to the chase to cut the deal, it can be perplexing.

Looking at the angry reaction to Kuoni Travel UK’s attempt to get its suppliers in the region to drop rates by at least 20 per cent during the upcoming high season makes one wonder if the tour operator misjudged its strategy or the strength of its position and relationship with its partners.

Suppliers in Asia, even among those in countries not affected by SARS, have been hit by a year that has gone horribly wrong. So to ask hotels banking on recovering some of the losses at the only time this year they are likely to have a break, is too big a sacrifice to make with too low a guarantee. Money has to be made now and the promise of results down the road may be too little, too late because it could be a case of now or never for some.

That hoteliers in Thailand and Hong Kong are incensed by the Kuoni attempt to renegotiate now that the region is down has raised questions about the motive of the major ground operator. Or was it a case of a good intention going bad because of poor handling on the part of Kuoni? Whatever the case may be, the suppliers feel they are being bullied.

If Kuoni is a partner Asia can count on, the team which was in the region to talk to suppliers and discuss the issue have to convince them the plan was not for selfish reasons at the expense of Asia’s recovery.

Whatever the case may be, Kuoni has to regain the trust of its partners and it has to be transparent. While the numerous offers and packages now available across the region are rock bottom, such initiatives cannot be sustained indefinitely. What the industry needs now are partners who can help the region get back on its feet, not take advantage when it is weak.

Kuoni too has been badly hit and deserves to be heard. It deserves the chance to give its side of the story, the full story, before suppliers will back down. But if Kuoni is only interested in gaining at the expense of Asia, then it deserves to be roundly criticised. Hopefully there is a way out and a compromise solution, even if it is not the happy ending that was anticipated.

NOTE: The articles introduced in this Clearinghouse do not necessarily represent the views of the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team)