It's still bad out there but sentiment's better.
Monday, 17th May 2010
Source : By Yeoh Siew Hoon
The last time I caught up with Hans Lerch (left) was last October when we were still in the centre of the financial storm although Asia was clambering out of the ruins and Europe was still clinging to the wreckage.

Eight months later, it seems Europe is still clinging to the wreckage and you could argue it's gotten worse and could get worse before it gets better.

Lerch, who was appointed vice chairman of Migros Group, Switzerland, last year and just last month made "caretaker" global CEO, agrees it's not easy being a tour operator in Europe these days.

Not only is there crisis after crisis to handle, but the traditional tour operating model is under pressure from so many forces it's hard to know which ones to tackle first.

The good news though is, even with the Greek economic crisis, Lerch says consumer sentiment is better than it was last year. "I think people realised it wasn't the end of the world last year and we can get through any crisis," he says.

Switzerland, too, because it is not part of the EU and does not use the Euro, could be partly spared the full impact of the Greek tragedy although Lerch fears that if the crisis is not contained, substantial social unrest could erupt and spread throughout Europe.

And then, prior to that was the volcanic ash cloud which caused massive flight cancellations across the world. "What else will hit us next," laughs Lerch.

Calling it a "disaster", Lerch says Hotelplan had to deal with thousands of stranded customers. The silver lining though is customers who were initially angry and frustrated turned into grateful and satisfied ones after they found that, because they booked with a brick-and-mortar tour operator, were better looked after than those who booked with online travel companies.

"A lot of them traded stories when they were stranded and so compared their situation with others," says Lerch. "We had a lot of happy customers who wrote to us, thanking us for looking after them.

"Often, in crisis, if you handle it well, it turns into an opportunity."

Added to issues at home, there's also the matter of problems in destinations and Lerch is concerned that the ongoing social unrest in Thailand could have longterm damage on what is Europe's most popular destination in Asia.

"In the past, Thailand's always been seen to be a generally peaceful place with a revolution every now and then. But now, after the airport closure last year and this prolonged crisis, it is being seen as a country with huge serious problems and this will have an impact in the longterm."

He says because this was low season for Hotelplan and other European tour operators to Asia, the impact was not as dramatic now. "But we are expecting bookings to be substantially down this winter even if things return to normal in Thailand. The publicity and media is doing substantial, extended damage."

Yeoh Siew Hoon, one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, writes a regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry for 4Hoteliers.com.

Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her other writings can be found at www.thetransitcafe.com. Get your weekly cuppa of news, gossip, humour and opinion at the cafe for travel insiders.

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