x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Trying to help the uninitiated

Feature What do travel agents in Abu Dhabi say about their desk jobs? On tour with Abu Dhabi travel agents in the Czech Republic.

A group of travel agents, led by Shahzad Abdul Majeed, tours the Mariánské Lázne spa town in the western Czech Republic.
A group of travel agents, led by Shahzad Abdul Majeed, tours the Mariánské Lázne spa town in the western Czech Republic.

The invitation to tour a famous spa region in the Czech Republic with half a dozen Abu Dhabi travel agents was too good to refuse. What would it be like to travel with the people who organise holidays for everyone else and are supposed to be the experts? I got a first impression of my companions when we arrived at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the middle of the night to board our flight for a 16-hour marathon journey via Istanbul on Turkish Airways. Armed with cameras, the group members snapped shots at every turn. This continued in Prague, where the cool air was a welcome change for Jacqueline D'souza, a supervisor at Micco Travel and Tourism. Originally from Goa, India, D'souza wore two coats, a hat with giant earflaps and a plaid wool scarf wrapped around her head. "I've never seen snow before," she said.

Later that evening, after we had arrived at the four-star Hotel Hvezda in the sleepy town of Mariánské Lázne and tried sample massages, I retired to my room to read a little and rest before dinner. Most of the other group members, although tired, headed outside to make a snowman. The next day, we toured parts of the historic West Bohemian Spa Triangle, a Unesco World Heritage Centre, including Karlovy Vary, the largest spa town in the Czech Republic.

Keeping the objectives of their clients back home in mind, the representatives' questions at each hotel and spa stop followed a pattern. What about shopping malls, what about food, they wondered; how would their Emirati clients fare in such a pork-heavy corner of the world - can they ask for food to be prepared in advance and will it be halal? Some of the hotels we visited failed to meet expectations. "This is not five star," sniffed Rana Yazgi, a sales executive at Safar Travel and Tourism, pointing to a shabby chair.

Yet the group was attracted by the cost - the Czech Republic's prices are almost half of other European destinations - and intrigued by the possibilities. "We will go home, put some packages together, and then see," Jaya Maguluri, a manager at Salem Travel Agency, said. Organising holidays for other people can be a difficult job - especially in this part of the world. "We just cannot say no to the customer, especially someone who is going on a honeymoon, but also someone who is looking forward to a holiday. He would be disappointed if he doesn't get a seat," D'souza said. Worse still, is planning for those who need to get somewhere quickly, in awful circumstances, such as the death of a family member.

People also come in seeking travel advice without having any particular destination in mind. "Some clients come to me and say 'I want to go away'. They say: 'suggest for me'," Walid Hamouda, an Egyptian travel consultant with Albadie Travel Agency, said. "So I try to convince them of some destinations that are good for them." When a client guards his or her privacy, as people in this region tend to do, it's even harder. "It's difficult because before you send the guest to any destination, you have to ask them so many questions: how many are travelling? Are you a family? Is this a honeymoon?"

Nazim Mohamed, a senior holiday consultant with Al Zaabi Travels, who has been in the business for the past 11 years, believes that Emiratis differ from other nationalities in terms of their travel needs."UAE people are mainly looking at the shopping areas and [for] good accommodation," said Mohamed, who hails from Kerala, India. He added that Emiratis were more likely to complain about bad service. In comparison, Australians who make up the bulk of his business, rarely bother about arrangements. "Even if I book them into a three-star hotel, they will not complain," he said. "The accommodation does not matter. They like to visit places, they like to see local culture."

Sometimes it is almost impossible to make a client happy, Maguluri said. He sent some of his clients to Malaysia during peak season but when they wanted to stay on for a few extra days, they rearranged their own flights. After a phone call from the client and a frantic search for hotels and resorts, he failed to find them any accommodation. Finally, they had to change their plans and return home at great expense - it was the worst possible outcome. "Even being a travel agent, I couldn't do anything for those people."

The agents agreed that Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand were favourite destinations among travellers from the UAE, followed by those in Asia, Thailand and Malaysia. Although people elsewhere in the world are increasingly turning to the internet to make their own travel arrangements, that does not seem to be the case here in the UAE. The group said that there is much about their job that makes them laugh.

Hamouda recalled how an Emirati customer, who insisted that he be found the "cheapest hotel in Geneva", complained - after he booked into a fairly ordinary hotel - that it was filled with unsavoury-looking men. Many people also arrive at the airport 12 hours ahead of schedule and call their travel agents in panic. The melange of languages and cultures in the UAE, which is a major tourism hub, can pose a challenge for travel agents. Maguluri, who has been in the travel business for seven years, said that his confusion has grown along with the increasing number of nationalities, speaking many different languages who now want to travel further afield.

Once he mistakenly almost booked a flight to Antalya in Turkey for a client who said that he wanted to fly to Milan on Alitalia. "They looked at me and said, 'Milan, it's so cheap'." amcqueen@thenational.ae