“We want to reassure customers that when they travel with us, they are well taken care of” – Nicholas Lim, Asia CEO of The Travel Corporation
“When you know, you just know.” This is how Nicholas Lim describes his love for the hospitality and travel industry, in which he has been working since he was 12.
“People used to think it was cute to have little kids open doors at hotels during the Christmas season, so that’s how I got my first taste of hospitality working for a hotel along Scotts Road during the year-end holidays,” he recalls. At every school break, he worked behind the scenes, learning more about the trade, from polishing silverware to waiting on tables.
Today, at 47, Lim is the Asia CEO of The Travel Corporation (TTC), a Swiss-based family-owned and-run global travel business that carries 40 brands including Trafalgar, Luxury Gold, Contiki, Insight Vacations, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Red Carnation Hotels, and more.
TTC serves over two million customers each year (pre-Covid), from over 40 offices across all seven continents, offering more than 1,000 trips spanning 70 countries on six continents, appealing to every generation and style of traveller. Last year, it celebrated its 100th anniversary.
“TTC started with one hotel in South Africa 101 years ago, and when my late chairman took over his father’s business, he grew it to several more hotels. It was 1969 when they decided to acquire Trafalgar as their first touring company, followed by Contiki in 1989, Insight Vacations in 1991, with many more to follow,” shares Lim.
“Today, TTC is the holding company for several award-winning hotels, coaches, cruises, safaris, vineyards and touring brands ranging from Costsaver for the budget-conscious to Luxury Gold for premium holidays.”
No stranger to the TTC family, Lim has been with the company for the most part of two decades, working through the ranks after starting as an entry-level junior executive handling sales and training of travel agents. In a few short years, he was made regional director for Contiki holidays — a position he held for six years. “[Then] the owner said I was getting too old for Contiki at 35,” he laughs, adding that he was “transferred” to manage the Trafalgar portfolio in 2011.
After seven years as president (Asia) for Trafalgar, Lim became managing director for TTC Asia from 2018 to 2022 where he oversaw Asia and Middle East operations, marketing and sales for seven of the company’s key brands: Trafalgar, Costsaver, Insight, Luxury Gold, Uniworld, Contiki, and AAT Kings. His leadership during this time won him Executive of the Year for Travel Services at the 2019 Singapore Business Review’s Management Excellence Awards.
The turning point in Lim’s journey with TTC was in 2020 when an opportunity opened up for him to join American travel conglomerate Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) as its general manager for Asia at the end of 2020. Looking for new challenges, he took up the offer.
“NCL is a public-listed company and there’s a lot of checks and balances compared to a family-run business. I’m grateful to have worked with NCL and I don’t regret taking it on because I was able to look at tourism from a very different lens. The learning curve was very steep but we managed to get numbers up,” says Lim.
Barely into a year at NCL, Lim received a call from one of the owners of TTC asking him to come back and run the Singapore office as CEO — a request he couldn’t decline. “The business really needed assistance with this market, especially during Covid-19, and when the owners themselves call you personally, it’s hard to say no!” he jokes.
Since his CEO appointment in August, Lim has hit the ground running, working with his global brand executives to execute brand strategies and set the direction to fuel further growth for Asia, in particular the luxury travel market for international outbound leisure travel.
His return also coincided with the long-awaited return of global travel, with Germany opening its doors first in September, followed by another eight vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) a month later. “We went from zero to 100kmh where organic web stats skyrocketed to 300%,” he reports.
He continues: “Luckily for us, TTC (Asia) didn’t retrench anyone, so the moment we saw a surge in bookings, we had the manpower to meet the demand. It also helped that during the lockdown, we were still reaching out to our VIP travellers and regular customers and keeping them close with promotional news and updates.”
While many companies used the lull of 2020 to reassess resources or undergo rebranding exercises, TTC looked at ways to improve its back-end operations to make them more cost-efficient, and introduced a global telephony system. It also invested in new air filters for its ships and coaches, fine-tuned safety protocols in accordance with The World Travel & Tourism Council, as well as hired wellbeing directors for its guided holidays.
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In addition to a travel director on every tour, wellbeing directors have been deployed to handle all administrative matters related to Covid-19
Currently deployed on Insight Vacations and Trafalgar trips in Europe and the US, the wellbeing directors provide on-ground personal support and 24/7 assistance on all matters Covid-19 related. They are responsible for staying up to date with local government guidelines and ensuring that all parties involved comply with these regulations.
“We want to reassure customers that when they travel with us, they are well taken care of. Having a wellbeing director is an additional resource for times like these and very much needed. So, while this person is in charge of adhering to Covid-19 protocols, the travel director can focus entirely on delivering an exceptional and seamless stress-free trip,” says Lim.
“As the worst effects of the Covid-19 ebb, most indicators are pointing towards travel re- turning with a passion as numerous vacationers want to get away from the confines of their homes and as people look to reconnect and explore new destinations.”
Already, Lim is noticing a huge demand of bookings from Europe, North America and Australia, with departures as early as mid-2022. “These three markets have been driving the demand for us, but when the VTLs opened up, we went from zero to over 1,000% in global sales, and not just for travel in 2021 but advance bookings for 2022 and 2023 as well. Even those from countries without VTLs are also booking because they’re anticipating that things will get better,” he says.
He attributes this unusual phenomenon to the foreseeable supply and demand crunch which may inflate travel prices. “Just a few months ago, a flight to Europe which would typically cost $1,000 tripled to $3,000 on economy class,” he reveals.
Will the heat of this travel frenzy cool? Lim says that given the nature of the virus, and now with the new Omicron variant, he doesn’t think the frenzy has even started. Fortunately, despite the topsy-turvy situation, TTC continues to see forward bookings into 2022/23 from Asia into Europe, and this underscores the anticipated demand.
At this rate, it may take at least the next 24 to 36 months for a pattern to settle since the vast majority of travellers’ plans have been pushed back yet again. With demand outstripping supply, travellers may not get their dream holiday until another one to two years, making it a total of three to five years without a holiday since the pandemic started.
Here, he shares about the hottest places to travel to this year and the best times to go.
Has Covid-19 changed the way you work?
Typically, our travel agents are our direct clients, but this has changed since the pandemic. We are now seeing travellers reaching out to us directly and getting information straight from us, the principal, than going through a third party. They know that we are the ones operating the trips and want to raise their concerns and have all their questions answered. I think, from a customer service perspective, that’s the bare minimum we should be giving them. How they wish to make bookings is still entirely up to them.
What’s the general feeling on the ground with travel agents?
They are slowly returning to the fold but in varying degrees of recovery. Some are still very quiet and somewhat cautious. We’ve told them at any point they are ready, we have guar- anteed departures all the way to summer.
A rise in single travellers by Contiki has been observed in the past year
What travel trends have emerged in the past year?
Globally, we’ve seen the most bookings made for luxury holidays under Uniworld, Insight Vacations and Trafalgar. Many European tours last summer were completely booked out. On the other end of the spectrum, we’re also seeing lots of single travellers taking up two-week vacations through Europe with either Contiki or Trafalgar.
Where are the best places to visit now?
The popularity pole shifts from brand to brand. For Trafalgar, Insight and Contiki, we’re seeing a huge demand for Mediterranean tours. For Uniworld’s river cruises, we’re seeing a pick-up in Germany and France. Overall, Europe is a very hot destination now, with countries like Spain, Italy and Portugal on the top of people’s wishlist.
The S.S. São Gabriel by Uniworld is the newest ship on Portugal’s Douro River
When’s the best time to travel this year?
Here in Singapore, our travel patterns are very predictable. After Christmas and New Year, it will cool down and then ramp up again in June during the school holidays. In the Western hemisphere, it gets extremely busy in the summer from June all the way to September. If you wish to avoid inflated costs and crowds, go during spring, autumn or winter — the scenery is just as beautiful and the weather is amazing.
How far in advance should I be booking for a trip?
My advice is to book six months in advance if you plan to travel during the peak months and if there’s family involved. This way, you can secure the rate you want with the knowledge that you can always swap dates around at your convenience. It’s important to travel with reputable companies that offer this kind of assurance and flexibility.
Personally, do you like guided tours or prefer free-and-easy travel?
Travel preferences are quite personal and it really boils down to what you want to do and which stage of your life you are at. When the kids were toddlers, we would book a full-service resort and stay there for the full seven days. But if it’s just the two of us, we enjoy a guided trip around Europe, where it’s two to three nights a city. Everything is taken care of and it is often well balanced. For example, when the tours are completed in the morning, and we have some “me” time, we’ll go on our own to have lunch at local restaurants and further explore the destination. My favourite thing to do is sit at a coffee shop and watch the world go by while my wife goes shopping!
I think planning for a holiday is very critical, especially when it comes to transportation. Have you ever tried taking a cab in a foreign land? Your destination might just be only two blocks away but the driver will take you on a nice tour around the city and charge you plenty for it. Travel is time and time is money!
Lim with wife Susmita Dayanandan on a Uniworld cruise
Photos: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore; The Travel Corporation