A New adventure
Frederic Bardin has big plans for the region's biggest tour operator
Just a few months into the job, and the newly-appointed head of Emirates Holidays, Frédéric Bardin, has big plans for the region’s biggest tour operator.
Frédéric Bardin has a spring in his step when I meet him at the Emirates Holidays headquarters in Dubai.
He has “returned to his roots” he tells me delightedly, when I enquire how the transition is going from his previous role managing Arabian Adventures — the region’s biggest DMC — to heading up the Middle East’s biggest holiday company.
Through his twenty years with Arabian Adventures, the DMC arm of the Emirates Group, Bardin has become a major personality, and powerful advocate — of the inbound tourism scene, helping to shape Dubai’s astronomical growth as a global destination for leisure, as well as meetings and incentives through the launch of professional congress organiser, Congress Solutions International.
But he admits he’s always had a passion for travel ever since he started his career working for a tour operator back in his native France over thirty years ago. So when the top job at Emirates Holidays came up it was a “natural move” for him.
“I call this job a return to my other roots,” he explains. “I’m one of the few people in my industry — at least in my generation — who has done all the jobs in tourism. In the past people used to stick to one, either you were in tour operating, or you were a travel agent or you were a DMC. But one of the reasons Emirates selected me back in 1990 was that I had experience of all the major areas.”
Just a few months into the new job and it’s clear that Bardin is itching to put his own stamp on the company, using this time to suss out the business and “put my nose into everything” as he puts it.
“You never quite do the same thing your predecessor does. Part of management is personal touch, the way you like things done and your core beliefs, so there will inevitably be things that you say, “I don’t like it that way, let’s do it another way.”
So what changes will he be bringing to the company? Well, Bardin reveals that he already has his sights set on expansion, with plans in the pipeline to launch a specialist cruise division which he pegs as one of the biggest emerging travel trends this year.
“People are getting more interested in cruises, especially in the UAE; it’s become a hot topic because there are so many cruise ships coming here now.
“That’s probably awakened interest in some people’s minds — the question is how do you drive these people to actually go on a cruise? My aim is to eventually create a specialist cruise unit, because you need specialists to guide you to the right cruise ship.”
“Cruise is an enormous world,” he continues enthusiastically. “You have cruises for elder people, younger people, families, low-cost. Then you get sailing charters, yachts for 5,000 people, and then the different parts of the world — you can cruise on a canal in France or a river in Germany.”
Other than that, Emirates Holidays naturally grows as its parent company airline grows. New destinations, which the operator is strongly pushing this year with dedicated “mini-brochures” come off the back of new Emirates routes to Geneva, Switzerland (daily flights will be launched in June) and Copenhagen, Denmark (daily flights will be launched in August).
Bardin anticipates that Geneva, and Spain will be the big winners for this year’s summer season. “A lot of UAE nationals go to Geneva in the summer already. Some of the big families including the ruling families have big palaces there, and with the launch of flights to Madrid last year now we are offering Spain for the first summer.”
“Of course we don’t feature every new destination,” he adds quickly, “Emirates is flying to Basra now, but I don’t think we’ll be doing holiday packages to Iraq anytime soon...although you never know.”
After a difficult couple of years for travel, Bardin is optimistic that the industry is well on its way to recovery, and he is forecasting ambitious growth for the company this year.
Budgets won’t be finalised until the end of the financial year in March, but expects a “very minimum of 20% increase — hopefully 30% — in both revenue and passenger numbers” (this compares with growth last year of just under 10%).
“The last two years were a bit dull, like any business in the world, so now we really need to pick up and we are going to see that.”
While passengers volumes are increasing, holiday prices will remain “about on par” with last year. “Prices haven’t increased a lot since last year. I don’t think any destination can afford to put prices up in an unreasonable way this year because nobody will get business going through the roof. So overall rate wise I think it will probably be flat.”
Bardin believes this trend is a positive one for the market: “Yes, our percentage is smaller but it doesn’t mean we want the prices to be super high. At that time people would buy almost anything because it was nice to show you could afford it. It was crazy. Some destinations, some specific brands and properties, they knew they were overpriced. Hopefully prices will never bounce back to pre-recession levels.”
Holidays may be cheaper these days, but how does Emirates Holidays look to compete with the increasing number of people who book their holidays direct online, in the hope of getting a better deal?
Bardin vehemently disagrees that booking online is the cheaper option. “A lot of people are booking their own holidays via the net these days. But have they actually checked if it is cheaper?
“We’ve done a study recently where in 70% of cases we found that we were cheaper than booking through another avenue — and that’s because we buy better.
“The contracts we have with hotels mean that most of the time we are cheaper than the rate they offer year round including the rate they put on the web. The problem is most people have this mindset that if I use an intermediary it’s going to be more expensive and they are not even willing to check.”
As the product offering continues to grow — the Emirates Holidays brochure A World of Choice currently features over 120 destinations in 31 countries, and further destinations will be added by the end of the year — this brings with it the operator’s biggest challenge, says Bardin, which is how to ensure staff knowledge is up to scratch?
“It takes a very long time to make a very good tours consultant,” he says, “And I think we are still not at the level that we should be.
“Emirates Holidays is a wholesaler which means before we sell to customers we sell to travel agents. So we really need to know the products, all the countries we feature and all the cities, better than the travel agents do.”
With the bulk of Emirates Holidays business (80%) coming through the trade (currently more than 2,000 agents in 35 countries use its TradeNet application) — this is an area that Bardin says has “seriously got his attention.”
Agents will be happy to know that commission structure “definitely won’t change — it’s still 10% on all the packages and everything they sell,” and Bardin says his priority is to develop relationships with the trade and build up agent product knowledge.
Travel agent training opportunities have been placed under review, as he looks at ways in which to build upon the company’s annual three-day brochure launch, the popular Emirates Holidays World event — a major investment which involves bringing around 400 travel agents into Dubai for destination training and to meet with DMCs and tourism board representatives.
“We need more opportunities for travel agent training and for them to learn about our products. This is a very important part of our job — it’s why we are here, to counsel and guide people in the right direction.
“Unfortunately, like in a lot of industries in Dubai — the staff have not come first. So first we need to convince the owners of travel agencies and the managers of travel agencies to also allocate extra time for their staff to take training.
“We need everybody in the industry to realise that the difference that a travel agent makes between himself and the internet – is what he knows. You really need to be able to talk about the ‘product’ and yes, a destination is a product with a large part of “dream” involved in it too. It’s about knowing how to sell that dream to your clients.”
While travel agents will no doubt be glad to know that Bardin has their interests in hand, he’s keen to point out that at Emirates Holidays it’s always the customer that comes first, and selling the “dream” of travel is what it all comes down to in the end.
“At Arabian Adventures I always put the emphasis on the service attitude — it doesn’t matter if people didn’t know the job, we recruited them for the service.
“I want the same for Emirates Holidays. I want people who are willing to admit that they know nothing even if they know something. And if they know very little, they will have to learn a lot and a hell of a lot.
“We are here to take care of people who are going to spend in one month what they have saved for during the entire year.
“People work for 11 months to go on holiday just once a year, so it has to be the best month of their year.
“And if they come to us for just a week, it has to be the best week of their year — so how are we going to do that?
“If you are motivated enough that every time you pick up the phone, and every time you see a customer come in, to think I’m going to give that customer the best week of their entire year — then you can come and work for us — we will teach you the rest.”
The tour operating arm of Emirates Airline, Emirates Holidays is the biggest tour operator in the Middle East, offering holidays to over 120 destinations in 31 countries on the Emirates network.
Since its inception it has taken a total of 1,021,603 (YTD March 2010) people on holiday, with sales revenues of approximately US$1.2billion (AED4.5 billion).
300,000 copies of the Emirates Holidays annual brochure are distributed annually through travel agents.
Emirates Holidays prints dedicated brochures for the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia and an Arabic language brochure.
2,000 travel agents in 35 countries around the world sell Emirates Holidays.