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THE popular Natas travel fair may be in danger of coming apart at the seams.
At least 24 travel agencies are pulling out of the upcoming fair on March 27-29 next year, after clashing with the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), and plan to launch a rival travel fair of their own on the same weekend.
This comes after the outbound tour companies raised a number of issues with Natas about the existing fair since as far back as 2010, but with little result, they said. Among the concerns flagged are sliding visitorship, high exhibition fees, a lack of transparency surrounding the fair's financial reporting, poor marketing efforts to promote the Natas Fair as well as general admission fees.
More recently, a petition signed by 17 outbound travel agencies was submitted to the association on October 13, which prompted a response on November 7 from Natas that was "patronising, with no concrete and constructive proposal", the travel agencies said.
Natas typically holds its travel fair twice a year, in March and in August, at the Singapore Expo. At the August event, visitorship fell some ten per cent year-on-year to 56,189, causing sales to take a hit as well.
Now, the stage is set for the rival Outbound Travel Fair to make its debut in March next year at the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. According to the organisers, the 24 breakaway travel agencies would typically account for as much as 80 per cent of sales at the Natas Fair, which suggests that competition will be stiff for the incumbent trade event. The dates unintentionally coincide with the Natas Fair due to a lack of venue availability for "an event of this scale...in March", the organisers stressed.
The list of 24 agencies planning to take part in the Outbound Travel Fair range from industry stalwarts to smaller firms and includes players like Chan Brothers Travel, CTC Travel, Dynasty Travel, EU Asia Holidays, MISA Travel as well as SA Tours.
Agencies are already facing a challenging operating environment as travellers increasingly turn to the internet to book their own packages rather than visit brick-and-mortar firms, highlighted panellists at the launch of the new fair at a press conference on Tuesday. The four panellists were Chan Brothers' managing director Anthony Chan, Dynasty Travel chairman Perry Neo, Nam Ho Travel director Marshall Ooi and Apple Holidays' director Benny Ho.
Spanning 17,000 square metres, the Outbound Travel Fair will be held in the heart of the city at the Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre, with free admission for the public. In contrast, the 25,000 sqm Natas Fair charges an admission fee of S$4 per person, which results in snaking queues and discourages potential buyers from attending, the panellists said.
Exhibition fees are also expected to be 20-30 per cent lower than those charged at the Natas Fair. Depending on the space taken up, all-in participation costs at the Natas Fair is said to range from S$100,000 to S$200,000 per travel agency.
The panellists also made it clear that they are ready to sit down with Natas to iron things out if the industry association is willing to tackle the issues raised, which range from costs to the need for a Travel Fair Organisation Committee that is backed by the exhibitors themselves.
"We want it to be run better, cost (less) for ourselves (and) the consumer, but most importantly, we are not here to challenge the association," said Mr Ooi.
"We have been in discussion with exhibitors and members, and other parties with grievances," said a Natas spokesperson on Tuesday in response to queries. "But we have to accept that Natas may be unable to satisfy all its members given the diversity of our membership. We have a mix of smaller exhibitors, mid-size travel agents, tourism bodies, cruise lines, and accommodation providers."
With a membership base spanning over 340 travel agents, Natas has been organising the trade fairs since 1987. The association said that to expect attendance growth year after year is "unrealistic", given changes in consumer buying patterns. This underlines the need to make the fairs more attractive to a wider market segment, as opposed to introducing more fairs. "We will revamp the fairs, and try and draw in new exhibitors," the Natas spokesperson added.
Natas also stressed that while venue rental costs have risen steadily over the past three years - costs being one of the reasons it decided to stay at the Expo in Changi - these increments have not been passed on to exhibitors.
Natas plans to conduct a forum with its members on Thursday.