THE BUSINESS  OF  TRAVEL

MANILA, September 7, 2005
 (STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - It’s past noon on a wet Friday in a brand-new Makati office. Inside one of the conference rooms of Rajah Travel Corporation, Alejandra "Dading" Clemente, Rajah Group of Companies chairwoman, is remembering over takeout pasta from Segafredo that she used to have an office of this size. Not the entire 850-sq.m. office, but this conference room, she gestures with her hands. This was the entire office of Rajah Tours back in 1972 at the Ambassador Hotel on A. Mabini St. in Manila. She had a baby on the way, two staffers and a messenger; P10,000 in capital and bottomless pluck that would soon become well-known.

Her first client was a Japanese national who came to the Philippines "looking" for Onoda, but really he just wanted to be on the island for the novelty of it. He wasn’t the first one to come to the country for this reason or the last one until Onoda would be found in the same year, but Dading remembers him because on one of the chartered flights she arranged to take him to Lubang, she went with him. The plane flew like a dragonfly – it went up and forward but a lot of times it also tipped sideways like a drunken insect. It was, in a way, a sign of things to come for the travel industry in the next 33 years.

But first, a little back story for those who were babies during martial law. Lt. Hiroo Onoda is a bizarre character straight out of a Greek tragedy crossed with black comedy. He was sent to Lubang in 1944 to conduct guerrilla warfare. He was a 23-year-old soldier then. To his great misfortune, nobody told him that World War II had ended – well, actually they did try by dropping tons of leaflets declaring Japan had surrendered but he refused to believe it – so for 29 years he lived in the jungle, eating coconuts and bananas and animals. Another misfortune was that he was too good a military man – even when his cell had dwindled to only himself, he managed to evade every search party for nearly three decades because he thought they were enemy spies. Finally, a young Japanese (a university dropout) traveling around Asia found him. Onoda was one of the three things this guy had vowed to find in his travels – the other two were the Abominable Snowman and a panda; two out of three ain’t bad, eh?

Some stories just refuse to die – and this is one of Dading’s earlier ones. Later ones would involve a different sort of jungle – she would share elevator rides with Jamie Lee Curtis and Harrison Ford on separate occasions at New York’s Waldorf Astoria; bump into Sandra Bullock in Soho; lose her wallet in Hong Kong and later make the shocking discovery that the pickpocket had treated himself to $20,000 worth of charges on her credit card; and, as the Pacific governor of the International Federation of Women’s Travel Organizations, miss her midnight flight to Boston because she misread her own ticket.

These days, Dading’s daughter Aileen Clemente, executive vice president of Rajah Travel, is the one running the show in the Makati office. She, too, has her own stories. One of them is traveling through Germany and Austria for 10 days with her sister Mari-len and cousin Marifel. They were on a train from Salzburg to Frankfurt when, as they entered their compartment, they realized that they had left their tickets on a bench on the platform. Mari-len ran out of the train while Aileen was running inside the train parallel to her sister’s direction, ready to pull her inside a la Mission Impossible when the train began to move.

Some peculiarities also refuse to die. Dading always travels with her own bed sheets to lay over her hotel bed, never mind if the sheets are 600-thread-count of pure Egyptian cotton in a five-star hotel in Paris of New York. Aileen, meanwhile, packs bottles of water and would drink only those that she brought from Manila.

Who said travel professionals were like you and me?

Mother and daughter have a playful relationship that’s based on mutual respect – Aileen for her mother’s resilience, vision and achievements; and Dading for her daughter’s will, attention to detail and success at bringing the company into the high-tech age.

When they tour us around the office designed by Amy Mole Dy, Dading shows off her brand-new desk in her private office (the biggest one, mind you). The desk is a big, polished mahogany and quite empty save for a telephone. "I’m not allowed to bring even a paper clip here," she jokes, referring to her semi-retired status in the company.

Aileen laughs and counters, "But she has a bedroom connected to the office and a bathroom."

Dading says, "We have a love-hate relationship; we’re both strong-willed."

Aileen says that the most valuable lessons she learned from her parents were: to check, re-check and double-check (from her dad Joe) and to never give up until you achieve your goals (from Dading).

Rajah Travel Makati, which handles outbound and corporate travel, is one of four companies of the Rajah Group, the others being Rajah Tours for inbound travel, Trans Inter Corporation for tourist transport services, and Philippine Congress Organizing Center for convention management services.

Dading established the inbound company first in 1972 because it was the stronger business – in short, more tourists were coming into the country than going out. Three years later, her husband Joe Clemente joined her after giving up his post as director at the Board of Travel and Tourism, precursor of the present department. Their three other children are also involved in the business: Jojo Clemente heads Rajah Tours Phils.; Alex and Mari-len run the Rajah Tours Int’l in San Francisco.

Expansion of the company was sure and swift. From Dading’s three employees, Rajah Group now has more than 200 people, including 30 managers. When Aileen became the general manager of the Makati office in 2000, they had only about 40 people, a number that has tripled in just five years.

To what does she owe this success? "The travel agency business model has changed," says Aileen, a graduate of St. Mary’s in California with three years of economics at UP. "It can’t be the old way of doing things. The corporate business, too, is now more of a management company that provides consultancy and services to corporate accounts. We’re treating the travel agency as a corporate entity rather than just a sales-proprietorship type where you just buy and sell tickets. Capacity is also increasing, which is why we have our own data center already. We’ve had computerization on some aspects for a long time, but now we’re integrating everything else."

Aileen says that in bringing Rajah up-to-date with the current way of business, they adopted the best practices from different industries, such as call centers, which are applicable to their own industry.

"There’s no point reinventing the wheel," she says. She gestures at the glass partitions of the conference rooms, which are covered with white board for writing during meetings. "Everything is very interactive in this office. We’re also putting up learning boards because our young recruits sometimes need help in communication. We also had to consider the process flow when we were doing the office. We knew it should no longer be just a desk at the reception and everything crammed together at the back, which is what a typical travel agency looks like. The design is very specific to a travel agency."

Aileen is also beefing up the value-added services of Rajah Travel as they see the company as a one-stop shop for all travel-related services.

The four Rajah companies are in the top three in their respective markets. Rajah Travel, which is almost equally divided into leisure and corporate, makes up 83 percent of the group’s business, followed by Rajah Tours at 17 percent, Trans-Inter at two percent, and PCOC at one percent. Aileen and Dading say that they would love to see the day when Rajah Tours, the inbound company, would bring in the bulk of the business.

"That’s the way it used to be," says Dading.

"Of course, we would want to bring more tourists here. I still believe we have so much to offer," adds Aileen.

Be that as it may, designing packages for Filipinos traveling abroad has always excited Aileen. Rajah is the exclusive general sales agent for Insight Vacations, Contiki Tours, and the preferred sales agent for Starcruises, Norwegian Cruiseline and Silversea. "With our partner Carlson-Wagonlit Travel for corporate travel, we’ve been introducing a lot of innovations. We always provide security alerts, say, when there’s a bombing in the country they’re traveling to, and weather alerts."

Soon, says Aileen, they will be bringing more products to the market to suit the budget traveler. How does she do her research? "The initial trigger is experience. When you go somewhere, you just get the idea and you start your data gathering from there." Aileen cites her 10-day trip through Germany and Austria where they got to see so many places and cities, ate at the Frommer’s-recommended restaurants, and spent an average of $100 a day – not bad if you consider the historic hotels they stayed at.

In an age where travelers can book their own hotels and flights from their homes (though Filipinos still prefer a real, live travel agent), what are the two ladies’ advice to travelers?

Dading still sticks to the basics and most important of all: "Travel light. Bring your credit cards, not so much cash."

And Aileen? "Make sure you enjoy the place; it may not be the same when you go back. Remember Berlin, who would have known the wall would come down?"

Then she adds, "Love your travel agent. She’s the one who’s going to assist you when you find yourself in a difficult situation."


Chief News Edutor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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