Journeys of Resilient Companies: Chan Brothers Group’s Move From Turbulence to Safe Landings

The travel industry had faced some turbulent times during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here’s how Chan Brothers Group bounced back.

At the stroke of midnight on 23 March 2020, Singapore did the unheard of — closing its borders to tourists and short-term visitors.

In the run-up to those days, Chan Brothers Group Executive Director Chan Guat Cheng describes that time as “an absolute nightmare”. It was the early days of the spread of Covid-19. For the 60-year-old, it meant going into crisis mode. This translated to coordinating with tour managers to repatriate groups stuck overseas. Her team members stayed awake all night, trying to grab the next available seat on fast-dwindling flights.

For the first time ever, Guat Cheng had to seek assistance from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for a group of tourists in Morocco, while the tour leader sought assistance from Singapore’s Honorary Consulate General in Casablanca.

Of her experience, Guat Cheng says, “The borders started to close, flights were limited and customers from all over the world were cramming into airports. Somehow, we managed to get masks for our staff and clients. Safety was paramount.”

It should come as no surprise that many customers were immensely grateful to the company for their efforts. Guat Cheng prides herself on the premium customer service the company has built to differentiate itself in the already crowded travel agency space in Singapore.

The business was first started by Guat Cheng’s late father Chan Liang Choy together with a relative in 1965. At that time, selling air tickets and train tickets to Malaysia was the mainstay. This grew to include tours to other Asian countries and when the Chan children started running the company, the repertoire grew to include Top Deck Bus Tours to Europe, new destinations like Australia and New Zealand, and later, the Star Guided tours in collaboration with MediaCorp.

According to Guat Cheng, the company’s strength came from offering innovative products and providing premium customer service.

78 Cecil Street was the company’s first office back in 1965.

Manpower challenges

At the height of tourism, Chan Brothers Group saw sales growing from $7 million dollars in the 1980s with 11 staff to $200 million dollars (pre-Covid) supported by a staff strength of more than 200. Over the years, Chan Brothers Group diversified its business and grew to a group of 20 companies, providing services covering travel and tour management, real estate development and wholesale.

Those were the heydays until Covid-19 hit and sales plunged 90%. Throughout the circuit breaker period and Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), sales, if any, came from cruises and the odd intracountry domestic flight bookings.

As a result, staff headcount reduced by half to only around 100. It was an emotionally trying time for Guat Cheng as she worked very hard and tried her best to protect staff from the fallout of the pandemic.

“When they left, they kept telling me to remember them when things got better.”

She also told remaining staff that now they were #WFH, it is ideal to use this downtime to upgrade their skills because the company expects the way they work to be transformed in the future. When Chan Brothers Group decided to redesign the employees’ jobs roles and enroll them into Workforce Singapore’s (WSG) programmes, it was well received by the employees.

One of these was WSG’s Career Conversion Programme for Digital Operations Tourism Executives for the Hotels, MICE, Attractions and Tour & Travel (HMAT) sectors, which was curated in partnership with Singapore Tourism Board’s Tech College and Republic Polytechnic’s School of Hospitality.

What was relevant for Chan Brothers Group was how the programme sets out to equip employees with digital operations capabilities and facilitated the implementation of digital solutions (either Robotic Process Automation or a ChatBot) at the workplace.

With that, the company’s efforts became squarely focused on being ready to welcome travellers into the fold and allow travellers to enjoy a better holiday experience.

Itching to travel

Guat Cheng is pleased to hear that her regular customers are contacting the company once again. Still, Chan Brothers Group adds a word of caution.

“We foresee industry recovery to be cautious and considered at the beginning when travel resumes. That said, with Singaporeans’ appetite for travel, we are confident the industry will recover steadily and tourism companies that can continue to maintain a healthy liquidity, robust corporate strategy, resilient outlook, innovative mindset and consumer trust will do better in the recovery curve.”

But the question is, will the traveller now become a different creature making new travel demands?

Pandemics can well do that – demands are constantly evolving and parameters may change as well. Health and safety are of top priority in this new era. Travellers will count on personal experiences (testimonials from trusted and personal sources) and advice from experts (this is where an established travel agent can step in) to guide them through the travel decision process.

The next normal traveller

Chan Brothers Group anticipates these upcoming changes as travel demands kick in. Initially, some form of vaccination passport may be needed. Other safety measures which have been in place will continue, like safe distancing and the wearing of masks. Some clients are also keen to know about the cleanliness of hotel accommodation and coaches.

Because the whole opening of borders is a shifting goal post, clients will want to be continually updated on border restrictions and regulations.

The company has looked at some travel trends that could emerge in the upcoming season:

  1. Nature and outdoors will be key desired experiences for Singaporean travellers, driven by the comparative lack of such tourism assets here.
  2. Off-the-grid experiences will be a trend to look out for. While Singaporeans have a penchant for their favourite destinations and cities, they may look to couple them with visits to surrounding cities or hinterlands for a more immersive holiday.
  3. With travelling being considered as a national hobby and key bonding activity between families and friends, the concept of “togetherness” will be a motivating factor for the Singaporean traveller more than before.

As the economy gradually opens, what seems to be evident in the travel industry is that communication and trust are vital.

Chan Brothers Group highlights the fact that the tourism sector most likely will face a more complex travel landscape, where travellers are looking for clear and transparent answers to better inform their decision-making process. Hence, trust-building, extensive communication and a clear flow of accurate information are key to spur confidence in travel and retain customer loyalty.

All this will only be possible if companies and employees are ready for the change and are prepared to meet the travellers’ new expectations.

Follow us at go.gov.sg/t-wsgtd for the latest jobs and skills updates for lifestyle and hospitality sector employers. Or contact us at go.gov.sg/hmat for more information on Tourism Career Conversion Programmes.

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