Mr. Nguyen Huu Y Yen, General director of Saigontourist Travel Service Company, has been journeying in the tourism industry for almost 30 years. The success he has achieved today is thanks to his passion, creativity, and determination for superb level of quality.

Meeting Mr.Yen at a time when tourism sectors are slowly getting themselves active again, both in and out of the country. Destination Review had the chance to learn about his perspective on managing an enormous business with a large workforce like Saigontourist Travel, as well as his market strategies for the upcoming period.

I got the chance to work at Saigontourist Travel immediately after I graduated from the University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City with a degree in Tourism Management in 1996. At that time, I started out as a product executive, thinking that I’m only in it to satisfy my passion. Every year, I always spent a few months wandering around the mountains, surveying from North to South to create tourism products. In the year 2000, I began to work in the e-commerce department. Back then the very concept of e-commerce is something entirely new in Vietnam’s travel industry, the act of googling is still uncommon. We were one of the first people to manage and develop this part of Saigontourist.

In 2003, I transferred to Da Nang as Branch Director in charge of the Central Vietnam region. Then in 2007, I transferred back to Ho Chi Minh City in charge of the Southeast provinces (Dong Nai, Tay Ninh, Ba Ria – Vung Tau) branches. In 2016, I was promoted to Vice General Director of Saigontourist Travel. Then from 2018 onwards I lead the company as a General Director.

The biggest difference that I found going from a product executive to a leader today is how I started to care more about how a business manages and operates itself. However, two things that I kept dear to my heart when working are creativity and quality. These are also two elements that Saigontourist Travel strives to follow as a national brand for many years.

In each business, even more so for travel agencies, people are the most important element. A machine might help a lot in other lines of work. But in our professions, we have to be constantly creative, so the only help we can rely on is people. All of the products made in our company are made by the employees themselves. But you need to be experienced to make good products. A recently graduated with a high GPA will still need 3 to 5 years of training and gain practical experience before they can truly understand the products. For example, customer A gives out their demand, then in a wide selection of “ingredients”, you pick out some, modify them, and then wrap them up into a suitable packaged tour for that customer A. And then customer B comes in, and you have to go through the same process, or just modify the prior product a little bit. To do all that, employees need to understand their products, be proactive, and be able to solve those problems. As such, our strategy for the past two years has also been like that, it is to preserve the “backbone” of our organization. First, we need to keep the company, and then we need to keep the people in it. Everything revolves around human resources, and how to keep and manage the people.

I’ve witnessed so many crises in the past 30 years of work. In 2003 there was the SARS epidemic, but it lasted only 6 months. For COVID-19, it started from March 2020 till the beginning of this year, putting the entire tourism industry to a full stop, you could consider it one of the most catastrophic crises the industry has ever faced. During this period, all outbound and inbound activities in Vietnam were stopped, so I immediately organized training and transfer for all of our active employees to domestic travel to maintain work, but when the pandemic got extended, a few policies and income benefits were also affected.

To get through those tumultuous times, I had to be flexible, and make sure that my employees, especially young ones, can still have an income to maintain the job they love. Most freshly graduates don’t have much in terms of experience or mental stability, so besides encouraging and offering little wage support policies the company can afford, I gave them 2 opportunities. One is that they still go to work with a limited salary, but the company will spare them some time on workdays so they can do other jobs. The second situation is when they need to do a different full-time job, then it’s fine for them to quit their job at our company, and we will be welcoming them again if they want to go back to us in the future. Until now, after the return of travel, there have been 10 people who came back to us, even counting for managerial positions. The important thing is that businesses need to stay on their path and maintain their activities. Saigontourist Travel has never closed its door. Wherever you go, there will always be a home for former employees to come back to. This is also a good sign, showing that people are still keeping their passion for this line of profession.

I’ve witnessed so many crises in the past 30 years of work. In 2003 there was the SARS epidemic, but it lasted only 6 months. For COVID-19, it started from March 2020 till the beginning of this year, putting the entire tourism industry to a full stop, you could consider it one of the most catastrophic crises the industry has ever faced. During this period, all outbound and inbound activities in Vietnam were stopped, so I immediately organized training and transfer for all of our active employees to domestic travel to maintain work, but when the pandemic got extended, a few policies and income benefits were also affected.

To get through those tumultuous times, I had to be flexible, and make sure that my employees, especially young ones, can still have an income to maintain the job they love. Most freshly graduates don’t have much in terms of experience or mental stability, so besides encouraging and offering little wage support policies the company can afford, I gave them 2 opportunities. One is that they still go to work with a limited salary, but the company will spare them some time on workdays so they can do other jobs. The second situation is when they need to do a different full-time job, then it’s fine for them to quit their job at our company, and we will be welcoming them again if they want to go back to us in the future. Until now, after the return of travel, there have been 10 people who came back to us, even counting for managerial positions. The important thing is that businesses need to stay on their path and maintain their activities. Saigontourist Travel has never closed their door. Wherever you go, there will always be a home for former employees to come back to. This is also a good sign, showing that people are still keeping their passion for this line of profession.

The last thing is centralized management across the system. Right now, even though we have 18 branches all across the country, all of them are using the same system. Regarding our business departments, they are operating through remote-controlled software. If you type in data in Da Nang, then everyone in Saigon and Hanoi will also be able to see this data, which the system will also process. Operation is also the same, a department buys the service, then it is used by the entire system. That way, we can manage the same level of quality across all branches. The customers’ services team is also working in the same system as us. Besides, we never stop improving our technologies so our employees can have an easier time working.

Regarding outbound travel, we have started to have some groups of tourists again in the past 2 weeks. For all the destinations that have reopened and reconnected, Saigontourist Travel has immediately offered tour programs, such as Dubai, Singapore, the US, and Australia, but there hasn’t been a surge in demands. Vietnamese people are still wary about the risks and restrictions when going abroad, so the outbound travel market is still facing this obstacle. I hope that by this summer when most destinations have become more convenient to travel to, outbound travel may come back a bit better.

As for the inbound market, before the pandemic, we actually have a large number of international tourists, but mainly tourists from China, Korea, and Russia by charter flights. Tourists from Europe, Australia, and the US usually go on package tours in small numbers. But after the recent reopening, our customers are now primarily from Europe, Australia, the US, and Japan, not the previous big markets like China or Russia. However, the European market will have to wait until October to blossom, because in the summer, European tourists like to travel to Mediterranean countries, such as the Caribbean. While for our country, they will usually come during the winter.

During this time, we also try to improve our communications, attend conferences and events to reconnect, and tap into the information for foreign partners. After 2 years, not only Vietnam, but other countries have also changed a lot, from how they operate to their workforce, so now we have to update ourselves and get used to everything all over again. In fact, if we want inbound tourists again, international partners will have to do a direct survey in our country so they can come up with programs suitable for this current situation. As such, we have a lot of things to do right now if we want to welcome guests again at the end of this year. Even outbound travel is the same, as each country has different travel requirements, and then not all destinations are fully open to everyone. So travel agencies will have to update which attractions are opened or closed so they can come up with updated programs.

As for inbound tourism markets that played a major role in the past like China and Russia, then I don’t have a really positive outlook. Because China still has its lockdown policy, while Russia is still in the middle of a war, Korea might be the best of the bunch to have a proper comeback. However, to recover inbound travel, Vietnam needs to divide the market into small portions, each portion will need a different set of policies and strategies, instead of having the same policies across the board.

Even though Vietnam opened its door to the world on March 15, our goal right now is still to maintain our primary source of revenue, which is the domestic market. When it comes to domestic travel, a majority of our customers are companies and MICE tourists, who travel in large numbers. On the other hand, group tour was very big before the pandemic, but now everyone is too wary to join other strangers, so most of them decided to travel by themselves. But in the last month, the group tour is slowly coming back again, which is a really good sign. Vietnamese people tend to adapt quickly, so when they traveled around during Tet, the feeling that things have become safer started to replace their anxieties, which made them more confident in doing group tours, despite the fact that their behavior and demands have changed after the pandemic. Especially for younger customers, who are more flexible and can book some services directly or remotely so they can go by themselves. Despite this, some types of tourists like the elderlies, families or elite customers still want to be cared for extensively, from meals and lodging to guides for travel, which they often choose from travel businesses, especially during Tet Holiday when it’s really hard to book services.

A new niche that has formed is private tour with small groups from 10 people or more who wants to travel privately, not involved in a big group of people like traditional tours before. These customers will contact travel agents so they can have a personalized tour and support. This is because if only 1 person in this group of 10 is coming up with all the plans for their trip, that person is going to get tired and cannot enjoy the holiday. In this current situation where the private tour is becoming more popular among young people and families, I think it might be a potentially good form of travel that we can utilize to our benefit.

Besides that, Saigontourist Travel also has a big advantage in nautical tourism. In the past 2 years, even though we had no inbound tourists, we still tried to maintain our contacts with over 400 partners worldwide. Recently, when Vietnam reopens its door to international tourism, we have also sent information so our partners can begin to promote their products and services, hopefully things will settle in October and the end of this year. Currently, Saigontourist Travel has also received a few bookings, a big example is the Royal Caribbean cruise, which confirmed they’ll be carrying passengers to Vietnam a total of three times this December, and consistent trips

After such a long time in this line of work, I found out that the demand to travel is a natural urge that will always exist. From what we’ve seen in the past 2 years, people are annoyed and anxious, right after social distancing is relaxed, they immediately rush to travel. The pandemic was the only thing that stops them from traveling around, and when the situation became better, as the world decided to live with COVID-19, everything will soon return to normality. Everyone will travel again, service providers, travel agencies, restaurants, hotels, transportation, tour guides, and drivers, will all return to their jobs.

I think that people don’t want to be stuck in one place for too long, and online tourism during the pandemic cannot satisfy most of these urges. To travel means to personally be there, to absorb the views, eat all the food you love, and interact with the locals. As such, I hope that by the end of this year, every business in the tourism sector will be able to operate again, employees can go back to work, and revenues can finally come back. I also hope that by 2023, everything will be back to normal just where it was in 2019 when Vietnam’s tourism is at its strongest.

Thank you so much for your sharing!

#The Leaders is a series exploiting the management and business development vision of leaders in the industry.

General Director of Saigontourist Travel: Success through creativity and pioneering spirit

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