In South Africa, tourism generates 740,000 direct jobs and more than 1.5 million indirectly. Tourism accounts for 7.1 percent of Africa’s GDP and contributes $169 billion to the continent’s economy. But the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates 100 million tourism-related jobs have already been lost globally, including nearly eight million in Africa, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this highlighting the need to reignite tourism locally, while following safety protocols to make travellers safe and confident to travel once again.
Businesses in the industry that have managed to be resilient face arguably one of the most challenging times that the sector has ever seen, needing to adapt swiftly to service the consumers’ changing demands.
This is according to Jiten Vyas, Regional Group Chief Operating Officer – Australasia, China, Africa and Europe & CIS– who says that as international travel slowly returns, businesses in the industry need to pivot in order to stay competitive and profitable. He unpacks some of the key changes that will make the customer journey safer, more convenient and seamless for travel in a post- COVID world.
Q. The global pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way we travel. What does this mean for the travel industry?
Response: We are very conscious of the fact that in a post-COVID world, health considerations take precedence. From Visa Application Centres (VAC) to airports, or sightseeing at destinations, people will be looking for assurance that all touchpoints are safe during their journey. Thus, at every step of the visa application process, there needs to be a focus on providing that assurance to customers and client governments, including standardised health and safety measures. For example, our centres around the globe have implemented a mandatory appointment system, body temperature checks, physical distancing measures, regular disinfection of high-contact surfaces, personal hygiene, and employees wearing masks and gloves. Keeping the new focus on health and safety in mind, we are also expanding digital / minimal-contact services such as doorstep visa application options and courier services.
With a fast-changing technological landscape, our focus for the next two decades will continue to be on introducing faster, safer, and better services and products that have a lot more value for today’s customer.
Given the sensitivity of data and information we deal with, ensuring quality control and data protection by our systems across people and geographies – 24×7, 365 days of the year – in an uncompromising manner, will continue to be one of our biggest focus areas.
Other than investing in people development and technology, we will continue to significantly and consistently focus on specialised functions like Compliance, Information Security and Data Protection, for each of which we have highly experienced and dedicated teams, processes and controls which are benchmarked to the highest international standards.
Q. Consumers in the post-COVID world are putting more emphasis on safety and convenience. How are the travel and visa industry catering to their evolving demands?
Response: The pandemic has changed customer behaviour, with customers now showing a greater willingness to pay a premium for exclusivity and online or at-home services. As an example, we are scaling up our Visa at Your Doorstep (VAYD) service across various countries, allowing customers to complete visa submission and biometrics in the comfort and safety of their homes and offices. Further, we are bringing digital to the heart of the customer journey by moving more of the application process online.
The Location Independent Document Processing solution (LIDProTM), which enables remote visa adjudication to deliver significant efficiencies for client governments, is another excellent innovation and we continue to sharpen the model. As LIDPro™ safely collects and transfers visa applications anywhere in the world, irrespective of time zone differences, some of the key benefits it offers to Governments are business continuity even if there is any interruption of services, ensuring a collaborative processing environment and increased productivity.
We have partnered with local leading laboratories in 43 countries to offer pre-departure COVID-19 tests through an innovative and seamless appointment booking system. We are also adopting tools like Interactive Voice Response (IVR) for our helplines and Chatbot helpdesks to improve turnaround times and reduce errors. Some of our other initiatives catering to the changing times are Digital Document Check, though which customers get their documents checked online before submitting their visa applications; Digital Application Submission, through which customers can get assistance for their visa application through a video conferencing facility; and Click to Call option on our website. These initiatives will also allow us to focus more on the value-add for our customers.
Customer and employee safety and convenience are at the core of everything we do, and we constantly aim to enhance customer experience by making the visa application submissions and other consular related services as convenient, automated, seamless, and safe as possible.
Q. What about equipping employees for the future?
Response: Businesses need to understand that a company is only as good as its people. Overall learning and development should not be a tick-box activity but a deliberate business strategy, closely aligned with company objectives. Because our business is fast-moving, we constantly train and retrain our employees located over a 140+countries of operations in core competencies that best match evolving business goals.
Even when the pandemic forced employees to work remotely, the learning didn’t stop. Instead, we put additional emphasis on digital learning and enabled and delivered value-creating efforts by adapting programmes and delivery. Through our ‘Learn From Home programme’, over 200 training courses on personal and professional development, with special attention to health and wellness, were opened for VFS Global employees to engage them and develop their skillsets while working from home, and also bring in fresh perspectives and ideas. We conducted 9270 hours of live learning hours through the 103 live sessions last year where over 300 participants on an average attended sessions on Soft Skills, Customer Services, Wellness and Essential Business Skills.
Learning and development played a pivotal role in ensuring business continuity at VFS Global during the lockdown period. To ensure our Centres restart seamlessly, specific refresher training was conducted across our Centres. Over 1,100 videos were created on VAC-specific process training and rolled out to employees. Through the InstaLearn programme our employees can enroll for webinars every Thursday, on various functional and technical skills. The opening webinar was attended by as many as 600 employees on the day of launch.
VideoTube, our in-house video learning platform which allows employees to learn at the click of a button hosts over 100 videos on VFS Global VAC practices which all frontline employees and managers can watch and learn from. The platform has seen an uptake of over 39,000 hits.
Q. How will the industry remain resilient and future-proof?
Response: In our 20th year of operations, we have witnessed some of the biggest paradigm shifts in the travel services industry, which underlines the importance of being future-ready, not just for our organisation, but for the industry as a whole.
VFS Global is rolling out several initiatives across several organisation-wide functions under the transformative project mentioned earlier, around three core pillars – reimagined customer journey, process efficiency, and digital enablement. Keeping in mind the evolving needs of today’s consumer, we are focusing on reimagining the customer journey by bringing digital to the heart of everything we do.
Be it document pre-checks or payments, we are focusing on bringing more of the visa application process online. Being future-ready would also mean additional process efficiencies, primarily from improvements enabled through digital tools like IVR (including interactive voice response) for our helplines and Chatbot help desks, which will support employees in completing critical application tasks more easily, thus improving turnaround times and reducing errors. Initiatives such as these, will free up bandwidth from manual activities and allow us to focus only on the most value-adding part of the process for our customers.
Now that digital solutions such as Health Passports and Certificates are becoming more prevalent, we are helping to digitise authentic test results. One of the initiatives we have in this space is the partnership with the technology company Accredify for a smart and hassle-free travel solution to Singapore for travellers from Indonesia to help them to save time on arrival. We want to support any solution that helps travellers and are actively looking into integrating with several other platforms, IATA’s Travel Pass included and continue to enhance collaborative efforts between Governments and other companies to offer a safer and convenient experience for travellers.
Given the current scenario, eVisas are being viewed as a sustainable way of minimising touchpoints and opting for contactless journeys, except in cases where physical presence is required for biometric enrolment. The solution also serves as an advantage for consulates or embassies as this move to a digital interface could help free up the consular staff to focus on the crucial activities of decision-making, leading to enhanced time and cost-efficiency. A set of pre-verified online documents can also mean a potential integration with immigration watch lists to help identity fraud.
The core aim of all the initiatives under this organisation-wide initiative is to make the business more resilient and successful and transform our business model to better manage any volatility in the business.