EthisX: The World Tomorrow – a series of candid interviews with industry thought-leaders to foresee a post-COVID-19 world.
In this interview, we will be speaking to Mr Fazal Bahardeen who is involved in the Muslim travel market with his two brands CrescentRating, an established 10-year-old brand and Halal Trip, a startup. The discussion will touch on how COVID-19 has affected the travel industry and travel both in the short and long term as well as the companies in the industry including CrescentRating and Halal Trip.
Without further ado let’s jump to the real stuff.
How has COVID-19 affected CrescentRating and Halal Trip especially with all the travel lockdowns and airlines shutting down?
It has affected us quite a bit and there are two challenges in particular that we notice. The first is cash flow – you can only survive if you have cash. The second challenge is will your business model before COVID-19 still be applicable and relevant in the post-COVID-19 era? In order to tackle this issue, we decided we needed to keep things simple and plan in small stages. There are three phases to our plan: rethinking, refining and re-engaging. The rethinking stage will last from now till the end of June and this is where we come up with new ideas or what to do with existing products. Then, refining will last from July to December and during this process, we will test our ideas out, see if they work and refine them. Lastly, re-engaging will be from January to June.
You can watch the full interview in this video down here
The stages are for periods of 6 months, is that because it is difficult to see beyond that time frame?
Although we’ve put the timing in as 6 months, it may not be that way as the situation now is very fluid. The main thing that we keep in mind though is that in terms of our thinking processes it has to be in these stages: rethink, refine and re-engage although the timeframe may not fit into 6 months exactly. As small businesses, it is best to keep things simple, in smaller chunks and to try to define what exactly we want to achieve/do. Thinking too much will also be a problem because I don’t think we will be able to move forward.
Looking at the wider picture, some people think that after things gain some normalcy and the world is no longer ‘frozen’, people will immediately want to travel again. Do you think that the industry will bounce back immediately after this intermediate situation is over or will there be challenges still?
I feel that the road to recovery will be long although I hope I am wrong. The tourism industry and airlines have all been hit extremely hard by the coronavirus. Even if countries do start to open up, I believe it will be in phases as we have seen in the news. Domestic tourism would probably be the first phase, then some form of regional tourism but it might be a long time before long-distance travel comes back. Not only is there a fear factor but the industry is broken. The good news is that people’s urge to travel will not disappear, even now we are itching to leave our houses because we’re all stuck at home. So once things get better, people will definitely try to travel again. The question is how soon will people be able to travel and will it reach the same levels as we saw pre-COVID-19? The behaviour of travellers will also definitely change, health concerns may be more of a priority post-COVID-19 at least for the short to medium term.
With people being forced to now have video calls or conferences, do you think that this will affect certain types of travel? Will we see a permanent reduction in certain types of travel?
Possibly. I think that people will definitely relook at business travelling and whether it is necessary. Before the biggest issue was that people were not comfortable with having video calls or hosting video conferences but this has changed as these methods become the norm at least for now. The second factor is that businesses may be tight with cash and not have the money to fund their staffs’ overseas business travels at least for a while. The crowds that come with trade shows or conferences can be another problem especially in the short to medium term.
However, outside of business travel, we would probably see a lot of families travelling to try to get together. These families would have been separated for a while maybe with parents and children in different countries/areas. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time where families often get together but a lot of us were not able to do that. So once things get better, I think that families will want to get together and that will have travel implications.
You are still running your business and inshaAllah will revive it quickly but how do you manage to do this while others have been forced to shut down?
I think that there are three main reasons as to why. Firstly we are a very lean organization. If your organization is oversized, you will spend a lot more money even if you’re cutting costs. As a team, we have decided that we do not want to let anyone go or reduce their pay and we’re able to do this because we are a lean organization. The second reason is we have a very strong, good and passionate team while the third reason is our company is digital. The transition to working from home was easy, without any cost implications as we did not have to invest in any new technology. We had already done so and we’re doing a lot of our work online. It also helps that we are a 10-year-old organization so we do have credibility in this field and market.
So there is no one answer and what works for one organization may not necessarily work for another but two things that will definitely help is having a lean organization as well as a team that believes strongly in what they are doing. I think you need to think about the reason why you are doing this, what is your driving force? It should not be solely for the paycheck. For us, we wanted to make travelling easier for Muslims to practice their faith.
In the travel industry, there are two sections: traditional and nontraditional/informal if you will. For example, when it comes to accommodations, there are hotels/resorts on one hand and Airbnbs on the other. Similarly, there are travel agencies and on the opposite side: freelancing agents who connect through apps/websites. Do you think that they will each still have their places like in the pre-COVID era or will one side be more advantaged than the other?
I don’t have a straight answer for that. I think it’s a bit too early to look at people’s behaviour at the moment, maybe later on we might do a research survey but now everything will just be based on assumptions since no one knows how things will be like. I’d like to think that everything that existed before will still exist after COVID-19. There might be some differences though; those who stayed in Airbnbs/hostels might now prefer to stay in hotels for health reasons, likewise those who stayed in hotels might now prefer to stay in Airbnbs for financial reasons.
As you mentioned before there might be a shift towards domestic or regional travel at least in the short term which I feel can be an opportunity for people to discover their own country. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s a good start. There is a saying along the lines of how you should discover your country first and so I do think that most people probably have not explored their country. Besides, doing this would also be beneficial for the local businesses, it would help to revive them. I mean if you look at Malaysia, the local eateries are badly hit, how are they going to get out? So it would be a good place to start if people can explore their country and help to revive local businesses at the same time.
There are a few articles stating that it will be incredibly expensive to fly. What do you think about this statement?
I think that purely from a maths point of view, it is no surprise that the prices can go up at least in the short term. Previously, the airline could fit 350 people onboard for example, but now due to regulations, they might only be able to put 100 people per flight. However, the cost of fuel has gone down dramatically so maybe the costs might even out. Cost of other infrastructure or interspaces might also go down which might help to even out the prices as well but I do not think that there will be a dramatic drop in prices.
In conclusion, for those who are looking at entering into tourism, I think there is no better time to join and innovate the industry.
Here are our best key takeaways from this interview and the advice from Mr Fazal Bahardeen.
Takeaway #1: You would be able to bring new ideas and perspectives with you. Compared to someone who has been in tourism for 10 years, you would see things completely different and that might help you to spot opportunities. It is important to remember that every situation has opportunities, you might have to dig deeper and make doa for inspiration to hit you but definitely, every cloud has a silver lining.
Takeaway #2: COVID-19 has in a way almost evened out the field; no one person has a clear advantage over another. So don’t give up, if you are passionate about entrepreneurship, passionate about solving problems of others through innovation, there is no better time because everything is disrupted now.