Bernard: Legislation Can Curtail Foreign Airlines’ Dominance

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Bankole Bernard

The Managing Director of Finchglow Travels Limited, Bankole Bernard, in this interview says Nigeria is a leading market in air travel, adding that travel agencies play critical role in the aviation industry through wealth distribution and job creation. Chinedu Eze bring the excerpts:

What are your major challenges operating a travel agency in Nigeria?
The major challenge is the work force. People want to be rich quickly, forgetting that hard work pays. For us as an organisation, we conduct a lot of training for our workforce to ensure that we take them out of that mentality they find in their environment to a new mentality that produces better results. For instance, people don’t see anything wrong coming to work late but for us, it is a problem. We must correct such anomalies.

Having operated in the market for 13 years, what will you say is Finchglow’s current market share?
Our market share is about 12 percent and the closest to us has about nine percent. I can say to you that the top 20 travel agencies are actually the ones contributing to the bottom line. We as an organisation have built partnerships with a lot of other travel agencies. They support our bottom line and we have increased our customer base business.

What is your vision for Finchglow in the next five to 10 years?
The vision is to transcend the shore of Nigeria and cover West Africa because if you look at it, as it stands today, Nigeria has the biggest travel market in Africa now. It used to be South Africa but Nigeria has taken over and Nigeria is beginning to spread into West Coast where a lot of Nigerian companies are beginning to find their way into that space. As a travel market, we make ourselves available where our customers are. If our customers are going to be in the West Coast, then we better make sure we are there. The second one is to embed professionalism into the system. If we embed professionalism into our staff and the aviation school that we have, you will find out that it will spread into the industry and the level of professionalism will be very high.

What will you want Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to do to ensure the downstream sector of the aviation industry gains its rightful recognition?
NCAA over the years has not really engaged the downstream sector like they should but the Director for DATR (Directorate of Air Transport Regulations) has taken a new initiative by ensuring that the downstream sector is regulated as it should because on our own, we have pushed for sensitising and sanitising the industry on what we stand for. Now that NCAA is beginning to see the impact of what we are making, they are beginning to see the need to regulate it. That was why we called for a fresh registration of all travel agencies in Nigeria and they have given a deadline that everyone should conform with and our organisation has done that. We see better downstream sector in the near future.

How do you intend to sustain the position of Finchglow in the industry?
It is very easy to get to the top but it is more difficult to sustain it. Like I said, for us to stay at the top it means that we will continue to keep our level of relevance in terms of the quality of staff, the quality of customer service delivery and the expansion that we intend to embark on. We intend to partner more this year. These things will keep us at the top.

What impact will federal government’s visa on arrival for all Africans policy make in travel and domestic tourism?
We have been benefitting from the visa on arrival policy and the volume of our patronage has increased. My company processed between 20 to 50 visas on arrival every month. So, with the introduction of the new policy, it means that the volume of travel will increase because it means that there will be easy movement of people in and out of Nigeria. The only thing is that we will regulate quality of goods and people coming into our country. Even though we have said every African can come in, we don’t want to allow criminals or terrorists into our country. So, it is a good one if you ask me but we need to make it clear. We are still struggling with open skies treaty within the continent. If we haven’t achieved so much in this, then visa free for everyone is a bit contradictory. Visa free means that there is free movement into the country but if this is free, how come it is not free for the airlines? So we need to iron this out.

Senegal and some Francophone countries are not abiding by the open to open skies principles. They intend to limit our local carriers. How does this affect travel by Nigerians to the West Coast?
The only reason it is still like that is that Nigeria has not taken a stand on this. You see how long it took us before we could react to the border closure. Now that we have closed the border, everyone is beginning to behave himself. For me, I can say that if Senegal and other Francophone countries are not willing to join open skies, we will force them to sit back because they depend on us for a lot of things. ECOWAS headquarter is here. So, that we are not reacting does not mean we don’t know what to do. We are just giving them opportunity to have a rethink.

Do you think there will be time foreigners will begin to play in the local travel agency market?
We are beginning to see it and we realise that the only thing we need do in that regard is to have a strong local law that protects the industry and the citizens of the country. If we have strong local laws, then the issue of infringement or foreigners dominating the market will stop. For instance, it is difficult for me to say I want to go to Ghana and run a travel agency, I will fail. The fact that Nigeria operates an open system doesn’t mean they should come and dominate us.

You have distinguished yourself and a lot of accolades confirm your track record. What was the genesis?
We came into the business 13 years ago and in those 13 years we have been able to make our relevance known within the market place where we found ourselves. We have grown from the staff strength of five to 165. We have multiple offices around the country. We have five in Lagos, two in Abuja and one in Port Harcourt. Basically, we are in the business of distribution and in the business of distribution, it means the more locations you have, the better your opportunity of reaching your clients. This has really helped our growth.

I will say at this point that all the awards are very important to me because there is nothing like small or big award. The fact that people recognise your impact or your contributions to their business or to the economy is what brings about you getting an award. For us, practically all the airlines have given us one award or the other and this is premise on the fact that they have seen professionalism in the way we carry out our work, they have seen high spirit of dedication and commitment coming from our staff. All that put together have set us apart from our peers. So, I believe that any organisation that is willing to attain that great height must have this focus. This means have dedicated and committed people working with you and push yourself beyond the bound.

I say a very big thank you to Virgin Atlantic for recognising the efforts and commitment that Finchglow as an organisation brings to the market. I will say that in the last three to four years, we have been their top three and in 2018, we had an extensive retreat session, where we promised ourselves that we want our relevance to be felt more in the market. So, we set higher goals and based on that, we knew that it was going to come with accolades like this. We pushed ourselves to become number one and we are happy that they recognise us with an award, showing that we contributed more to the bottom line than any other travel agency in Nigeria, which is good for us.

In addition to your travel agency, you have an aviation training school. Are you able to create jobs through the aviation school?
I have had the opportunity to speak with the Minister of Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika on focus on the downstream sector of the aviation industry. A lot of our youths are not aware of the industry in which we play. Every time they talk about aviation they refer to cabin crew and the pilots, forgetting that there are other areas youths could focus on. A youth can be a travel consultant. So, I had to set up a school to help them acquire the necessary skills for them to function.

I can say that 80 per cent of our workforce is youths and they are happy. They are spreading it to their friends, colleagues and families, telling them that there are other professions aside having to be a doctor or engineers. Travel agency business is for professionals, not for drop out and there is a certificate that is recognised globally for the profession. They are travel consultants and you know what it means to be a consultant; he is a specialist in that field. With this, I think Finchgow as an organisation has contributed to youth empowerment and to creating relevance for the youths within the economy.

IATA recently released some figures indicating that with the growth in passenger travel, they will likely demand for human capital in future. How are you keying into this with your training schools to ensure the industry has the supply of human capital in future?
We are very much aware of the position of IATA and IATA’s data are statistics that one can rely on and work with. Based on that, we have opened a second location for our aviation school, so now we have one on the mainland and another on the Island. We realised that there are more youths in the Island that really want to partake in this opportunity. We decided to take it there to them so that they can benefit from this. The truth is that we are going to have more travels; we are going to see growth in the aviation industry and are going to see more airlines come into Nigeria. We know that if we position ourselves well, we will be able to record higher revenue. IATA’s position is that youths will benefit more because from the demography, more youths are willing to travel, people want to discover new places. So, the industry has a lot of potential in terms of benefits. We have seen the growth trend and figures will be growing every new year.