When one mentions travel market, the image of a bustling symposium, lined with colourful, vibrant stalls, and a thousand hospitality vendors displaying their products and packages for the perusal of the visitors. International fairs have been quite the lifeline for the travel industry, yet with the pandemic, this approach needs to evolve. Here is where, on the Maldivian side, IMTM steps up.
The International Maldives Travel Market is the brainchild of Shiuna Khalid, a self-made entrepreneur burning through the bramble and breaking glass ceilings for other women in her field. Having attended the Asia Travel Market, Ms Khalid realised that there was a huge segment of the Maldivian vendors, those operating guesthouses, not able to match some of the requirements to participate. The conventional method, according to her, was not the most fruitful for the vendors from the Maldives, and she sought to change the approach.
Established in 2018, IMTM was first held at Adaaran Select Huduran Fushi, where they had converted the football field into a fairground. The approach she wanted to change, was how conventional fairs required the vendors to sit at the stalls and prospective travel agents would approach who they pleased. In most cases, new entrants and more established brands always snagged the most attention, with multiple tour operators getting to collaborate with these brands. However, this created a disparity in the conversation, so Ms Khalid flipped the model on its end.
At IMTM, it was the tour operators who were to operate the booths, and the accommodation providers were given a chance to approach the operator of their choice. This exposed the tour operators to vendors they hadn’t considered before, and even more meetings began taking place. At a travel fair, the meetings and discussions are where the magic happens, and with over 32 operators representing 19 countries at the first fair, it was considered a successful debut of IMTM. On top of this, guesthouse operators were finally given the chance to participate in the conversation as well.
In 2019, a repeat of their successes were apparent. With over 52 operators, 600 tourism officials representing 160 companies, the organisers included multiple forum discussions on the side as well, Sustainable tourism was a key talking point, and Ms Khalid knew that this topic deserved its own seminar beyond the fair. Plans were rolling, regardless of the lack of a proper convention centre, as utilising resorts for the events meant the buyers were given the firsthand experience of the product that was being sampled. Ms Khalid intended the Maldives to become a top MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, events) destination, and this would have been achieved already had not Covid-19 happened.
Now, as the pandemic seems to abate in parts of the world, the travel industry looks to get back on its feet as well. The need to go digital was of paramount importance, and worldwide multiple models were being tried, tested, and then discarded. The team for IMTM studied how other international travel fairs adopted entirely outlandish, 3D, virtual reality concepts, but Ms. Khalid instead opted for something else. When she’d closed her eyes and announced in April of 2020 that they would go ‘virtual,' she hadn’t the slightest idea how.
Yet by the third quarter, IMTMAir was born.
The concept was simple: take a working social media concept such as Facebook, remove the tools that weren’t necessary, and then add on the parts that would be important to conduct a proper online travel fair.
A user-interface that was easy to manoeuvre, not heavy on the servers, where a participant would be able to fashion their profile according to their strengths. A page outlining the schedule of events, either those on the main stage or other side events.
A main page which worked like an exhibition hall, where scheduled events would take place in the form of live videos and presentations that can be streamed directly to the participants who enter that page. Another ‘lobby’ where multiple ‘tables’ were available with select number of ‘seats’; the tables were singular chat rooms, and the chairs represented the available slots.
A sidebar that displayed all one’s collected ‘business cards’, which were essentially contact details shared once a connection was established. Then come the booths, which are also on a separate page, where the tour operators would accommodate the venue owners and managers in private meetings and discussions, meetings that can be scheduled prior and seen on one’s personal calendar. Over the course of three days, constant dialogue and discussion is now possible, all at the comfort of the user’s homes.
After a successful run in 2020, 2021’s IMTM is back once again with a lot more gusto and improvements to the website and the overall fair. This time, users can expect new features such as interactive reception areas for each stall operator, interactive booths which bring to screen the true experience, with downloadable resources at the booths to capture leads and keep the stall operator abreast of any action taken by the attendees.
There is also the option of instantly replaying entire sessions so that users can make sure they don’t miss anything, alongside updated scheduling and meeting planning mechanics so that the participants have the full flexibility in contacting and setting up one on one meetings for the more important conversations.
This year’s event, to be held on 26th to 28th October, promises to bring together even more participants than ever before. Registrations are still open, and with subscription the website and the tools that come with it are open for the use of all participants. This means that even after the event is concluded, the participants need not worry; conversations can continue in real time and deals can be drawn up with ease.
With the reopening of Maldivian resorts, and the dire need to stimulate guesthouse businesses, this event promises to be a turning point for the years to come. Participation is up to the vendors themselves, and as the registration is still open, businesses newly established and those looking to set themselves on the same stage as fully-fledged resorts are given the golden opportunity to do so through IMTM.
The team behind IMTM understand that the new normal is still evolving, and their web-based platform is only the beginning. They do plan other events as well, such as the one they had planned for Sustainable Tourism, to be conducted separately. They believe this platform would serve as a jumpstart for numerous businesses, especially women entrepreneurs, and in time, truly bridge the gap between the high and low capital investments that is sorely needed.