This story originally ran in the May 31st, 2018 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — What do you do if you consider yourself “born in a ticket jacket”? If you’re Surjit Babra, you take all your expertise from your past consolidator ventures – and what else? – start a new consolidator.
Babra’s wealth of consolidator knowledge is right in the company’s branding: ‘FareLink: Backed by 45 years of experience’. Babra started out with SkyLink in Europe in the 1970s and then brought the business to Canada, opening the first office in Toronto in 1980. He was CEO until he stepped away from the company in 2014.
He also co-founded, with Walter Arbib, international air charter and leasing service SkyLink Aviation in 1991, specializing in everything from emergency airlift and evacuation, to peacekeeping, to humanitarian assistance delivery, to logistical support to mission-critical fuel supply. Babra’s humanitarian accolades line a wall of his office.
His experience in the travel industry also extends to car rental, with his purchase of the master franchise rights for Dollar Rent-A-Car in Canada in 2002. He grew it from three to 29 locations and then sold it back to corporate HQ.
Babra’s wide-ranging ventures even extend to the food business. He’s Chairman of Highbury Canco, which acquired the Heinz plant in Leamington, ON in 2014, saving the plant from closing and also saving some 250 local jobs.
No wonder Babra calls himself a serial entrepreneur. And although he says he is involved in multiple ventures, from aviation to food, he has “a keen passion” for the consolidation industry, and wanted to put his knowledge and experience to use and not let it go to waste.
And that’s why FareLink has arrived on the scene. The agent-only platform offers access to airline content, published and negotiated, vendor products and promotions and Babra says the site is based on using new concepts to provide added value for the company’s clients: travel agents.
FareLink.com currently has more than 120 million airfares and offers 24/7 email, Skype and call centre service. Commissions are settled weekly using e-transfers based on individual travel agency requirements. And agents can get special travel agency branding on e-tickets, with the option for each e-ticket to be branded using the agency’s own logo.
Babra says FareLink is focused on serving smaller travel agencies that require support particularly for booking air travel for non-domestic markets.
“Travel agents are now professional consultants in the same way that other businesses have their consultants,” says Babra. “They have good product knowledge of services needed by the traveller, be it air, holidays, cruises etc. They work for the client, not the vendor [so] the client’s interests come first.”
He adds: “The OTAs still have a long way to catch up to the special handling and service given by travel agents, especially if there is a challenge with the booking, such as flights cancelled due to weather.” Multilingual agents have an even more advantageous position, he adds.
FareLink’s special multi-carrier YY constructed fares are searched and displayed in real time, to the agent’s benefit.
FareLink uses ‘YY’ to represent multiple carriers, explains Babra. “Our technology can seek out and construct fares on the fly and display them dynamically. There are many times when these constructed fares are lower than other fares, giving the agent an advantage in the market.”
When an agent clicks on FareLink’s YY airfares, they can see the true airline combination being selected before the booking process, and in turn offer the best service and savings to their clients, he says.
Babra says FareLink.com offers more available flight options than its competitors. FareLink’s special airfares constructed from Canada using offline carriers often result in lower fares and better routings, he adds.
What’s the biggest challenge for consolidators these days? Babra cites several: the dwindling margins available to consolidators; the inability to fund and keep pace with technology; and the need to sell more products in a shorter time frame. Post-sales services are still a challenge in the industry too, but FareLink “will be providing much better services associated with schedule changes, reissues, refunds and customer care,” says Babra.
And what was missing in the consolidator industry that made Babra want to come back? “Enhanced technology,” he says, pointing to FareLink’s YY multi-carrier constructed airfares, launched especially with home-based agents in mind.
Babra is also prioritizing strong private data protection; 24/7 call centre facilities backing the booking engines (“not all consolidators do this”) and providing skilled support at all operational levels. A lifelong humanitarian, always involved with charitable endeavors, he also wants to see more industry fundraising for charities.
And finally Babra says he also wants to bring retail travel agents “back to their comfort zone” to sell air tickets without having to deal with the stress of errors in ticketing and debit memos.
Babra’s extensive plans to expand FareLink’s services and products include new booking engines for tours and hotel bookings.