An approachable, easy-going man, Gehan has worked with Aitken Spence Travels his entire career and has played a significant role in the company’s growth. When he joined the company, just after school, the 18 year old, had no intention of staying in the travel business; this was to be a short stint of two years, before he started on his tertiary education. Three decades later, listening to Gehan speak of Aitken Spence Travels, the partnership with TUI and his career in the travel industry, one cannot help but think that had he followed his intended path, he would certainly have missed his calling!
Gehan recalls that “It was the late Mr. R. Sivaratnam,” (later to become Group Chairman), “who was instrumental in getting the TUI agency,” and when he joined the company, not only was the agency in its early days, TUI itself was still a young German company formed by a merger between four German tour operators and known more formally as Touristik Union International. By 1980, TUI was the market leader in Germany thereafter growing in leaps and bounds, to become the world’s largest integrated travel company. Now headquartered in the UK, TUI Travel Plc caters to over 30 million travellers a year and employs over 50,000 people worldwide.
Aitken Spence Travels became the agency for TUI whilst still in its infancy, having only been in existence less than two years, at the time but within four years, AST was the third largest operator in Sri Lanka.
The partnership with TUI, proved to be a prudent venture as each company grew separately and yet, together. For, whilst TUI was reaching beyond its German borders, into other German-speaking markets and later spreading its arms to become an international entity, the operators it was acquiring were already agencies under the AST umbrella. By the mid-90’s, 55% of AST’s business came through TUI, one way or another.
Long before TUI became the largest operator in the world, Gehan had foreseen growth in consolidation and knew that TUI would be a giant in the future. Wanting to leverage AST’s position as the “best agency” in the TUI group, negotiations were started to form a joint venture. The early negotiations, in the mid-90’s fell through, however and, in the meantime, TUI became an international company; still, Gehan did not let go of his vision for a joint venture.
In 2003, the environment in Sri Lanka being favourable, discussions were restarted and a joint venture agreement was reached on 1st April, 2004. The contract was for a sale of 50% of AST to TUI, a merger that was to be effected over a five year period.
Obvious pride shows in Gehan’s expression as he points out that the relationship with TUI was built on mutual trust and respect. TUI’s consideration that AST is a well-managed company was made patently obvious by the fact that the full sale went through in three years, instead of the allotted five year period, and this, whilst Sri Lanka was in the throes of a bloody civil war.
Since the 2004 union, business has grown from 30,000 to 60,000 inbound travellers, per year. The majority of the company’s business comes from outside its TUI associations and the company is consistently quoted as an example in TUI as being one of the best, both in management style and service.
AST’s marketing initiatives and procedures have been shared with other companies in the TUI family and, in 2008, the company was adjudged the Best Handling Agent by TUI Germany in the small destination category. The biggest testament, however, is to the confidence TUI has in AST’s management. Despite a shareholder’s agreement that entitles TUI to management involvement, the group chooses not to be directly involved. AST, in turn, takes this confidence seriously and, since the merger, the budgets set by TUI have been met and exceeded, year after year.
The benefits of the union with TUI have not stopped at Travels, however, as Aitken Spence Shipping has since acquired the agency for Hapag Lloyd, the fifth largest shipping agency in the world and a member of the TUI group.
With peace returning to the country, Gehan is optimistic, saying that “business can be grown exponentially as you cannot have a better partner than TUI to grow our business in all fronts in Tourism.” He recognises, however, that it is the professionalism and excellent teamwork of the staff that has helped make Aitken Spence Travels the number one inbound operator in Sri Lanka for the last five years and it has an excellent foundation that will ensure the company’s future growth.
Ace Magazine – 2010