PHOTO: Travelers who joined A&K President Phil Otterson on the President's Tour of Egypt almost had the historical sites to themselves, and received an enthusiastic reception from Egyptians (Courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent)
Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA traveled with four groups of 18 passengers each to Egypt for The President's Tour of Egypt March 14-23. TravelPulse reporter David Cogswell accompanied the group and after it was over interviewed Otterson about why A&K would choose to take travelers to Egypt at this time.
TravelPulse: Why did you personally, and why did Abercombie & Kent as a company, make the commitment to take a large group of travelers to Egypt for the President's Tour when most tour operators are not willing to go there now?
Phil Otterson: We are a company of many DMCs [Destination Management Companies] around the world, and I just felt a real need to support our employees in Egypt. That's really the reason. It's been a couple of years since we've had a normal flow of travelers there. It's all about supporting our colleagues. I don't want to sound too altruistic, but it isn't about the bottom line. You saw the way people reacted to us. That's what it's all about.
TP: Yes, the way the people reacted to us on the streets -- waving, giving us thumbs up, even throwing kisses -- I couldn't believe it. We were coming through their little streets with giant motorcoaches and more than 70 people and taking up their space and instead of being irritated with us they were waving and throwing kisses.
PO: I got hung up in that. We were walking down the street and I kept meeting people and they were saying, "Are you from America? Thank you for coming. Don't worry about buying anything, just be here."
But I felt very comfortable. It never occurred to me to not be comfortable, or anyone else. I don't remember anyone on the whole trip ever telling me at any time that they were uncomfortable. They were purposely not aware of all the security precautions. We never mentioned it. We never said anything about it. The Egyptologists, or the customer service people or myself were never asked about it. It was just presumed. And that's why I was there, for the same reason, to acknowledge the fact that we can do this together. And if I'm going to go, that's going to send a signal.
The reason that people were there was because of their desire to see Egypt. They have a desire to witness the historic change for themselves. As I mentioned to them in that little speech I made to them on the boat on the last night, "You'll be able to remember March of 2014 and say you were there during this period, and that you were safe. You saw all the things you wanted to see, but you were there during this rare opportunity in the political cycle, which also gave you an opportunity to visit some of the most important World Heritage sites without tons of people all around you, which is a side benefit.
TP: But, back to the other question, A&K can make up its losses in Egypt in the many other destinations it travels to. It doesn't need Egypt for the revenue. It's not worth it to jeopardize the company's reputation or its clients if anything bad happened. And yet you decided to go ahead. Many were surprised by that.
PO: We have taken every precaution that we do anywhere in the world to make sure that our guests are safe. You saw the precautions first hand, but you didn't see all of them because it's important for us to be very professional about that and not make a big deal out of it.
You saw the precautions that we were not able to hide, like the police in the trucks that were following us all over. You probably didn't see a lot of plainclothes people that were with us as we walked through the bazaar. You probably saw some of them, stopping traffic and moving people and so forth, but you didn't see all of the ones that weren't see-able. And that was the case along the way.
In situations such as this we make every effort to make sure our guests are safe. And I think we accomplished that. But as far as why did we do it, it was for our colleagues. Our company culture is one in which we support each other. Our office in America supports Egypt. That's the way the company is set up. We sell Egypt. They don't sell us. So our job is to bring people to them so they have work and are able to provide those awesome services that you were able to experience and that's really the main reason. But we also wanted to bring Egypt to the attention of American travel agents and everybody in the travel business in America because we believe in the destination and we've been able to bring attention to the destination, which is on the road to going back to normalcy - which will occur. Maybe not immediately, but it will occur.
What we did with the President's Tour was to bring an honest appraisal of the situation in Egypt to the travel industry in America. So if Mrs. Schwarzburger is asking her travel agent about going to Egypt, she can access what you wrote, she can call us, and make her mind up based on what we said. Or she can call somebody else who went and ask them. Hopefully we made some progress for people's opinions about what's happening there.
TP: What is your prognosis for Egypt's tourism industry?
PO: I think the destination will come back, maybe not right away, but it will come back. It always does.
We opened this office in 1985 and since that time there have been many ups and downs. There was Luxor in the '90s and there have been many other events, as there are in destinations around the world. But guests always return, because they want to see those last surviving wonders of the ancient world, just like you saw and I saw. Forget about everything else, when you are in Abu Simbel or when you are at the Temple of Luxor and night falls and the lights come on it's magical. And people really want to see that. Everybody wants to see that.
It's not about politics or the president of the company being there or anything like that. It's about wanting to know and understand and learn. And those people were a very strong example of pent-up demand because there wasn't anybody who was not listening to every word and asking every question. The Egyptologists were blown away. I was with all four groups all week, from group to group, and the questions were so fluid and the relationships the people built up with the Egyptologists were so real because they appreciated all that knowledge.
TP: My Egyptologist guide on the trip, Ahmed Abul Ella, said, "You can go to many places and have a great trip, but Egypt changes you."
PO: This trip in March 2014 after not having many trips for a long time, the way people reacted, it's a reflection of the way it always is, the appreciation, but it seemed to be a little on steroids this time. There was so much appreciation for everybody being there.
We're going to do it again, We made the decision yesterday to do another one in October, another President's Trip Oct. 3-12 in 2014. It'll be pretty much the same. We're going to do it again for the same reason.
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