July 22, 2024

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[Herald Interview] Hanatour CEO talks reshaping travel landscape

Hanatour CEO Song Mi-sun poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at the company's headquarters in central Seoul, on April 30. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Hanatour CEO Song Mi-sun poses during an interview with The Korea Herald at the company’s headquarters in central Seoul, on April 30. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

As the travel landscape undergoes profound transformations postpandemic, the golden era of traditional, large-scale travel agencies may be coming to an end. However, Hanatour, Korea’s leading travel agency with more than three decades of experience, aims to defy the growing perception.

Leveraging extensive tourism data both inbound and outbound, Hanatour CEO Song Mi-sun said the company is seeking ways to pioneer a new era of travel, defined by enhanced safety, efficiency and tailored traveler satisfaction.

“The pandemic presented an unparalleled challenge to the travel sector in one way, but it also served as a catalyst for innovation in the industry,” Song said during an interview with The Korea Herald on April 30.

“Hanatour tackled this crisis by redefining our approach to travel. With a commitment to fulfilling young and emerging travelers’ aspirations, the company unveiled a new corporate identity along with tailored travel offerings. During the last five years, we initiated reforms across sales channels, marketing strategies and internal operations.”

Song received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business from Seoul National University and started her professional career by joining the Boston Consulting Group in Seoul in 2001. During her tenure, she completed Wharton School’s Master of Business Administration program in 2008. Prior to stepping into the role of Hana Tour CEO in 2020, Song’s consulting efforts had primarily focused on financial institutions and communication technology.

Despite two decades of experience as a business consultant, leading a travel agency presented a fresh challenge for her, according to the CEO.

While she held a deep affection for traveling, which included backpacking adventures during her early 20s, Song had to reimagine her onetime hobby through the lens of market dynamics and business considerations.

“I focused primarily on technology advancement, leveraging AI and ICT in tourism to automate repetitive offline tasks. This gave room for employees to come up with more innovative endeavors in our content,” Song explained.

The agency is also broadening its engagement with independent travelers on top of its dominant market share in package tours, by enhancing online services like the artificial intelligence-based chatbot, Travel Information AI, and location-based open chat, Hana Openchat.

“We newly introduced ‘Naemaeumdaero’ (‘The Way I Want’) package, which is a customer-centric bundled package facilitating booking and payment for flights and accommodations. Future plans involve expanding such tailored inventory using our technology,” Song added.

With the largest team of merchandising directors in Korea, the CEO is assured that Hanatour is positioned to continue crafting such distinctive and customized products.

“For those who say that they have ‘been there, done that,’ we present our exclusive Nth-time traveler packages. While visiting the same countries and cities, we curate distinct routes and activities that even seasoned travelers have yet to experience. This is why travel agencies remain vital, especially amid the deluge of information. We tirelessly seek out undiscovered gems and expand our network to guide travelers to less-touristy locales.”

Drawing from her own travel experiences, Song collaborated with Hanatour’s staff to develop HanaPack 2.0, a premium tour package program that eliminates mandatory events like shopping from the itinerary. HanaPack 2.0 now dominates 65 percent of all overseas package sales. Last year, Hana Tour achieved its highest consolidated net profit of 60.7 billion won ($44.7 million) since its establishment.

Incheon International Airport's Terminal 1 bustles with travelers on Friday ahead of the Children's Day holiday season. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Incheon International Airport’s Terminal 1 bustles with travelers on Friday ahead of the Children’s Day holiday season. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Meanwhile, Hanatour’s overseas networks remain the cornerstone of its competitive advantage. In line with this effort, Hanatour recently entered a mutual business agreement with Herald Corp., the publisher of The Korea Herald.

“Collaboration between public and private entities is inherently essential. On top of that, we have numerous cross-border partnerships which encompass initiatives, such as the MICE cooperation with Herald Corp., online promotion cooperation with Kiwoom Securities and collaboration with domestic beer company Terra, for a sustainable travel campaign. Likewise, we are actively fostering business ventures for mutual growth.”

Meanwhile, Hanatour ITC (Inland Tourism Corp.) stands as the dedicated inbound subsidiary of Hanatour, targeting foreign travelers to Korea.

Under this banner, Hana Tour ITC has secured a Joint Security Area tour business license in collaboration with USO Korea, exclusively offering JSA tours to the Demilitarized Zone for the US military as well as foreign travelers in Korea. It also has designed tours to a site use as filming location for BTS in Gangwon Province.

Meanwhile, Song foresees the pivotal recovery of the Chinese market in the latter half of this year, following a surge in travelers from Japan and Southeast Asia last year.

“Moving forward, we are committed to further partnerships with tourism authorities and domestic enterprises to uncover and promote diverse Korean content experiences for foreign visitors,” Song added.