It has been the quietest one year and three months for international travel since anyone can remember. Even as some parts of the world open for both essential and non-essential travel, recovery from the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic for those in the travel and tourism sectors is expected to take at least two years. What does this spell for a legacy travel agency in Sri Lanka? Mackinnons Travels, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, remains unfazed. The outbound travel arm of John Keells Holdings (JKH), Mackinnons Travels has built a strong culture of resilience and innovation over many years and draws from this as it steps into a new era of travel.
Founded in 1971, Mackinnons opened its first office on June 14 of that year, at the Mackinnons Building in Fort, which itself is an architectural monument that dates back to 1917. With a team of around 5-6, the agency focused on corporate and individual outbound travel and handled the transportation sector, mainly shipping and aviation, for its parent company. At the time, corporate travel was a fledgling market and leisure travel was not a privilege many Sri Lankans had access to, and for the next eight years, its monthly income rarely exceeded 5-6 million rupees. The team, however, included individuals who would go on to build long, successful careers in the future, including former chairperson of JKH, Susantha Ratnayake, whose first job was at the agency in the late-1970s, and the late Dayalan Subramaniam.
Trevor Rajaratnam, who served as CEO of Mackinnons from 1996 to 2011, describes this era as one that is perhaps incomprehensible to present day travelers, who can easily book a flight or plan a holiday through an endless array of booking websites and apps and online travel guides. Back in the 1970s, he says, travelers could not even purchase flight tickets directly with Sri Lankan currency. It was a lengthy process, he describes, where travelers needed a pre-paid ticket purchased for them by their sponsor in the visiting country and the travel agent’s role was to ensure this process took place smoothly, communicating via telex to the customer, airline and sponsor. The agent also needed to be well-informed about travel destinations and had to read through thousands of pages of information to plan a single itinerary for its customers. By 1976, however, the agency had signed up as the sole representative of American Express Travel, which allowed it to expand its portfolio of corporate travel solutions and achieve steady growth by the early-1980s.
By 1991, when Rajaratnam joined Mackinnons, its revenue had reached 12-15 million rupees and by the mid-1990s, the team had grown to 75. “This chapter was a turning point for the agency as it coincided with the boom of recruitment for work overseas, particularly in the Middle East,” says Rajaratnam. “The traffic from travel in the recruitment sector accounted for 50% of the agency’s business and segments such as business and leisure were also taking off. By the early-2000s, Mackinnons was among the top three travel agencies in Sri Lanka, with around 150 million rupees in revenue”. It had also built a reputation as a brand, and was sought after for its reliability, efficiency and commitment to customer care. During this period, it also introduced tailormade leisure travel packages, which became popular among families and senior travelers, and built valuable relationships with local and international airlines, in order to provide the best services to its clientele.
Rajaratnam says the employees were a driving force of the success of the company at the time and the recruitment of talented people who were dedicated to their job and enjoyed working in the industry was important to him. This culture extended beyond the workspace as the company focused on building strong sports teams that would go on to – and continue to – win many tournaments organized by the Mercantile Athletic Federation (MAF) of Sri Lanka. Over the years, the company has had several members of its alumni go on to represent Sri Lanka in cricket and rugby.
Five decades since its humble operation in Fort, the company has built on its strengths, offering a wide range of business and holiday travel services, which has been made possible through its partner network of over one million hotels, tours and excursions. It continues to be an American Express Global Business Travel Partner, serving as a one-stop travel management solution for corporate customers who seek seamless, convenient travel experiences for meetings, conferences, official visits and more. The company also recently found its way back to the Mackinnons Building, 20 years after it moved out to Justice Akbar Mawatha and later Vauxhall Street.
Last year, a few months after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organizations (WHO) and countries across the world, including Sri Lanka, were forced to halt or limit incoming and outbound flights, Mackinnons grappled with one of its biggest challenges to date: securing the company’s future with the knowledge that international travel was not expected to return to pre-pandemic volumes for a long time. This meant introducing lean and agile processes to improve the capacity of the company’s teams to figure out new pivots and strategies and implement them. Working closely with the Sri Lankan Government as well as local and international air and shipping lines, Mackinnons currently focuses on seafarer travel, including the travel of returning seafarers, and repatriation flights, which allows Sri Lankan citizens and residents to return to the country safely. The company also plans to introduce quarantine packages to returnees and tourists who will arrive to the country once the ongoing restrictions are lifted, which will offer customers pre-arranged hotel reservations, transfers, PCR tests and an insurance package that covers COVID-19.
For Sri Lankans, international travel may not be a possibility for several months, but Mackinnons remains hopeful.