THE BUSTLING economy is proving to be a boon for travel agents as overworked Hongkongers with more disposable income look for diverse destinations where they can unwind. Travel operators are generally optimistic for this year, but say there is no room for complacency as holidaymakers' expectations rise and preferences change. While package tours are expected to remain the mainstay of outbound travel business, consumers now demand more interesting destinations and theme tours. There is also a fast-growing market for personalised travel planning services, as more consumers choose vacations on their own. To cater for these changes, operators are improving their products and services, increasing manpower and investing more in staff development to complement such efforts. Wing On Travel Service expects to add 40 to 50 frontline staff this year to support planned developments, especially expansion of its package tours to cater for new demand. According to Lanny Leung Kong-lan, Wing On Travel's general manager, there is a strong potential market for package tours to new destinations on the mainland now that local consumers have become familiar with the established destinations such as Beijing and Shanghai, and want to visit less explored or even remote areas. 'Consumers generally prefer to join a package tour when they are not familiar with a destination, or if the place is not well developed, making it unsafe or inconvenient to visit on their own,' Ms Leung said. 'China has numerous such destinations and they are drawing more Hong Kong people eager to see the country beyond its major tourist areas. There is a lot of potential for package tours aimed at this sector. We shall provide more China tours to cater for this.' While Wing On Travel's personalised travel planning services also recorded promising growth last year to account for 30 per cent of total business, Ms Leung expected package tours to remain the leading sector with more opportunities in China and the high-end market. 'Travelling is now a major means for busy Hong Kong people to unwind and balance their life. They cannot afford the time for a long holiday and don't want to bother with holiday planning. So more consumers now don't mind paying more for a luxury tour as long as it is well arranged and comfortable,' Ms Leung said. EGL Tours executive director Steve Huen Kwok-chuen said that although personalised travel planning now accounted for about 25 per cent of the company's business, it had grown quickly with manpower in this stream increasing significantly in recent years. 'As with 2006, we expect to achieve double-digit growth this year because of the positive economic environment,' Mr Huen said. 'We'll need to add about 100 staff to support this, with about 65 for frontline services, including counter sales and travel planning.' He said that manpower management was a key issue amid the present boom. While it was important to maintain staff service quality to remain competitive, staff volatility was also a potential concern. 'We provide lots of training opportunities in Hong Kong and overseas, such as in Japan, to help our employees upgrade,' he said. 'We also offer opportunities for internal promotion and transfer so they can develop a long-term career with the company.' EGL also shared its profits with staff by distributing performance-based bonuses of at least three months pay last year. 'Our staff are our most important asset because we are a service-orientated business. With further business growth we shall release further bonuses this year to show our appreciation of their hard work.' Ms Leung said Wing On Travel also planned to give similar bonuses to its staff for their contribution last year. She said that the business boom was driving competition for manpower in the industry but that Wing On Travel had one of the lowest turnover rates among its counterparts. She attributed this to the company's strong corporate culture and emphasis on staff development. 'We invest heavily in staff training and development,' she said. 'We have an in-house training team of more than 40 to help our employees develop professional knowledge and skills for career advancement. 'This is crucial for breeding a strong corporate culture among our staff and increasing their sense of loyalty. We also make sure there are good promotion prospects and transfer opportunities to anchor experience and expertise in the company. This benefits our staff and the company. Our customers will have greater confidence in us if they are served by experienced staff. 'Our regular customers, in particular, like to see familiar faces when they visit us.'