These drawbacks mean the traditional modeling agency is not yet in danger of disappearing. But in some other industries, the spread of freelance operators, social media and mobile apps is more disruptive.
Li Chi-leung, the chairman of ABA Taxi Radio Call Services Centre has witnessed the sharp decline of traditional taxi calling centres. Li strongly opposes apps for ride-sharing services such as Uber because of the lack of insurance for customers and because drivers do not possess Passenger Service Licenses. He says call centres such as his can still retain their business by covering remote districts as they have large radio networks –but he wants the government to take action.
“The government should protect our industry. We are playing an important role in protecting the elderly and providing services for short distances,” he says.
However, Jonathan Shea Tat-on, chief executive of the Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation Limited thinks the government should not to be too protective of traditional industries.
“For me, consumer rights always outweigh the commercial profits,” Shea says. He cites the example of Hong Kong Telecom’s monopoly on international direct dialing (IDD) telephone services. Prices for calling internationally dropped drastically once competition was introduced and again with the emergence of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls and free online services such as Skype.
“Consumers always go straight ahead and look for the best service, and that should be a work in progress. If the providers make no advancement, they cannot blame anyone for taking the bread out of their mouths,” Shea adds.
Shea is positive about the growth of the so-called sharing economy which he thinks can help to reduce wastage and conserve resources. He says it can also change the relationship between consumers and suppliers, providing a more enjoyable environment where the shopping experience becomes an experience of making friends.
This is exactly what attracted Mandy (who does not want to disclose her full name) to her current work as an independent private tour guide. She was unfulfilled by her job as a flight attendant and therefore quit to start a service with her sister, providing local tours for foreign tourists.
Unlike tours operated by mainstream travel agencies, Mandy and her sister do not fix an itinerary beforehand. Instead, they communicate with the tourists to understand their needs and interests. Their clients are usually foreigners who are interested in Hong Kong’s local culture, so they show them public housing estates, markets and traditional villages.
Mandy enjoys encountering different people and listening to their stories. But she admits neither she nor her sister have obtained the official Tourist Guide Pass issued by the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong. Their customers find them through word-of-mouth and on travel sites like TripAdvisor.
Mandy avoids any dangerous activities and tells her clients upfront that they are not insured for the duration of the trip. She understands it is illegal to post on websites to advertise tour guiding services and that the established way to search for a tour guide is through a travel agency.
“We are in the same situation with Uber, existing in a grey area,” she explains. But she says she is able to provide clients with personal, customised services without the added cost of an intermediary, and she is put off from “going legit” by the cost. “To small-scale businesses like us, it is worthless to pay about HK$10,000 to apply for a pass. It is unreasonable to suppress the opportunities of individuals to start their businesses,” she says.