In Conversation with Abraham Alapatt
What has been the impact of Budget on the travel and tourism industry?
It is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there were important announcements with respect to domestic travel - focus on pilgrim travel, for instance. The Budget focused on improving connectivity with respect to roads and offering facilities along the way. That's a welcome move, certainly. Connectivity for air travel in smaller towns was also spoken about in the Budget and that will also give a fillip of sorts to domestic travel. On the other hand, however, there have been misses in that on the whole, the govenrment hasn't yet recognized the importance of travel and tourism being responsible for GDP, offering both direct and indirect benefits. Advansed economies, from tourism point of view, generate a lot of jobs. A country like India, with so many opportunities in the sector, needs to understand and appreciate this. We have innumerable sightseeing destinations but we need to build an ecosystem to promote many of these places. Additionally, post this Budget travel is set to become more expensive for the traveler. This has been a blow to the industry.The govenrment hasn't yet recognized the importance of travel and tourism being responsible for GDP, offering both direct and indirect benefits.
Globally, how is the political landscape affecting the sector? We have had recession in the past, Brexit, and Donald Trump's new decisions to tighten security. How is this affecting travel and tourism on the whole?
Well, at theoretical level, all tour operators and companies would wish for all countries to make it genuinely easy for travelers to travel from one country to the other. In terms of connectivity, one wishes it was simpler on the whole so we could benefit tremendously. In reality, however, we have to leave theoretical utopia aside because countries are actually tightening their borders and travelling is becoming more complex. Whether it's the Brexit effect or the Schengen biometric or the new US administration screening travelers more stringently, it is both a threat and an opportunity especially for reputed players like us. The threat is that travelling could get more complicated - there will be more documentation and complexity in terms of travelling to other countries. So all this will add to the cost, time and effort of people wanting to travel from one country to the other. It is actually becoming more and more crucial to have a reputed travel partner to advice and lead customers through the complex process. In the crisis thus there is opportunity for us because we are definitely going to see more people seek us for visa-related issues and paperwork. Given our position, we are well placed to offer services that help the travelers to have memorable experiences.
How is the Indian traveler evolving? What's your strategy to keep the traveler hooked to your brand?
We are seeing two to three trends. We have a younger adventurous demography that's enthusiastic to travel; we have the youngest demography in the world so as a result of this, we see lots of Indians getting affluent faster and wanting to enjoy life versus the earlier generations who were focusing to 'save' longer. That's a happy trend and travel companies benefit from this for sure. The young traveler is also focused on experiences rather that simply going to a destination. For the generation earlier, it was a big thing to go abroad for the first time. This generation, even if they go abroad for the first time, their focus is on learning something and sharing what they experience.
This, in turn, has created the need for us to curate experience-led itineraries to appeal to this segment. This can mean special interest groups who are coming to explore interests like photography and wildlife. One of our marketing strategies, so integral to our company, is our study tours. Targeting mid-school students and those in colleges and specialized institutes, this is our strategy to reach out to a younger demographic and creating experiential learning tours for non-classroom training, very much in line with courses they are doing/ teaching but the focus being on travelling and experiencing.We have a younger adventurous demography that's enthusiastic to travel; we have the youngest demography in the world so as a result of this, we see lots of Indians getting affluent faster and wanting to enjoy life versus the earlier generations who were focusing to 'save' longer. The young traveler is also focused on experiences rather that simply going to a destination.
Is there any other strategy to grow your customer base?
Versus the west, which saw a rapid migration from brick and mortar to e-commerce form of transaction for travel, in India, we saw a unique migration of the hybrid customer. If you look at the journey of travel companies, typically in the US or Western Europe, they migrated to e-platforms from brick and mortar in a short period of time. In India, customers wanted hand-holding because of large transactions, seeking reassurance while at the same time there were well-heeled young travelers who wanted to do everything on her own. But what's in between these two spaces is what's interesting for players like us form strategic point of view - when people are going and surfing online but doing transaction offline through us. It is a result of many things - credit card limits; not being sure about large transactions; wanting to go to one person to buy tickets, hotels booking, visa issuance, travel insurance... Thomas Cook is in a unique position to serve this hybrid customer and the emerging customer. It is a reason why we are promoting our travel portal and fine-tuning it regularly so everything happens with the ease of the click. Additionally, we are focusing on our product design for specialized groups - taking select automobile engineers for a special tour of the Ferrari factory in Dubai; taking students of architecture to Eastern Europe and sites so they can appreciate architecture better. Another strategy is to tap customers who prefer to save for travel. We have tied up with select banks for 'holiday savings accounts'. People who want to travel and can afford it but not in one go. This one way for us to have a sure-shot customer, our effort to ease the travelling experience at the same price hence saving them from inflation. This is our mantra while strategizing - identify opportunities and build solutions around them. We are technologically particular about everything - our sales people now have tablets and they give details to customers by showing them details on the tablets and other gadgets. In fact, we see a healthy trend of downloads - 40 per cent of e-commerce bookings or inquiries is through our app.
Which strategy didn't work out?
I wouldn't say it failed but years, a couple of years ago, we did try to go to the market with a campaign to offer only premium offering for customers telling them that they would be unique experiences that would justify their cost. People got worried about the price but we couldn't explain to them what the experience would be all about. While the HNI base is growing and lots of them do travel with us, the reality is that we shouldn't have pre-decided their itineraries. HNIs, typically, like to look at their own itineraries and it has to be 100 percent customized. Telling them where to go and what to do and then charge a premium for it doesn't make sense.