Titans of travel

As the holiday season nears, top Indian travel honchos seek to make journeys innovative and customised for increasingly discerning tourists, local as well as foreign.

Published: 25th November 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd November 2012 12:26 PM   |  A+A-

Deepak Kalra loves his mouse. And he should. As the founder and CEO of India’s biggest and most success Internet travel portal MakeMyTrip.com, he gets 400 to 500 emails a day. The soft-faced, clean-shaven and bespectacled Kalra first became a CEO at 26, and established MakeMyTrip in April 2000 after a successful corporate run at GE Capital, AMF Bowling Inc and ABN Amro Bank. The company’s turnover in 2010-2011 was a stunning Rs 3,400 crore of the Indian online travel sector of about Rs 14,000 crore. It is also the first Indian travel firm to be listed overseas. To achieve all this, he adopted e-guru Jeff Bezos’s mantra: “Work hard, have fun, create history; but two out of three is not an option!” Original: “There’s a very thin line between resilience and stubbornness.”

But the line between boredom and innovation is a thick one. As thick as the Cubans, Abercrombie & Kent India (A&K)’s MD, Vikram Madhok, smokes. A banker in New York in the 1980s, he figured that Wall Street was making him climb the wall. He took the next flight out of India and became a hotelier. Soon, he realised that his calling was selling destinations. “I’ve always remained a ‘services’ person. That’s the sector I began with, and that’s where I shall continue for a good 20 years more,” says Madhok.

Madhavan Menon, MD, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd, has a similar inbound story. He went to the US to study business and finance, got his MBA and landed a job at Grindlays Bank, got bored and returned home to join Thomas Cook in 2000. “I love waking up every morning to plan bespoke holidays for people across the world,” he says.

Boredom has never been a problem with Bhargavi, GM, Concept Voyages who likes to distress by ironing clothes. “It somehow smoothens my problems also,” she says. Whether it be the jetsetting, Delhi-based MD of LePassage, Arjun Sharma or Dhruv Shringi, boss of Yatra.com whose unusual passions gets him into trouble with the police; the filter-coffee slugging Hyderabad based Sudhakar Rao of Rao Travels which bagged the ‘Best Domestic Tour Operator’ award from the Ministry of Tourism for 2010-11; or Gurgaon-based Kunal Goel of the adventure-travel company ThrillsExtreme, which offers space rides to the moon and high speed flights on fighter jets or the Hyderabad based Bhargavi, the big ticket passions of the high and mighty of the Indian travel industry define the way suitcases are packed in, and to India. “The Indian tourist says ‘Dil Mange More’,” says Menon.

The Indian travel industry is booming, packed with over 2,500 registered players riding on its Rs 1,13,000 crore market. A new study by The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), India, predicts 1,747 million travellers coming to India by 2021. The Indian online travel market is estimated to grow by almost 30 per cent in 2012. The Report on the Working Group on Tourism (12th Five Year Plan 2012-2107) notes that the overall export income generated by inbound tourism, including passenger transport, exceeds $3 billion a day. India had 740 million domestic tourists in 2010.

All top agents pitch luxury travel as their USP. “The A&K formula of providing a ‘luxury cocoon’ to explore the world attracts more than 180,000 clients a year. The Incredible Indian traveler takes annual multiple holidays through “discovery vacays” — spa-wellness breaks; adventure packages; unique farm stays and eco-tours; staying in historical castles and lighthouses; decadent truffle-cheese-chocolatier experiences; Ferrari drives and haute-couture retail therapy. “In emerging Tier II and III regions, the young adult, the student and the woman traveller are moving rapidly from influencer and decision maker to frequent traveller, with or sans family,” says Menon. India hasn’t lost its allure for the foreign traveller — FTAs were 5.58 million in 2010.

Meanwhile, as the fall of the rupee hit the outbound traveler’s chequebook, the demand for Indian destinations is growing. Kalra says, “I open a few windows to compare the prices but honestly I can’t see beyond the deals we offer, as they are truly the best anybody can offer.”  Dhruv Shringi, boss of Yatra.com likes to take risks: once he was held at gunpoint by the Dutch police at Amsterdam airport because he was carrying a cigarette lighter made from an empty World War II grenade. “You never know what is going to happen next and that’s why I feel I am so lucky to be in this business,” he says. Shringi quit Ebookers (Europe’s leading online travel agency) in 2005 and launched a travel portal for online air ticketing and holiday bookings in India. Yatra.com handles e-reservation for more than 3,800 hotels across 336 cities in India and over 90,000 hotels globally — 20,000 domestic tickets, and 1,000 hotels and holiday packages booked daily. “The growth of low-cost smart phones and tablets provide better interface and new functionality. With better payment technology and security, people feel comfortable booking their tickets through their cellphones. The advent of mobile apps by OTAs, has made travel booking more convenient and hassle free.” Another customer friendly travel portal is Jagadish Tour and Travels that offers a choice of 2,72,000 hotels, about 400 airline options and over 40 cruise liners worldwide. Director Rakesh Padachuri says, “I work so that people can travel. If I don’t put in absurd amount of hours sitting on my office desk, many won’t be able to enjoy a relaxing vacation.”

On the same upscale trail is Arjun Sharma, Managing Director of Le Passage India. “Vacations are personal and should not be influenced by anyone. My advice is to choice a destination that reflects personal taste and preferences rather than blindly following trends. It is the customer’s right to ask for added value,” he says. Added value is the challenge faced by Delhi’s Peter Kerkar, MD of Cox and Kings (C&K. “Huge disposable incomes and the trend of taking one long-haul vacation and a couple of short-haul ones through the year are the driving factors,” says the Stanford graduate. During 2010, Indians travelling abroad doubled arrivals — from 8.34 million in 2006 to 12.07 million in 2010. The 12th Plan estimates 1,451.46 million domestic tourists in 2016.

Of the two women powerhouses of the Indian travel trade, Bhargavi specialises in dealing with difficult travellers; Trivandrum based Sunu Mathews, CEO of C World Holidays Pvt. Ltd who started her company with Rs 25 lakh has a no credit, no cheap holidays policy. Varsha remembers sending a bottle of cold Dom Perignon to a distressed client on honeymoon in the Maldives to be shared with his bride in the rain. She started out with Rs 25,000 when she was in her twenties with a computer, a telephone and a trade licence to open a bank account. Only Rs 800 was left. “Everyone thought I was crazy. I made $1 on my first sale, booking a Thailand trip. The same client calls from Canada even today,” she says. Sunu started up C World Holidays in 2003. She always ends her day with a small prayer of gratitude for all that she has. When she is not handling management responsibilities, planning strategic business alliances with associations worldwide, contracting and networking with industry partners globally, getting the best rates and selecting new destinations, Sunu does ‘regular mommy stuff’. “In the initial stages, the no cheap rate policy was a setback, but ultimately it became our trademark. Our client base is middle and upper middle class people. Most are referrals or repeats, which speaks for itself,” she says.

Varsha’s interests speak volumes about her balance between work and play. A student of Andhra Natyam — a 2000-year-old Andhra temple dance tradition — she says, apart from ironing, it “relaxes me when I am not working,” she says. An art aficionado, she is a regular on Hyderabad’s classical dance and ghazal circuit, as well as Telugu literary meetings during weekends. At Concept Voyages, clients are usually asked to take an online survey to assess their travel interests and are offered packages accordingly. “We use technology, but won’t let it take over human interaction,” says Varsha, whose life changed after she saw the movie — Meet Joe Black — a film about death acting as a travel guide for a media mogul. “I went to see it for the obvious reason – Brad Pitt, but ended up watching it several times to understand how life goes by in a blink, and how hard it is to let go. It changed my perspective about living totally,” she says. Sunu’s near death experience was with prawns. The Mr Bean fan was in Cannes to attend a travel trade exhibition when she ate a raw prawn at the buffet. Her travel advice: “Be careful about food when traveling abroad.”

Hyderabad-based Rao’s brush with the other world is more practical; he simply believes that “the customer is God”. He is building a 100-room hotel in Tirupati. “I work more than 60 hours a week. There are times I’m unable to spend time with my family. But at the end of the day, I’m happy,” says Rao whose travel company abides by five principles — reliability, punctuality, comfort, safety and moderate pricing for every budget. The company has launched a travel call centre open 24X7, 365 days to give information on tourist spots and pilgrimage places to travellers in their respective native languages.

What all the top travel operators in India have in common is innovation. Bhubaneshwar-based Benjamin Simon, MD, Travel Link was weary of the tourist obsession with the Odisha-Puri-Konark-Bhubaneswar circuit. He pioneered special interest tours  — the Odisha Odyssey — to hidden and unexplored places in the state: ethnic, rural experiential tours, village hiking and trekking tours, royal home stays and from culture, arts, crafts and textile tours. In 2007, Travel Link bought its first luxury private jet and brought 95 high-profile American clients to Bhubaneswar. They were taken around beautiful temples and villages. ‘‘The visitors were highly impressed and through word-of-mouth, the number of American tourists to Odisha increased exponentially,’’ he recalls.

Another man on the move is Vishal Suri of Delhi, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, Tour Operating, Kuoni India. “Indian travelers are not looking for just any holiday; they’re searching for new experiences and destinations. They seek to explore the cultural heritage of the destinations, be the first to discover new locales and talk about it,” he says. On the travel treadmill, variation is walking the talk. Kunal Goel’s favorite book is Screw it, Lets Do it by Richard Branson. India’s top travel moguls are doing just that.

With inputs from Swati Sharma (Hyderabad), Babu K Peter (Kochi) and  Diana Sahu (Bhubaneswar), Sunita Raghu (Chennai), Sharan Poovanna (Bangalore).

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