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Are NTOs, India Ready?

India, no doubt, is one of the most promising outbound travel market today. International travel surpassed 1.3 billion in 2017 and 1.4 billion in 2018. India’s contribution to this growth has been significant with double-digit growth almost every year in the last six-seven years and a growth rate far exceeding the international average. Currently, nearing 28 million mark, UNWTO predicts India to be a 50 million outbound travel market by 2020 and hailing it as one of the fastest growing outbound travel markets in the world today. And to top that with Indians’ propensity to spend while travelling is what makes India a lucrative travel source market for the National Tourist Offices (NTOs) to develop, reason why we see over a hundred national, regional and city tourism boards with offices in India today.

And while India is one of the fastest growing tourism source markets, and for many the top tourism source market, from countries and regions to leisure and entertainment hubs, from Europe to Middle East to destinations in South East Asia, it is also a fact that it is a complex and a highly diverse market that needs closer scrutiny and understanding. SATTE 2019 brought together an eclectic panel represented by NTOs from short and long-haul destinations to leisure hub and industry body in order to discuss and understand if NTOs are doing it right in India.

Moderated by Karan Anand, Head of Relationships & Supplier Management, Cox & Kings, the panel discussion on “Are NTOs India Ready?” included speakers GB Srithar, Regional Director – South Asia, Middle East & Africa (SAMEA), Singapore Tourism Board; Arvind Bundhun, Director, Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority; Carl Vaz, CEO & Strategy Director – Destination Canada, India GSA; Sunil Kumar, President, Travel Agents Association of India and Bruno P. Wiley, Vice President of Sales, Experience Hub, the trade and promotion arm of Yas Island Abu Dhabi.

Setting the tone for an engrossing discussion on the topic, Anand, in reference to NTOs present in India or the new ones setting shop here, said, “All of them are coming to India, but are they India ready? Everybody is looking at India, but how is this story evolving? What is the story that each national tourist office needs to put out to the customer to build an aspiration for them to come to their country and not somebody else’s who is also putting out their own story?”

Furthermore, he pointed that not only the outbound numbers are increasing but the outbound Indian travel market itself is changing. “Overtime people will travel increasingly more frequently and their travel planning and preferences, like combining destinations such as Singapore-Malaysia-Hong Kong on a single trip or Dubai-Abu Dhabi-Sharjah, will evolve. How do we ensure that the NTOs who are pursuing the Indian customer get the story right and are they ready to make sure that when an Indian traveler is deciding where does he go, what role do they (NTOs) play in it?”

Top source market

In 2017, India became the third largest source market for Singapore after China and Indonesia, contributing 1.27 million visitors. “In 2018, we are on track of another record year and India will maintain its position as the third largest source market for Singapore. Upto November 2018, we have already welcomed 1.32 million Indian visitors which is about 14 per cent increase over the same period the previous year,” Srithar noted. For Mauritius, Bundhun says that the destination has noticed a big increase in Indian numbers in the past three to four years and the NTO has set a target of 130,000 Indian tourist arrivals by 2020.

Wiley who moved to Abu Dhabi seven years ago and has been working on developing the Indian market ever since for leisure and entertainment hub ‘Yas Island Abu Dhabi’ says that what was around half a million visitors from India to the UAE about the time he moved to Abu Dhabi is today over two million, and expects the number to touch three millions very quickly, within the next 18 to 24 months.

While acknowledging the growth in India’s outbound travel, TAAI’s Kumar said, “We have been hearing it, but there are two important questions that we must be connected with the statement, that is, where are the people going to? And, who decides what should be the destination? In my opinion, it’s only 25 per cent of the Indian outbound that decides for themselves where to go. Remaining 75 per cent is driven by promotions, opportunities and by travel industry. So, the decision of ‘where the outbound traveler must go’ is very important for the NTOs to understand.”

Engaging a changing market

The Indian consumer is a much evolved traveler today. His expectations have changed. The tier II and tier III city travelers have started travelling. Their tastes are also very discerning and they are pampered for choices. Anand says, “I have always maintained that the success of any NTO in pursuing (travelers) they need to have the ‘Three-C’ strategy where there must be ‘Connectivity’, ‘Consular’ services access and ‘Communication.’ When these three Cs are properly aligned what we have observed is that those countries tend to do the best.” Further sharing on his learning, he pointed Indian outbound travelers’ preferences for Indian food, sense of security and the important role that English play in making holiday choices.

Srithar notes, “India is a very-very important source market for a variety of reasons. In terms of audiences, we seek the family travelers, working millennial, cruise travelers, MICE travelers. Therefore, we are trying to constantly engage the consumers in a meaningful manner and continue to make them feel that Singapore is an important and an all-year-round destination, that it is a destination for many purposes, is a huge challenge for us and we do not take that lightly. We know that today the Indian consumer has got many-many choices. Therefore in Singapore Tourism Board’s strategy, connecting effectively with our consumers through various platforms whether it is travel trade partner, non-travel trade partners, airlines and so on and so forth is a very-very important challenge. It is a constant challenge of evolving, transforming, incremental change, incremental communications, and that’s how we are trying to keep pace with the changes in the market.”

Citing Yas Island’s promotional strategies in India, Wiley argued that not only the product diversification but it is also important to diversify the market segments that one wants to tap. “When we were trying to understand what was India market like and what does Indian travelers want, we realized that it became too complicated for us. But with time and experience that we gained, we started creating different persona to different type of clients like FITs, stopover FITs, group business, day tourists, MICE, etc. We have the diversity of products and we are adapting ourselves for each of the segments and it’s no surprise that actually now they starting to come all round the year.” He also informed that in the last few years, India has already emerged as the top source market for the Yas Island.

According to Bundhun, “The Indian tourist have evolved a lot. Gone are the days when we could market Mauritius just as a beach destination. The traveler wants experiences. Therefore our strategy is quite diverse ranging from B2B to B2C and also we have started targeting other niche markets. We will be trying to display authentic experiences this year. People don’t only want to visit Mauritius for the sea, beach and blue water. There is a big Indian diaspora, there is culture and loads of activities besides beach activities which can also be highlighted. Also, this year there would be push for the incentive market and wedding segment from India.”

Engaging the trade

While highlighting some of the key roles that NTOs play in a source market they are located in, Vaz said, “When we look at the stakeholders back home, that is, the incoming companies, the hotels, the attractions, we have to understand that we need to create a platform for them to interact with Indian travel trade community. The second platform that we create as NTOs is how to engage with media in order to take the content out into the market so that the general population then digest that content and that content then translate into sales of packages or package creation. Another role that NTOs perform here in India is developing the destination information, knowledge and the destination skillsets of travel trade community, especially the smaller agencies.

Citing examples like the former Australian Tourism India manager Maggie White, who was very popular in the market, and former Singapore Tourism Board’s India face Vimal Harnal, TAAI’s Kumar also highlighted the need for the NTOs representatives and NTOs themselves to develop deeper and closer inter-personal relations and synergies with the travel industry stakeholders in India. “Vimal Harnal from Singapore Tourism Board was a household name in the travel industry in India a couple of decade ago. The kind of education, the kind of connect, he had with the industry actually got agents to promote Singapore tourism,” he said.

He also pointed that TAAI has been instrumental in supporting a large number of NTOs reach the right audience. “We believe 80 per cent of the road shows are attended because there are too many calls, and you send a frontline staff who is a non-influencer, non-decision maker and if somebody tells you that there are 90 people in the roadshow, it doesn’t happen that way. With Destination Canada, TAAI has got eight roadshows done already and in 90 per cent of the roadshows 90 per cent of the attendance is the travel agents, the owners, the senior managements, who are the influencers. And this is what NTOs must keep in mind,” Kumar stressed.

Way forward

Emphasizing that the NTOs need to act as an effective bridge between the suppliers of the destination that they represent and the local Indian buyers, Vaz said, “I think what NTOs need to do to be India ready is bridging this gap by bringing, from consular services to hotels, airlines, DMCs, attractions and then you bridge that with local stakeholders in India like TAAI, TAFI and other such bodies and impart that knowledge and awareness.”

Stressing the need to learn and adapt quickly and develop resources according to the market needs, Wiley, in reference to Yas Island, said, “The journey (in India) has been quite complicated. I remember when we came and started to approach the market, the first thing that we did on Yas Island side is to talk with the DMCs. Very quickly we realized that the DMCs were not interested in changing the rules that we were building. So what we did, what we have decided to do and we have done with organization like Cox & Kings and with other organization like TAAI when they came to us is to go to India and develop our own network. Six years later, we have our own physical presence covering the North, the South and the Centre of India. We have developed partnership with most of the key organisations that you have in India. We have developed the technology that allows us now to work and to deal directly with partners in India.”

TAAI credits itself with generating massive destination visibility wherever it takes its annual conventions. Citing example of its recent conventions in Abu Dhabi and Kunming, Kumar said, “A customer doesn’t walk into a travel agency and say I want to go to Rocky Mountain. It is for the agent to say that you are anyway going to Montreal or Toronto, how can you afford not to visit Rocky Mountain. This is where a big education is required and TAAI focuses exactly on this point. Our biggest strength is our connect with the members. We would be the right funnel to channel in the education.”

Anand pointed at the need of marrying the three Cs very intelligently, particularly in combining destinations, in view of certain challenges that the NTOs face like being a long-haul destination, a stricter Visa processing rule or connectivity for that matter. He said, “In becoming India ready, sometimes countries have to adopt as well as catch a catchment area and sometimes strategically align themselves with a neighbouring countries.” He also stressed the need for the NTOs to develop strategic focus on attracting repeat visits.

According to Srithar, the rapid pace of the Indian consumer has been for several factors, but one of the biggest factors has been communication with available information out there which is so easy to access. “They are now very cognizant about expectation. And our challenge has always been how to make sure our messaging is right, our pitching is right and we are connecting to right audiences through the right platforms,” Srithar adds.

Responding to the catch phrase and taglines that’s often credited with generating huge buzz, Bundhun said, “It is important to target the right audience with a proper tagline. But I don’t think that taglines does influence the traveler. The Indian traveler who come has a very clear mind, he knows what he wants, he knows what to expect from the destination. It’s not the tagline that will sell the destination,” he opined.

In conclusion

As Wiley suggests, India is a complex market. It’s sub-continental diversity not only encompasses varied tastes, food habits or language but also racial, religious and ethnic features. So, as the discussion stressed on the need to engage with travel industry and consumers with effective outreach, it also pointed at the need to create customized solution keeping the diverse market that India is, in mind. Effective communication with all, be it the trade, consumers or media, was particularly stressed by all. Anand ‘Three-C’ strategy also stressed on this along with ‘connectivity’ and ‘consular services’ for the facilitative visa processing. Other important points that were stressed upon and taken for discussion in order to effectively develop the Indian market and be India ready were combining destinations where it suits, tragetting repeat visits, and last but not the least creating closer and effective synergies with travel trade and industry stakeholders in order to successfully develop the Indian market.

And as the discussion concluded, Anand’s last word were particularly frank and resonated with the topic, as he said, “In my opinion, having sat on a few tourism boards’ as an adviser, I would say that 25 per cent are India ready, 25 per cent more will get there and half (remaining half) of them will find their way. I suggest if they were to sit with the trade, it would help them a lot to become particularly India ready.”

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