Madhavan Menon, Chairman and Managing Director, Thomas Cook (India) speaks to T3 magazine about the current scenario and the way forward.
How would you explain the current market dynamics for travel, tourism and hospitality industry?
While a combination of lockdown fatigue and announcements on the vaccine have ushered in positive consumer sentiment, the road ahead will be one of cautious optimism for the sector at large.
As a leader, we at Thomas Cook have taken this challenge head-on and put together a holistic three pronged customer confidence-building program that we call “Assured-Insured-Secured” that covers every aspect of physical safety as well as mental and financial security to give the customer the peace of mind we ought to. Our “Thomas Cook Assured” Safe Travel Program developed and rolled out in association with Apollo Clinics (part of one of the most trusted healthcare networks in the country) is the most comprehensive set of travel safety protocols in the new normal, encompassing not only our own internal processes, retail outlets etc., but also every one of our partners and service providers. We have extended this partnership with Apollo Clinics to offer a Doctor on Call 24x7 service for our customers when they travel.
Customers may still feel the need to be reassured about what happens, if they still fall ill when they travel. So we in partnership with ICICI Lombard the country’s largest private insurer, have them fully covered with possibly the most comprehensive retail travel insurance program that includes COVID 19 related hospitalization up to their sum assured
As part of the “Secured” aspect - to ensure their confidence, from a money and security point of view, we offer flexible date changes, rescheduling, cancellations and even guaranteed, accelerated refunds (subject to certain minimum criteria)
We also have launched the country’s first “Safe Holiday Helpline” to offer free expert consultation and advice to help customers navigate the maze of confusing and changing information about state regulations, International travel guidelines, etc, to instill confidence and make the best and safest choice for their travel plans.
My expectation is that 2022 will see a return to normalcy if I don’t look at 2019 and 2023 will be a full-blown return to normalcy in each of our of line businesses. With regards to retail travel, I expect that when borders opened and the regulations regarding arrival at destinations as well as issuance of visas is clarified, we should see travel.
As fast as business went away, I would hope we that would see a quicker return. To me 2021/2022 a degree of normalcy and 2022/2023 a full blown return to normalcy.
What is in the store for the industry in 2021? What is the booking trend look like?
Come 2021, we can certainly expect more positive news for the industry. Indians are already making their travel plans and are looking at both domestic as well as international destinations. Our survey that 52% of respondents stated that they are likely to take a domestic holiday while 48% of respondents likely to take an international holiday.
While booking trends for domestic travel continue, what is encouraging is that while customers were earlier restricting their bookings to close-to-home staycations/drivecations, we are seeing a growth in demand for travel to longer haul destinations like Kashmir and the Andaman. Our survey revealed that 71% respondents displayed confidence in air travel and this has been substantiated by the increased demand for flight-inclusive packages.
While destinations such as Dubai and Maldives are leading the growth trajectory when it comes to international travel, given the easing of restrictions and the positive consumer sentiment due to the vaccine announcements, we have already started seeing a steady increase in both bookings as well as queries for other international destinations such as Egypt and Kenya as well. We have also seen an uptick in demand for Bali during the months of February-March as travellers anticipate the re-opening.
Digitalisation is the way forward for the industry. What trends do you have noticed? What is your digital strategy for 2021 for IHS?
Technology was mission critical and technology solutions were immediately implemented post lockdown to serve our customers. We deployed our Virtual Outlets and our Virtual Agency Network to enable contactless services to customers by equipping our teams (sales and servicing) with technology - to interact with consumers, as also access our critical internal systems for seamless delivery.
As a group, we have in the past continuously scaled our digital knowledge and business applications and used it as an enabler for growth. COVID-19 has reiterated the importance of technology in business as the lockdown demanded digital capabilities to be enhanced. We are not only consistently imbibing new technologies for innovation but also for simplification and optimization of core processes with a view to create a deeper understanding of all stakeholder expectations and enhancing their experience
Given the lockdowns and the current situation, the demand for virtual and contactless sales and service has accelerated. Based on customer feedback, one of the key trends driving digitalisation in the travel industry is the need for safe, contactless, yet personalized holiday planning. Our survey also revealed that given the prevailing uncertainty, Indians need human interface for guidance/reassurance in today’s COVID-19 era. A significant 71% respondents stated that they require guidance of a holiday expert and preferred to visit an outlet/Virtual Store/video chat while planning their holidays.
We also introduced India’s first Virtual Holiday Store to empower customers with contactless and convenient holiday planning, coupled with a personalized experience of our holiday experts. For our foreign exchange branches too, through our unique Virtual Branch model we will continue to facilitate contactless customer servicing. We have also operationalized a Corporate and B2B Booking Tool - to extend reach and seamless transactions.
The demand for digitization also allowed us to use the period of the lockdown to reimagine our MICE business completely - with virtual event platforms, advanced health & safety measures & new age technologies. An innovative product line of Gourmet Genie & Experiential Concierge was launched. Digital R&R events were successfully completed for top corporates in addition to physical events.
To support our Corporates, our Business Travel process was redeployed as an off-site model with bots for invoicing, refunds, streamlined processes & automated credit flow on a single platform. Our model of Centralized Service Delivery Hubs will ensure seamless remote delivery.
Technology will continue to play a crucial role and come 2021, our strategy will be to continue to leverage its use in our outreach to the customer as also continue to focus on technology driven initiatives.
How is MICE, social events and business travel shaping up?
Given the restrictions, our MICE teams have used the period of the lockdown to reimagine business and to conceptualise vibrant virtual/ digital models and platforms, advanced health & safety measures & new age technologies. Our teams have successfully delivered exciting hybrid models and digital R&R events- our digital platform allows seamless engagement across a variety of business functions and can be scaled up to include over 100000 attendees, with every aspect of it being customizable. We have launched a series of innovative product lines under our #NextinMICE offering: an exclusive selection of travel vouchers, digital events & engagements, experiential venues, Meetings Round the Corner, Staycations, Gourmet Genie (from exclusive dining experiences to delivering choicest sweetmeats/savouries at one’s doorstep), Experiential Concierge (dedicated concierge services with specially curated experiential holidays) and strategic communication & collateral design.
We are proud of the impactful service our Corporate Travel teams were able to deliver handling the repatriation of around 10000 Canadian citizens in partnership with the Canadian High Commission during the period of the lockdown.
To support our Corporates, our Business Travel process was redeployed as an off-site model with bots for invoicing, refunds, streamlined processes & automated credit flow on a single platform. Our model of Centralized Service Delivery Hubs will ensure seamless remote delivery. 44 clients of the recently acquired dnata Travel’s corporate travel portfolio have been integrated with the business unit.
F&B, workation, staycation etc are emerging as revenue earner. What is your take on this?
During the period of the lockdown and subsequent easing of travel restrictions, our teams ensured that a strategic focus was given to product development. As they adapted and created products as part of the new normal and basis the consumer’s wish-list, an exciting new range of holidays were launched such as workations, staycations, drivecations, affordable luxury holidays, etc. These quick breaks were created to counter the stress of work from home and home chores and at convenient short drivable distances/within their city of residence and also celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries. We witnessed a significant uptake for such holidays and we expect to see a continue demand. However, while short driveable holidays were preferred post lockdown, our survey revealed to us that only 29% respondents now show preference for road travel with 71% respondents displaying confidence in air travel, which is truly encouraging when it comes to planning holidays. This has also been substantiated by the increased demand for flight-inclusive packages.