By Abraham Alapatt, President & Group Head – Marketing, Service Quality, Value Added Services & Innovation at Thomas Cook India
As we went into the lockdown in India in March 2020, it had become very critical that we were able to get a sense of what customers were thinking. While everyone had concerns in terms of how things were going to pan out, it was important to get a realistic perspective of what customers on ground were actually thinking. Our survey with over approx. 2500 customers from across the country pointed to us three key points:
- Safety and Hygiene: This had two levels within namely (i) Safety and Hygiene i.e. safety for self and family and (ii) Safety and Money i.e. investments with regards to their plans in travel and money in general.
- Destination Choice: There was a clear shift or marked increase in interest for destinations that until then were possibly seen more from a honeymoon or romantic point of view. These were destinations and options that were more isolated, socially distant—and for obvious reasons.
- Brand and Reputation: The third point, and I thought this was interesting from our point of view as leaders in the Indian industry, was that there is a marked preference and inclination, or so the customers said, of brands that they thought they could trust and these were, in their minds, associated with premium brands that had a reputation for processes and safety.
A lot of what we embarked since March 2020 up to date has really been premised on these three factors.
Safety and Hygiene
Safety and hygiene has been of paramount importance for travel in the COVID-19 era; yet at the start of the pandemic, this was a domain of which we did not have a complete understanding, including the virus itself and what it took to prevent getting infected.
It was an evolving situation and hence important to have the right partner to put together a set of comprehensive travel protocols. To do that, we reached out to Apollo Hospitals Group and we partnered with Apollo Clinics to create what we called the “Assured Safe Travel Program”. As an extension of this, we launched the “Safe Holiday Helpline”, alongside with “Doctor On Call 24×7” service allowing customers to call a healthcare professional from Apollo Clinic 24×7.
We also looked at travel-related opportunities and one of them was a COVID-19 negative certification services that we have launched. For this, we have partnered with The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) approved labs across India, including Apollo itself.
We don’t just have these concepts in theory; we put them in practice. We were possibly one of the first travel companies to actually send our tour managers to places like Maldives and Dubai as it opened up to conduct on-site inspections and quality checks to make sure that things were up to the mark, that what customers need are being prepared for, and that health and safety measures were conducted at all our partners and hotels, so that the customer journey was completely safe or, at least, safe to an extent that we could have possibly ensured.
Sales and Distribution
Sales and distribution was another key area of focus. Our company operated on the hybrid business model; though we have acquired a fairly large online business, a lot of our sales was conducted physically through the brick-and-mortar formats back then prior to the pandemic.
Yet as soon as the lockdown was implemented, we have entered a new reality.
As our physical outlets could not operate, we quickly migrated the entire process online, powering our physical sellers with technologies to answer calls based on where they were originating from so that customers could speak to a seller in their native language to have their queries answered.
We also recently announced our first “Virtual Holiday Store”, a hybrid model where we maintain contactless while ensuring a human touch by getting the seller in front of the customer virtually. Our customers are able to connect with our sellers via Zoom from 8:00 am in the morning to midnight, 365 days a year.
Again, with the emphasis on safety, we have strengthened and leveraged our partnerships with global chains and Indian hospitality chains—like Marriott, focusing on emphasis on safety and hygiene, using “Marriott’s Commitment to Clean”. On a similar term, we partnered with Accor, leveraging on the hotel brand’s global reputation for safety and hygiene via a range of products called “Holiday Safe”. We have done a similar exercise focused on travel safety with Indian hospitality players such as Taj and WelcomHeritage Hotels by ITC Hotels.
From a reach and customer engagement point of view, we started virtual events reaching out to customers, giving them updates about what is open and even trying to sell to customers who are interested and looking at opportunities.
We conducted a mega event a few months back with a much-loved actor, Boman Irani, with comedy thrown in from Atul Khatri, made it exciting with bidding for holidays etc. We combined this event with a launch of “Hidden Gems” boutique properties and getaways, which prior to the pandemic were neither so well known nor available to local customers as they mainly catered to the inbound/foreign tourists. For example, for Goa, a place that you may have been many times before, we curated a completely different experience by offering the opportunity to stay in a 17th century castle. We had a few hundred of these destination packages built around literally these hidden gems.
At the product front we focused on the niches—whether it was “Ramayana Trails (Spiritual)” or the “Great Indian Journey” which we partnered with Amar Chitra Katha with an appealing comic illustration style to inspire young Indian explorers and parents. “Private Journeys” is another example where we were focusing on smaller groups moving together safely in a private vehicle. We also used media platforms to reach out to B2B partners, offering our help to drive recovery so that they were able to get back quicker into the business. We believe that the best way to recovery is through collaboration and we would be happy to be partners with those who think the same.
From a marketing standpoint, we were active through the lockdown period and up until now. We started something called the “Freedom Month” addressing people’s frustration with the lockdown and how they were itching to break free. When travel restrictions were eased in India, we used that approach to talk with people about getting away and discovering freedom. We got an “Holiday Flash Sale” in December focusing on last-minute holidays, targeting those customers who haven’t yet made their Christmas and New Year plans.
My personal sign off is to say that I am absolutely confident that travel will rebound. A lot of us are standing strong with various initiatives rolling out quickly in a short period of time. By constantly engaging with the customers and constantly innovating, we will be able to get back to business much faster than the rest and stronger than before.
The travel ecosystem is going to be a lot more robust, safe and hygienic for travelers in the post COVID-19. We all have learned a lot from the pandemic and we all are going to be wiser.