By ITB Community and Abraham Alapatt, President & Group Head – Marketing, Service Quality, Value Added Services & Innovation at Thomas Cook India
At a time when the travel industry is searching for up-to-the-minute market insights, ITB Community had a catch up with Abraham Alapatt, President & Group Head – Marketing, Service Quality, Value Added Services & Innovation at Thomas Cook India, to hear his views and action plans for recovery.
How has your business been impacted with the current crisis, and what are your projections for the coming months and years?
The travel and tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic—both organised and unorganised sectors—across tour operators, hotels, airlines, etc. Given the vaccine roll-outs, we are, however, witnessing a growth in positive consumer sentiment and are seeing fear being replaced with cautious optimism.
Change is clearly the new normal for travel and I believe in the time to come, the post-pandemic customer will be defined by “Four Ds”… especially for travel:
- More Deliberation on decisions pertaining to leisure travel
- More Discerning about the choice of destinations
- Demanding/Detail oriented regarding all aspects of travel programmes
How important is active and effective marketing in these times, and what are some examples you can give?
As a first step towards a better understanding of key consumer behaviours and trends, we conducted a survey with over 2,500 customers. Our ‘Holiday Readiness Travel Report—Future of Travel post COVID-19’, revealed key drivers in this new era of travel, including the fact that health & safety ranks as the primary concern for 75% respondents. As a leader, we took this challenge head-on and put together a holistic three-pronged customer confidence-building programme in the form of ‘Assured-Insured-Secured’, covering every aspect of physical safety as well as mental and financial security. We launched several meaningful initiatives, including The Assured Safe Travel Programme and Doctor on Call 24×7 service in partnership with Apollo Clinics, and India’s first Safe Holiday Helpline. The latter is a free service offering expert guidance & assistance for safe holiday planning, visa assistance, country specific updates, on-ground health and safety measures, health certification and seamless Covid-negative certification services via a tie up with ICMR accredited labs.
We also tied up with leading brands such as Marriott and Accor to create our Holiday with Confidence and Holiday Safe packages to build consumer confidence and offer customers a safe and worry-free holiday experience.
To stay connected with our customers during the lockdown, we launched an exciting holiday bidding model to stay engaged with them through our exclusive virtual Relive the Dreams Mega Event, with the much-loved Bollywood star, Boman Irani and ace comedian, Atul Khatri.
We initiated a series of consumer activities; both virtual and physical. We launched our successful Virtual Holiday Roadshow – Thomas Cook Holiday Showcase, to empower customers with interactive holiday planning via a virtual platform across places like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata, as well as regional tier 2 and 3 cities including Baroda, Vijayawada, Mysore, Nashik, Patna, Guwahati, Lucknow and Bhubaneswar, among others. Based on the easing of restrictions, we executed the first physical holiday roadshows since lockdown, called Freedom Month Celebrations. These customer-centric roadshows, in association with Accor and Marriott hotels, took place across key source markets—Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Pune, Kochi and Jaipur.
Our strategic focus was given to product development. We quickly adapted to the new normal and created products and services in line with the requirements of the COVID-19 era. The consumer wish-list had changed and our teams worked to create easy to book, practical holidays such as workations, staycations, drivecations, affordable luxury holidays. We focussed on quick breaks to counter the stress of work from home and home chores—at convenient short drivable distances/within their city of residence. We invited our customers to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries with our specially designed holidays. We also introduced new categories like alternate accommodation options—private villas with services of a chef and concierge; unique stays in forts, havelis or palaces; also camping, trekking and biking trips.
As international borders reopened, our teams negotiated deals with our vendors and partners to offer customers best rates at Maldives’ luxury and super luxury resorts and Dubai. We also introduced a hybrid model of group tours in the form of our Private Journeys Holidays which offers premium, chauffeured van tours and is strategically designed for smaller groups of family, extended family or friends.
To benefit customers and catalyse demand, we launched exceptional offers such as our Full Holiday at Half the Price, Buy 1 Get 1 Free—Companion Holiday Offer, and Get up to 20% off on Flights, among others.
Will things change permanently? If so, what good will have come from these times?
Our Second Holiday Readiness Report revealed to us that health & safety continues to take top priority in travel decisions. Respondents continue to display an increasing focus on hygiene and safety, with 93% of respondents highlighting this as the most important factor in deciding upon a holiday. In addition, 73% of respondents said that they would be willing to increase spends to ensure higher levels of health & safety on their holidays. Another key learning is that there is a clear preference for reputed travel brands, tour operators and hotels, with a sizeable 84% of respondents stating this.
Technology is 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, and also to access our critical internal systems for seamless delivery.
Given the 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 personalised holiday planning. Our survey also revealed that given the prevailing uncertainty, a significant 71% respondents stated that they require guidance of a holiday expert and preferred to visit an outlet, virtual store and video chat while planning their holidays.
We also introduced India’s first Virtual Holiday Store and our dedicated team of travel experts will be available over video chat 365 days, from 8am to 8pm to guide customers with contactless and convenient holiday planning. For our foreign exchange branches too, through our unique Virtual Branch model, we will continue to facilitate contactless customer servicing. We have also launched a corporate and B2B booking tool to extend reach and seamless transactions.
How will the choice of destinations change in the “new normal”?
Health-hygiene will continue to be of paramount importance to travellers, with corresponding preference for direct point-to-point flights in their choice of destinations in the ‘new normal’. Protocols like mandatory quarantine on entry will also have an impact on choice of destination. We are witnessing the growth of new travel trends, with customers increasingly seeking non-standard stays and experiences, and fresh new locales away from the crowds. Examples include private villas, colonial mansions, stay in a planter’s villa, ocean suites/water bungalows etc.
What are your thoughts about ITB India—the first edition?
ITB is a great platform for the stakeholders of the travel industry to meet and exchange thoughts and insights relating to its diverse elements.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much disruption to the travel and tourism sector. The industry and its stakeholders, however, need to continue in their spirit of perseverance—to innovate, re-imagine business and push all boundaries to set new precedents and rebuild the travel industry. Hence, I am delighted to be part of this inaugural edition of ITB India as we together set new precedents in the new normal of travel.