Online music is here

This is one of the better things to happen for Travellers. As I wait for another delayed flight at Bangalore airport the magic of online music hits me. Switching between Saavn (the online Indian music service funded by Tiger) and TuneIn Radio (a worldwide selection of internet radio stations) I am definitely spoilt for choice.

HolidayIQ in Indonesia

HolidayIQ launched its Indonesia website today, our first real foray outside India. The soft launch is designed to allow domestic Indonesian travellers to add their photos, hotel reviews and the like. What a journey this has been!

A few years ago the only thing one had was this passion for travel and a desire to do something unique around it (read: not become a travel agent). And from an idea sparked off by reading an article about Zagat Survey to a 2-person team in a little room to now 150+ people across three countries, the journey has been a lot of fun and of course an ulcer or two.

From the Economist to Intelligent Life

I dimly remember it as sometime around my 13th year of life that I saw the first copy of The Economist magazine. To a boy brought up in India’s starvation-style socialism of the 60s & the 70s, the paper used looked appropriately ‘foreign’ (read : western & rich). But on glancing inside found it completely unintelligible and therefore grossly boring. Not an auspicious start.

But like most inauspicious starts of my life, this too turned out to be an enduring relationship and I read the densely printed, mostly grey magazine over an unbroken period of 25 years. In 2003, I stopped reading the Economist and took up GQ & the Conde Nast Traveller in as sure a sign of a mid-life crisis as a London stockbroker running off to Tahiti to paint nude women.

But before I stopped, The Economist taught me the following important life-lessons:

that  consistent sticking to an idealogy can result in a cogent explantion for practically everything

that it is possible to explain science in a way that is understood by well-educated and intelligent human beings and that a good Science Writer is a man of Science who can write, not a writer who knows Science.

that the British intellecutual aristocracy is worthy of admiration & respect

that quality of content can triumph extravagance of design 

So, it was with joy that I bought a copy of Intelligent Life at a bookstore at Larnaca airport about a year ago. It seemed to meet my yearning for the familiar of the Economist with my newfound libertine tendency towards Leisure & Lifestyle (incidentally, I actually named the company I founded ‘Leisure & Lifestyle Information Services’ which should give armchair Freuds enough chuckles for a week).

Intelligent Life is a quarterly magazine from the Economist group. It’s tag line is Life.Culture.Style, which presumably means that there are many Tahiti-seeking stockbrokers around to form what the bean-counters at Pearson Media would call a Market.

I liked the first issue I found so much that I subscribed for it. And I must admit. Being back in the warm embrace of an Economist sister is a nice feeling.

HolidayIQ & Google

We finally went public with our deal with Google – Times of India broke the story nationally today.

For those of you who are interested, here are the top level details. Google Local Search is a service where google provides business listings as part of its search results. These listings are procured from a carefully selected group of content partners. The general idea is to have only very high-quality content aggregators and content creators as its content partners.

Over the last 2 to 3 months, Google did a fair bit of evaluation of our India accommodation content and came to the conclusion that it is high quality. They even did independent verification of telephone numbers etc! Anyway, finally, they agreed that our user review & photos content for an unmatched variety of hotels, resorts, home-stay and guest house accommodation in India was exactly what they were looking for. The service goes live sometime in Jan 2008.

Interestingly, most hotel reviews for India hotels is now being provided to Google by Tripadvisor, the world’s leader in travel user-content. The first Indian source for google will be HolidayIQ. It is a nice feeling to be now equated with Tripadvisor.

We might not make much noise and have screaming ads. But we certainly have very good content. Which is what matters, ultimately. A happy development.

Travel shows on Indian TV

God, save me from cut-jeans bimbettes taking us on the world’s most boring journeys. Why, oh why do we have the extraordinarily yawn-inducing travel shows on Indian television?

Good travel shows have a few obvious elements. The first is an interesting anchor – someone with a personality; which means he or she has had a life, has seen the world, has a fresh viewpoint on things and still has the nous to tell a tale. 25 year old cheerleader types from the chattering classes of Delhi & Mumbai DO NOT fall into this category. Neither for that matter does tired editors of news channels. The next requirement is an underlying theme. Food is a great theme. Hotel detectives, the idea of checking out hotels incognito, is another theme that works. Why not also (Frater’s) ‘Follow the monsoon’ or (my very own) ‘Follow the Indian mango trail’ as themes for a uniquely Indian travel show? Or maybe something around Nostalgia. I can think of at least 10 other interesting thematic possibilities. Hey guys, there is no harm in thinking. The last requirement is a storyline that incorporates real human beings in believable situations. Considering India is bursting with interesting characters at every turn, this should be not too difficult to do.

And just in case money is the problem, here is my plea to the bean counters at TV channels, – please release more budgets. Indian travellers are growing up, they are big-spenders, your advertisers salivate at the prospect of reaching out to them – so well made shows with enough money spent is a good investment.

Kunal Vijayakar & the Times Now team do a reasonable job with the Foodie Show, which is the only Indian travel show I can stomach (so to speak). I am waiting for more like this.

11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India

I was doing one of my usual google searches for HolidayIQ and stumbled upon something that is very gratifying. The sentence was – “One of the best travel sites we’ve seen anywhere on the web”. Apparently, IndiaStreet, the online magazine for new projects & investments in India, did a detailed exercise to identify what they called “11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India” and lo & behold, HolidayIQ is one of them. When one is immersed in work and in creating something new, there is very little time to look up and see how far one has reached. This, for me, is a sure marker of our progress. Obviously, happy about it.

Here is the link>>

6500 Indian resorts, hotels, home-stays & guesthouses

HolidayIQ has now listed 6500 resorts, hotels, home-stays & guest-houses across India. About 40% of these properties have got reviews from actual guests who stayed there, which is amazing for our country. This is simply because of the consistent hard work so many travel-crazy folk have lovingly put into this over the last 3 years. I still remember early 2004, when this project started as India Resorts Survey – a travel-lovers initiative set up by a small group of holiday junkies. It has really grown up now and it cannot be easily replicated.

The count of accommodation options at the major tourism states are: Goa Hotels – 384, Kerala Hotels – 642, Rajasthan Hotels – 561, Himachal Hotels - 381

For the bigger cities, the count is : Delhi – 198, Mumbai – 176, Bangalore – 171

Out of this list, 1157 India hotels are in a mountain or a hill setting, 554 are Beach hotels in India, 161 are wildlife hotels and 92 give the traveller an inland waterfront experience.

Best Hotels by Travel + Leisure : Where is Aman?

Another ‘Best Of’ list. Travel + leisure magazine has announced the best of tourism for 2007. Included are the Best Hotels, Best Cities, Best Islands, Best Airlines, Best Cruises, Best Car-rentals, Best Tour Operators and so on.

The big Indian story of course is that the Oberoi Udaivilas comes in as the Best Hotel in the world. The really interesting news for the cognoscenti is the absence of any Aman Resort in the World’s top 100 list for 2007. Intrigued, I checked out the 2006 list – Amanpuri had come in at a low 72nd rank last year. Is this a reflection on the properties of Aman or on the readers of T+L?

The world has two views

Just finished reading a recent post from a Kuwaiti blogger. The lady is evidently western-educated, most-likely western-reared and the post was about watching Indian movies. She does not like Indian movies and is forced to occasionally watch them, because all her friends in Kuwait do. Here is a classic case of the western sensibility at odds with the new, increasingly confident, Asian ‘feel’. As many of us have heard by now, Rajnikant, the Tamil movie superstar has a loyal following in Japan – another instance of an Asian-Asian cultural nexus that bye-passes the west.

I have noticed a similar dichotomy in user opinion on travel. On HolidayIQ, a lot of traveler comments are from Indians. I now find it really interesting to compare these comments with stuff on predominantly ‘western’ sites such as Tripadvisor & Igougo. The difference is palpable. For the same destination and often for the same hotel, reviews on HolidayIQ are quite different from the traveler views in these other sites. The sensibilities are different & therefore, so are the opinions.

More than anything else, this brings home to me the reality that the world is no more west-centric; the multi-polar globe has arrived. The old certainities built on a hierarchy that puts everything ‘western’ on top is clearly under threat. Young, confident & well-off people across vast swathes of Asia & (eventually) Africa will increasingly determine a new set of realities.

It is in this world that Indian films and Indian tourism stand to gain. After all, the sensibilities of the billion (largely young) people of India seem to find a resonance in many parts of the globe. All we need to do is to conscientiously service this demand.

For HolidayIQ, I think the opportunity to create a pan-Asian viewpoint on travel is, I believe, very real.

Times of India & HolidayIQ

India’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman & Company Limited (BCCL), the owners of Times of India has just announced their investment in HolidayIQ. It is indeed satisfying to see one’s creation grow up – an emotion somewhere between that of a movie director and a parent. It has been an interesting journey. To jump into areas one had limited knowledge of (travel industry & media business), try out a new concept – the first asian travel media organisation – and see it validated by the biggest media company in India has been a roller-coaster ride. Now, the stage is set for initiatives across multiple media channels – mobile, books, magazines, TV shows etc. Looking forward to lots of action.

Tourism websites

Websites that promote tourism destinations are a breed that I have been observing with interest over the last few years. In the last 2 years or so, a few internet savvy Destinations Marketing Organisations (DMOs) have clearly pulled ahead of the pack in the quality of their online wares. I find today a select bunch of websites so engaging, informative and pulsating with the excitement of vacations that they almost pull me to the destination. For some reason Australia and New Zealand produce great tourism marketing websites. Here are links to a few sites that I find very nice.

Central Australian Tourism

Another interesting site is Doitcaribbean, which is the tourism website of all the caribbean countries. For those of you planning a tour of the west indies, I would strongly recommend checking it out.

(Here is the famous “Where the bloody hell are you” ad from Australian Tourism)

Mobile phones & travel : the Apple iphone alert


(Here is a video showing the features of the recently launched iphone)

To me, the newly announced iphone from Apple signals the first serious move of travel content on to mobile phones. I daresay that in 24 to 36 months, rich interface mobile phones such as the iphone will become the way most of us access, most of the internet, most of the time. Given the high leverage that rich content plays in Leisure travel, it is quite likely that content  on leisure travel will become one of the most consumed elements of the internet on such phones.

Travel TV for India?

It was sometime in 1996 or 1997 that I got an opportunity to anchor Television shows on ABN India (TV18’s pre-cursor to CNBC). It was early days for TV 18 and Raghav Bahl was game to try out a part-timer to anchor shows. The primary lesson I learned then was that News TV was all about creating controversy. I remember Paranjoy tearing his hair out to ensure that he got two appropriate guests for his daily show – the big criterion being that the probability of a fight or at least a heated debate between them should be high!

All this passes through my mind whenever I think of creating a Travel TV outfit – which these days, is often. I think Travel TV is a definite opportunity in India. Here is why. Continue reading

7 Wonders of the World

Remember the list of wonders you learnt as a child in school? Well, the list is about to change. Some of the wonders you knew will get pluto-ed. Others will climb in. All this is being done by a guy called Bernard Weber, a self-confessed film-maker, Art Curator, Aviator and Adventurer. In keeping with the spirit of the times, this is being done by popular vote over the internet or telephone.

I always thought such weighty matters were best decided by white-haired boffins peering short-sightedly over ancient manuscripts. At first blush, it seems strange that extraordinary beauties like the Angkor Vat and Taj Mahal have to win popular votes (like ma Shetty) to have their place in the sun. On second thoughts, I think it is a good idea. My experience with HolidayIQ suggests to me that popular voting, in a world of ubiquotous connectivity, can throw up fairly accurate results. Surowiecki’s thesis on the Wisdom of Crowds is pretty interesting and worth a read for all of us interested in this subject.

Starting HolidayIQ

The opportunity was obvious; in retrospect. After a few months of launching India Resorts Survey, we realised that there were a lot of people who needed the information we were providing, which was guest feedback on holiday accommodation in India. As we did more research with our users, we realised there was a much bigger need. To get information on domestic & international holidays from an Indian perspective. People were not particularly satisfied with the large number of “not-so-professional” Indian travel sites and certainly not comfortable with ‘firang” ones such as Lonely Planet. So the opportunity – we launched HolidayIQ.

The Conde-Nast list

Conde Nast has just released its list of best hotels. Called the Gold List, this is an annual feature that celebrates plush & tony hotels across the world. More Indian hotels are creeping into the ranks of the Gold List. I find that the 2006 list has about 5 hotels that I have stayed in, so there is along way to go. Which is great, I have another target to work toward – this is a huge failing – I need to work all the time to targets. But can you think of a better target to aim for than to stay in 100 or so of the most exclusive hotels in some of the world’s most interesting locations ? Maybe you can; I certainly cannot.