India’s inbound tourism – in search of a ‘new’ paradigm

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Seeking in India

India has always sold itself well to ‘seekers’, never really to ‘indulgers’. And in this lies our inability (not withstanding the regular self congratulatory blurbs emanating from our tourism ministry) to jump-start our inbound tourism.

‘Indulgers’ look for experience and that means they are looking to do something now – the Today matters to them. ‘Seekers’ on the other hand are looking for answers and are very likely to look for them in the past. And practically no country on earth has so much mind-share of Seekers as India.

The real question I guess is – can India be relevant to both?

Top 10 Travel Websites in India

Comscore has reported its independent list of the Top 10 travel websites in India. And HolidayIQ is one of them. And with that, we have joined the leadership group led by the venerable (and massively visited) Indian Railways booking site.

What is particularly gratifying is that HolidayIQ being a niche tourism site with information only relevant for holidays, unlike most of the other sites which offer broad travel or transport solutions/bookings, managed to make it to this list. What is also good for HolidayIQ is the fact that we are probably the only site in that list (excluding of course Indian Railways) that has practically no advertising used to drive its traffic. On the whole, a good place to be :)

Whither Budget Business Hotels in India?

A few years ago, in one of those ritual paroxysms that grip the Indian business community every so often, everyone decided to set up budget hotels across India. As is wont in such circumstances, serial announcements  were made, each one rivaling the previous about the number of rooms that would be set up across India in just 3 to 4 years. And as is wont again, nothing much has happened since.

Let me tell you why.

The basic premise went thus. With India’s economy booming at almost 10% growth every year there was a lot of new business activity expected. Most of this activity would require people to travel resulting in a huge¬† increase in the demand for mid-range and economy hotels for these itinerant business men. Given that the current capacity was all in low-end, dirty (nay, mostly filthy) ‘lodges’ that sprout next to bus stands and railway stations, there was clearly an opportunity to provide clean, hygienic, smart hotels that would provide great accommodation at a compelling price point.

Unfortunately, the script has not quite worked out the way it was intended to. Uptake has been sluggish for the few hotels that managed to get launched. And it has left a number of highly-paid heads being scratched vigorously (mostly of people who have never ever done low-end business travel in India themselves).

To understand why the whole things has been a damp squib, a good starting place would be to deconstruct the basic premise I outlined earlier. The hypothesis had the following elements:

1. Indian economy will grow

2. That will lead to massive growth in business travel

3. Most of this additional travel will be in the mid to lower end of the market

4. Evolving consumers will demand a new product in business travel accommodation

5. This ‘new’ product will be ‘hygienic, smart, functional’ rooms at around Rs 1000/- per night cost

My guess is that the first four elements of the hypothesis turned out to be broadly correct although probably much lesser in extent or speed than envisaged in business plans. Extensive reading of hotel reviews on HolidayIQ, lots of conversations with actual consumers and my own personal experience of low-end business travel back in my CA student days suggests to me that the problem is primarily in point 5 above.

We all agree that the average Indian budget business hotel (the ‘lodges’ we talked about) is extremely unhygienic and generally unkempt. But that is to miss the primary value they provide. In addition to providing a room with a bed to sleep on, these lodges provide travellers with a perception of being important. In classic Indian ‘high touch’ style, there are multiple minions (the quintessential ‘chhotus’) who hover around the traveller and cling on to every word and take barked orders with meek accetance and generally scurry about. This sense of finally being a VIP is the biggest value provided by small business hotels to small businessmen. And it is precisely this value that has been lost in the new breed of hotels. With their policy of no room service and general parsimony towards having employees, this new breed of ‘hygienic and smart’ hotels are exactly what their target customer wants to avoid. After all, who wants to walk into a people-less hotel and realise that one is truly unimportant.

And in this lies their failure.

Accessible Travel

I had never really thought of it before; the needs of the disabled when they travel. While traipsing around India in the last 10 days (I did Bangalore to Chennai to Bangalore to Delhi to Chennai to Tanjore to Chennai to Bangalore, which explains my disappearance from this blog for some time), I came across the group that was in India for a series of conferences on Accessible Travel, which is short-hand for ‘doing all of those things that help disabled travellers travel easier’.

Met a couple of interesting people that evening in Delhi – guys who are opening up a world of easier travel for the disabled.

Scott Rains : Scott is the man who put the disabled on the world agenda. He coined practically all the phrases that are today the cornerstones of all discourse on disability, including Universal Design. In fact, almost all US legislation on disability has the Rains imprimatur. Read Scott’s writings at the Rolling Rains report here.

Craig Grimes : Craig was the first person to demonstrate conclusively that the disabled are a definite ‘market’ in world travel. While living in Barcelona, Craig set up AccessibleBarcelona, a tour operator focused on helping the disabled have a good holiday in Barcelona. And made it into a viable and vibrant business. Craig now lives in Nicaragua and is at it again. Check out his latest venture – AccessibleNicaragua.

I also met Jani Nayar of Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality in NY. They are a Non-profit that works to increase awareness of the needs of the disabled for Travel.

A common theme that ran through all of the conversation was the notion that disabled travellers form a large market. And that it is in the interest of the travel trade to focus on this market and make it easier for the disabled to get around.

Yossi Ghinsberg & HolidayIQ

With almost 150,000 travel maniacs as members, HolidayIQ has been bombarded with the question of organising some kind of a get-together for members. So, finally we decided to take a small step and have a cocktails & dinner evening in Mumbai. We also got Yossi Ghinsberg, one of the better known international motivation speakers to be a focal point of the evening. Not as a motivational speaker, but as a traveller and a nomad which is what Yossi’s true passion is.

So, a couple of Fridays ago, about 50 of us trooped into a room at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai and had a great time.

Yossi spoke of his travels worldwide. About his longstanding love affair with the Bedouins. And how he went to the remotest island in the Pacific. And many more. While each story stuck in my mind, a couple of points he made about travel really resonated with me.

He said he always travels alone, since that is the only way to connect with the place and the people. I find this absolutely true and this is what I do every time I ‘travel’ (ie. when I am not taking a vacation with my family). Incidentally, Paul Theroux mentioned something similar in a recent talk – read related posts here & here.

Yossi also said he uses the Lonely Planet each time he travels – and he uses it in a pretty unique way. He decides on a country to go and then looks up the Lonely Planet and reads it from cover to cover . Then he finds a place on the map of the country that is NOT covered in the Lonely Planet. He goes there. The idea, he said, was to go to places that even backpackers don’t get to. That is when you see the real country.

Yossi lives in Byron Bay in Australia, a place I went to about a year ago. Of course, I didn’t know Yossi then and so didn’t meet him. But I now have an invite from him to visit Byron Bay & since it is one of the more beautiful places I have been to, I just might take him up on it sometime.

Requiem for an airport

(The world has gone away…)

They closed it down last week; the old HAL airport in Bangalore, that is. I was there on its last day to say farewell. And in spite of all its inadequacies (there were too many), I felt not a little sadness. It is small, impersonal events such as this that sometimes tell me how much the world we are all so familiar with is now coming to a close.

In a decade, I am sure India will have spanking infrastructure in most of its cities and the misery of trying to lead a highly productive life in the midst of such crumbling old world infrastructure would be a thing of the past. Indeed, it is our generation that has borne the brunt of it, since most of us would have lived a good part of our life in the cusp between ‘third-world’ and ‘advanced’. What that also means is that we will be the last generation to remember India ‘the way it was’.

As I watch my sons grow up, I am relieved that the India we are moving into will probably give them everything they need to ‘succeed’ without the daily struggle we are all so familiar with. But, I am definitely left with a niggling thought that there were a few things that we had good in ‘the old times’. Such as not needing to choose too much (for example in my childhood, Indians cars came in 2 models – Fiat and Ambassador and in about 4 colours!). Or walking across to the cranky, neighborhood kirana guy for a toothpaste (you will now probably go to a Reliance outlet where the salesman will paste on a plastic smile & wish you ‘a good day’ – God forbid!)

Anyway, to come back to the old HAL airport. Over the last 10 years (almost 8 of which I have lived in Bangalore), I have probably used the airport about 500 times. And I still cannot get over my first experience (circa 1997) of returning from a hot & dusty Delhi to a wonderful cool breeze late in the evening in Bangalore and walking across the tarmac to a little terminal in which my 50 odd co-passengers were the only souls about.

Sorry baby, I loved you in my own way, but I gotta let you go now. That is the way of the world.

Planning a holiday abroad? Book your hotel online.

Over the last few weeks I have had a number of people asking me various doubts on planning an independent international holiday & particularly about booking hotels abroad. So, till such time as HolidayIQ launches a comprehensive international section (don’t worry, that is coming soon & I promise, it will be a great planning tool), here is a quick primer on how to book hotels & resorts abroad.

I am an online guy, so my first preference is always to book hotels online. With both Travelocity and Expedia launching India sites, the widest international hotel inventory is available to be booked from India and paid in Rupees. So, it sure beats your neighbourhood travel agent hollow. And since both sites have an Indian call centre, one can also talk to a real person in India to double check your bookings, which is often a real comfort.

I stress-tested booking a family room (4 people, 2 adults and 2 kids) at Orlando – in or around Disneyworld – on both the sites. Both Expedia & Travelocity did a good job and threw up a number of options (although Travelocity gave funny error messages & repeatedly failed in my Firefox browser which was a disappointment). However, Expedia’s search methodology was a shade more user-friendly since it allows you to find hotels by naming the Attraction you want to go to and throws up hotels around the attraction. Of course, both Travelocity & Expedia also allow you to narrow the list of hotels in the search results by distance or ease of access to the attraction.

Both excelled in prices. Hotel room prices around Disneyworld started in Expedia at Rs 1386 per night and in Travelocity at Rs 1583 per night. Continue reading

HolidayIQ launches XChange

HolidayIQ has finally gone Live with India’s largest Travel Forums, where travellers can post holiday questions and get them answered by other travellers. With a forum each for 287 Indian destinations and all countries on earth, HolidayIQ XChange is obviously one of the most comprehensive Travel Forums anywhere in the world. But the real satisfaction is in having done every bit of the planning & implementation of this significant upgrade completely in-house. Everything from planning the specs to detailing the User Interface and completely planning and executing the technology backbone, the team has not had to call on any external support. Obviously, this is a sign of a rapidly maturing internet organisation.

The intial feedback has been very positive. And I find myself quite hooked on to it too.