Customer Focus : Why Indian online travel space is not with it, mostly

This post is NOT a rant, but something that highlighted how difficult it is to really understand the business you’re in, and serve the needs of the customer, not what you think you should be selling!

A short story, to start with (mine)

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I’ve recently gotten involved with The Tour of Nilgiris as a volunteer to help organize the 09 edition. This year, one major focus area is to up the level of accommodation provided to the riders and support team, as compared to the previous edition. Being a little connected to the startup world, I thought it might be a good opportunity to provide some startups an opportunity to showcase themselves, and the difference they can make.

The target audience, in this particular instance, is just perfect : upwardly mobile, made-it-in-life audience willing to pay for convenience, travels, is adventurous, and usually, invariably online (which is otherwise a big pain point for Indian startups trying to get to the right TG).

So, I dashed out a couple of mails to startups I thought might be interested and able to help out with the accommodation on the Tour.

The brief : we’re 90 ppl and need to book acco for each day of the tour (7 nights). Promised to provide publicity for both the hotel as well as the hotel-partner (TFNs gotten a huge number of enthusiasts and media support, and thats growing all the time) and need very competitive pricing (provided rates we’d negotiated thus far) and a end-to-end solution in return.

Guess what ?

Startup 1: Got lost in the “response” process! 🙂 Auto genearted mail, with a ticket number and everything, and a couple of SMSes confirming that someone was looking at the same! No real responses though – at all!
Startup 2: Personal email to a couple of the guys running the show. Got responses. In a couple of days, mails with rates that were actually worse than what we managed ourselves. Re-emphasized that we wanted an end to end solution, and that with a certain %age of costs shaved they’d be the hospitality partners – included in all communication. The response was astounding – I was given some soundbytes on how, instead of the usual 10%, we were being charged only 5% by the startup over the hotel’s rates. That, as you can imagine, was that!

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The trouble is, the users are looking to travel for a purpose, and the journey/hotel is one piece of the whole experience. They want to be assured of a certain quality and wants a no-hassle experience. And all thats on offer is inventory, with some lip gloss on top by way of an interface, and possibly sorted by this or that.

What about the guy who wants to fly to Delhi from Madurai and may be open to combination of either a bus+flight or a train+flight ? From either Chennai or Bangalore. What about the NRI-in-India-for-a-month traveling to 3-4 destinations who’d hire a car, a cell, take a couple of domestic flights, perhaps a holiday to some destination while here, maybe even love to have a data card ?
Your users are looking for very different things. Playing “agent” for a ticket trasaction, or a hotel reservation, is hardly what I’d call sticky, or a customer delight strategy.

What is the value that you’re creating ? For OTAs – and there are almost as many as airlines – its even fuzzier these days without a deal or discount. Not long term at all, I’d imagine.
And please do not talk to me about the reduction in your cut as a benefit – I really could not care less about that!

What has been your experience with Indian OTAs? Apart from transactional benefit, do they add any value?

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