The Singapore Dialogue

The Singapore Dialogue

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When an event promises the heady mix of travel and innovation, with stalwarts like Deep Kalra and Bart Bellers, it is not one to be missed. I am referring to The Singapore Dialogue – Innovation in Travel conference that took place on 3rd September 2015.

Deep Kalra started the morning by putting in context the history of innovation in travel in India in the last 12 years. According to him, the game changer for the travel industry was IRCTC starting online booking in 2003. Until then, the system of booking railway tickets was troublesome for travellers. Standing in queues, uncertainty about availability by the time it was your turn and travelling to a ticketing centre were some of the issues travellers faced. Online ticketing changed all of this. From 27 tickets on the day of launch, IRCTC now sells over 0.5 million tickets a day! A whopping 53% of total tickets sold online are on IRCTC. Apart from the ease of booking, being a government backed company, they infused confidence in the minds of Indians to start using their credit cards online.

The next really big innovation that Deep discussed was e-ticketing. In the year 2008, e-tickets became mandatory, which currently accounts for 50% of all air ticketing. Who would have thought physical flight tickets would become a collector’s item!

Both IRCTC and e-ticketing gave the much needed impetus to OTAs like MakeMyTrip (MMT) to launch online ticketing for inbound travel in India. Until then MMT was catering only to the NRI market since its launch in 2005.

Since rail and air travel was gaining so much momentum, how could road stay far behind. With the launch of RedBus by Co-Founders Charan Padmaraju, Phanindra Sama, Sudhakar Pasupunuri, travelling by buses became accessible to many more Indians.

While travelling was increasing and more players kept entering the space, it was important to evaluate the genuineness of the services offered. Thats where TripAdvisor came in, introducing reviews for travel products and services. The similar company for reviews in India is HolidayIQ. The credibility to a place goes up considerably when recommended by a friend. That is what reveiws did to for the travel industry, gave travellers the confidence to experience places recommended by fellow travellers.

Going ahead, 2011 saw the launch of cab aggregators like Ola and Taxi4Sure. They made travel more convenient, especially when travelling outside your city, where one doesn’t have the access to their vehicle.

Deep spoke about Meta-search sites like Google, Kayak and Ixigo. They empower a traveller to make a booking decision because of transparency of information.

Another innovation in the travel space could be last minute booking, where the perishable inventory of an unused air seat or hotel room is leveraged in an efficient way. Bigger brands are hesitant to build this model as it may dilute their brand equity, however this may change in time to come.

With modes of travel flying ahead, influencing people to travel more, the next need for a traveller is accomodation. That is where alternate accommodation joined in. According to Deep, the size of the alternate accommodation market in India is larger than hotels market. He estimated the hotel market to be over 50,000 hotels whereas homestays or alternate accommodation options exceed 100,000.

Keeping with the same vein, budget hotels are gaining traction. The impressive execution speed of OYO Rooms, with 1500 hotels already under their label has set the market rolling. Treebo, FabHotels, Zo rooms are some of the other players in the budget hotels category.

While the telephone and internet infrastructure helped technology reach India, what really brought technology in the hands of Indians was the mobile phones and smartphones. These devices brought computing power in the hands of many Indians for the first time, thus opening up their minds to another new world altogether.

The internet also enabled concepts like GPS and online maps which made travel more easy. Innovations like social media, secure online payments, mobile wallets for those who did not have a credit or debit card helped the travel market boom further.

Digital photography upgraded the economy traveller to business class with absolute freedom to the number of pictures to be taken. The travellers’ experience was further enhanced with the introduction of call centres for customer and service and support, most being accessible 24×7.

After giving us his perspective on the history of travel innovation in India, Deep discussed the way ahead and opportunities to explore in the industry. According to him, the shared economy was only poised to grow bigger. The largest source of homes for AirBnB comes from guests who have been users on AirBnB. Once they experience the hospitality, they want to become hosts themselves. It is not uncommon to find hosts who are sharing a room while their kids are away for education.

The smartphone revolution accompanied with big data allows companies to personalise offerings according to your taste and location. Therefore, notifications via an app will get more relevant in the days to come.

Many travel services are turning mobile only. eg: Hotel Tonight founder Sam Shank took 2 years to build his model. He was sure he wanted it to be mobile only because all he needed was the traveller’s location to book a room.

The vernacular market in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities is set to unleash the next big wave in travel.

Augmented reality and wearables will connect us much more. They can guide and hand hold us in a difficult terrain, making technology a travel enabler.

Lastly, predictive modelling will become increasingly common where companies use big data to forecast flight fares, the direction in which room rates are going to move.

With the online travel market growing in double digits, travel demand increasing in high single digits and MMT posting a 212% growth in hotel room bookings in Apr to Jun 2015, the way ahead for the travel market is only upwards.

On that enthusiastic note, the session moved on to Bart Sellers, Asia Pacific Head for Amadeus, who shared the global perspective on innovation in travel.

While Deep Kalra, CEO and Founder of MakeMyTrip started the session with giving us a history of innovation in travel in India in the last 12 years, Bart Sellers gave us a 360 degree perspective of the awesomeness that awaits the travel industry.

Bart Sellers is Senior Advisor, Corporate Strategy – Asia Pacific for Amadeus. With experience in the travel industry for over 25 years and someone who is travelling for most part of the year, Bart stimulated his talk with examples from his travels.

According to him, the 5 factors that will shape innovation in travel in the years to come are:

  1. Mobile
  2. Internet of things (IoT)
  3. Personalisation
  4. Sharing economy
  5. Going green

India is by far the largest growing startup system in the world. ‘In order to innovate, one has to be disruptive. In order to disrupt, you need to destroy.’ Bart’s session started with this power statement.

He gave us the example of Kodak. The company spent decades building a business in photography, only to demolish 45 buildings because they were built around technology that became obsolete. Both digital cameras and smartphones brought about disruption, killing the business of photography as it were, built over decades. At the same time, they made the art accessible to a larger audience, thereby increasing the size of the industry.

‘The next disruption in travel is your customer,’ another power statement by Bart in the context that travellers have the power of social media. This can serve as a double edged sword. It is important to listen to what travellers are saying and the gaps they face in the industry. The Blackberry CEO had once opined on the iPhone. According to him,’Try typing on an iPhone. You can’t even see what you are typing.’ It is obvious that they were in complete denial of the change in customer wants and the direction in which the market was moving.

Zodiac Aerospace has applied for a patent for their newly designed seating system in plane cabins. Instead of sitting in next to each other, the company has recommended hexagonal style seats which enable travellers to face each other while flying. The concept was knocked down on the internet with users calling it an evil attempt, cargo of humans and other terms. Therefore, Bart referred to the times as the Age of Traveller Power.

How many of us have experience baggage issues while travelling? Either the bag is misplaced or delayed in transit. Bart had a similar experience from his trip to Bali, where his luggage did not arrive at the airport. He had a connecting boat to catch to an island in Indonesia. The problem at hand led to a solution. Bags by BlueSmart. Since the airline refused to deliver the bag, Internet of Things could provide an answer. With a BlueSmart bags, the user gets an alert once the bag is landed. The bag can then notify an Uber taxi and have it delivered to it’s owner. Revolutionary indeed.

In the context of the sharing economy, companies like AirBnB, Ola, Uber stand testimony to the fact that the user base is only going to increase. It also supports the cause of going green through optimum use of resources.

This concept will see greater and more complimentary collaborations in the days to come. Uber has already committed to Elon Musk, that if Tesla’s cars are fully autonomous by 2020, then Uber will buy all 500,000 cars and convert them to Uber taxis. Not only will the taxis be connected and talk to each other, this will help bring down the rate of accidents caused due to human intervention.

Bart ended his session with a power statement yet again. He said, ‘Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.’ He explained that travellers will select trips based on the impact it has on mother nature. And companies who can customise their offerings according to the changing needs of the traveller will be the ones to hitch their wagons to the star of success. In the context of going green, Bart shared that Kochi is the world’s first airport to be completely operated on solar power.

With a thought for every stakeholder, from the entrepreneur and customer to the environment and technology, Bart’s session laid the tenets on the basis of which, today’s companies will be successful tomorrow.

After hearing Deep Kalra and Bart Sellers discuss trends and opportunities in the travel industry, I was curious to see which companies had made it to the Innovation Spotlight. More than 105 companies applied to showcase their startup at the event. Of them, 3 were selected to present and the winner received free return tickets to ITB-Asia, one of the largest travel meetups taking place in Marina Bay Sands in October.

The first company was Audio Compass. An interesting version of being touristy, having an audio guide via an app take you through the highlights of the place you are visiting.

The second company, O Rahi is a ride share service, which incentivises the car owner as well as the hitchhiker. It helps the two connect through the mobile app and gps tracking service.

The winning company was Myles which is a convenient facility to pick up and drop a car in any part of India, while travelling. With an option of a variety of car models to choose from, the founders encouraged the audience to avoid owning a car, rather rent it from Myles.

Dilshad Masters, Co-Founder Farinto.com, summed up the spirit of travel with an anecdote from her Everest Base Camp Trek. Enroute, the group members kept asking their guide about the duration and difficulty of the upcoming terrain. One day, after being asked the same question, Godambi, the guide answered, ‘Nepali flat madam, little up, little down!’.

With interesting panel discussions on consumer behaviour, new age digital marketing, funding for startups in travel and lots more, the Singapore Dialogue provided insight about startups in travel, in India and the Asia pacific region.

And just as the evening moved to networking and cocktails, I couldn’t help but feel that for the travel industry in India, abhi toh party shuru hui hai!

The Singapore Dialogue
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