“If you want to succeed, find the right people to build up a strong team”
Our current edition brings into the spotlight the Co-Founder of the TBO Group and the Managing Director of TBO Holidays, Gaurav Bhatnagar. We had the pleasure to discuss about the many challenges his business faced, how business has shifted in 2020 and what to expect from the entire travel industry in the upcoming years.
As we already know, the culture that you build is crucial to your business. There cannot be a successful company without the right people to build it up. And that is exactly what TBO aimed for during this crisis. They have focused on building a team strong enough to always stay together, to overcome the challenges they would experience and to embrace their vision and dedication.
Let’s discuss about TBO. If you would pitch TBO Holidays, what would your pitch be? How are you different? How are you unique from your competitors?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: We are a platform for travel agents, we started 14 years ago as an airline consolidator, based only in India, and since then we have evolved into a multi-product travel agent platform which allows a travel agent to run his business entirely on our platform. So, on the platform you have access to flights, hotels, transports, sightseeing, car rentals, cruises, and travel insurance, pretty much any product that can be sold online and is related to travel. We’ve been around for a long time and we’ve managed to expand in over 100 countries, with more than 70 000 agents all over the world using the platform.
There are several reasons for why I would say that you, as a travel agent, should use our platform:
First of all, it would be the wide range of content that you can get, as our vision is to offer every travel agent the possibility to run their entire business within the TBO platform. And once you have access to the platform, you should not worry about the content anymore.
The second activity that we do is bring a lot of tools to the platform that allow you to automate your processes, making your business easier to manage. For example, if you run multiple branches as a travel agency, with different offices around the world, our system allows you to create links between the locations, allocate different credit limits to those branches, create users, or have control over the processes that take place in those different branches. Another example would be a tool which allows you to send quotations within the platform and track them via a mobile link our customers can access. This also helps us because we get notified when a customer checks his quotation, so we’ll know when to follow up, when to address his immediate needs and how to provide the necessary support.
The third thing is education and that is something we are very serious about. We started the TBO Academy because, as a travel agency or travel agents, we wanted to make sure you are always up to date. One challenge we sometimes face is caused by the internet itself, as our customers have extensive knowledge on destinations, ideas about holidays and that’s why, at TBO, we need to be a step ahead. Another advantage of the TBO Academy is, for example, if you want to extend your business. For example, if you’re trying to sell cruises, as they’re a relatively new business in India, and because your core business has shrunk, you needed to expand your horizons. And with the TBO Academy, you can engage into this new business and learn how to properly do it by attending webinars, enrolling in online courses, expanding your knowledge about selling in the travel industry.
TBO Academy started about 2 years ago and it’s always been a project close to our hearts. We started it as we noticed there was a demand from both travel agencies and suppliers to extend their knowledge about the services they’re selling or providing. Moreover, for the past 12 months, TBO Academy has offered us the possibility to keep our travel agents engaged as they’ve enrolled in many classes and this offered us the possibility to see what classes have a higher demand. For example, we have noticed that our travel agents were interested in Maui/ Mumbai?, one of the destinations that was opened earlier during the crisis. So, what we did is the following: we used the Academy to create courses around this destination, we booked hotels to create webinars around Maui/ Mumbai and to promote the destination through our platform. One interesting and helpful activity we had is a two-days virtual trade show for about 28 hotels and over 2 000 travel agencies in which there were discussions about the hotels, the services they’re offering and how they can create partnerships.
Beyond these travel related courses, during the crisis, TBO Academy has also developed courses on stress management, as it was a difficult period for most of us, or on digital marketing and how to use digital marketing to better run your travel business.
I think one positive aspect of the entire crisis is that people took the time for self-development, they proved that learning never stops and we were happy to have this insight and come up with a helpful hand for those willing to learn. It was amazing to see that over 2 500 people attended one webinar at the same time, in the middle of the lockdown.
Let’s get back in time! March 2020, we can make a clear statement that no one was prepared for what was coming! Every business had to take some decisions and recalibrate the resources, shift the plans! How did you shift your strategy for 2020? What were the main actions taken in the first couple of months?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: Right from the start, from March 2020, we expected the worse, we expected the crisis to be way longer than people thought it would be and with more serious and harmful effects we’ve ever anticipated. The business started to go on a descendant trend, the number of refunds increased and that was the moment we decided to shift our focus, shift to a survival mode, involve the entire organization because there were some actions we had to take in order for TBO to successfully face the crisis.
At that point, we made a couple of commitments to the organizations, with the first one being to keep the team together and to take care of our people. We put our team members’ interests, security and safety over the business and profits so that when the industry will start to revitalize, our team will be ready.
Our next decision was to find ways to turn the crisis into opportunities. It was not clear how in the beginning, but we sure knew we wanted to come out of the crisis stronger and more prepared than before.
In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity. What opportunities were out there for TBO during the last year?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: We used the time well, we build new product lines and developed our corporate self-booking tool - the Umrah booking platform ZamZam, we improved our internal technology systems, basically starting back all the projects we’ve had on hold so far. Interesting enough, we managed to add more customers, so all the credit to the commercial team, and this was a pleasant surprise for us as we did not foresee this.
I think the fact that we are a medium-size company offered us the chance to better manage this transitory period and I’m saying that because I’ve seen large companies not being able to support all their 5 or 6 thousand employees during these times. Also, smaller ones did not have the financial potential to survive without activity. So, the fact that we were somewhere in the middle, with enough finances to not let our team down, made it possible for us to go through the crisis. The flexibility of our organization allows me to sometimes consider us lucky to be in that sweet spot.
How did TBO supported the travel agencies during these 12 months?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: I think one of the most important things we’ve done this whole crisis is that we managed the refunds very well. We had a lot of discussions with airlines, hotels, or other suppliers, but we managed to fulfill our customers’ requests regarding the refunds.
Meanwhile, the number of Zoom calls has also increased as most of us were wondering what will happen with the business and how to tackle the current situation. On this topic, the TBO Academy played an important role as we organized webinars to make plans for when the business will come back, how to keep our customers engaged and how to meet their recent demands.
We are still working with our travel partners to figure out the best ways to solve the credit issues, as the insurance companies are not very keen on securing credits for an increased number of customers, so we had to explain to our insurance partners the relationships we have with our clients, our clients’ backgrounds and why some of them need to exchange their credit agreements. Basically, our focus was towards how to assist the travel agencies to revive their business in order to grow during these new challenging times.
Sustainability of business is on everyone’s minds right now - how are TBO’s goals progressing? And how do you see 2021?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: We have invested significantly to add a lot of senior leadership in our team. Notably, we can talk about 3 new team members: a Global Director of Supply and Partnerships, a Commercial Director for Middle East and Africa and one member for the Hotel Distribution and Automation department. Now our strategy is very clear, rail? is our main focus at the moment as it’s our core business, and we want to continue our growth and strengthen our position on the market.
At the same time, because we are investing so much in … and contracting, we also keep an eye on hotel distribution, especially now that we have expanded this branch of our business in North America and Europe. We were already present in those markets, but our main efforts were not dedicated to these regions.
Other than that, there are 2 new businesses that I’m really excited about. The first is ZamZam, an online portal for completing the full process of Umrah booking including all the accommodation and ground arrangements that is approved by the Ministry of Hajj & Umrah. It is not entirely live at the moment, but I expect this new platform to help our entire business revive soon.
The other product that we’ve created is Paxes, a self-booking tool for corporates. This tool is exclusively used by TMCs because, in my opinion, the business travel industry will be the last to get back on track, as most companies still run their activities from home, and it will take some time to reach its previous peak. Moreover, the companies that choose to send their employees on business trips will be more selective when booking and arranging those trips.
As a TMC, your main concern is cost related, with most TMCs’ business models being based on the fees they perceive from the corporations they’re servicing, but now, with a significantly reduced volume of inquiries, TMCs need to adopt technology to remain sustainable. Our hope is that the self-booking tool that has been waited for years will come in handy for the travel agencies as it will reduce the operating costs and will free some agents of the booking tasks as it’s a self-booking tool.
What are the most important criteria when selecting business partners for recommending tech providers? How do you see the role of technology in addressing travel recovery?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: Technology is the heart of our company, because we’re a tech company first, then a travel one, our motto being: “technology inspiring travel”. Tech is very important to us and reliable and strong tech partners are a vital part of the travel distribution system as it’s a system that’s more complex than it might first appear.
People might think it’s just selling a hotel room, but there are so many players involved because for the user to get an offer for a hotel room, there are many accommodation suppliers involved, tech players that offer the online platform, an online payment processing company, and so on. Point being that we need strong partners within the entire distribution chain, partners that understand technology, that have it in their DNA, that are able to scale with us and that can get serious about details such as the response time of a software or mapping. These aspects are critical in any moment of the day for the proper functioning of the distribution chain.
At TBO, we’re always analyzing how this distribution chain works and if anything is missing from it. For example, we’re thinking of a booking that could have happened but did not because something has failed. We’re trying to focus on that failing element and improve it to make sure the next time we’re going to deliver our services better for the customers. And this passion for accuracy is something we’re looking for into a partner.
How do you see the next 5 years for the travel industry?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: I think and hope that the travel industry will restore soon, and we can notice that the people are willing and impatient to travel. In India, for example, the volume of domestic travel is back on its track, and in the U.S., it exceeded the volume that was before Covid-19. So, the general perception is that people want to travel, they have started travelling but only to the areas that allow them to.
That’s why I think that there will be a massive increase in bookings especially at the beginning of a more normal period, when most of the restrictions and safety risks would vanish. But this can also have a drawback as many airlines have given up their airplanes or reduced the human resource as a cost-reduction solution. This might take a while to get back to the previous state, but the airline companies would be delighted to have more requests than they have anticipated. The end user can be affected as well because the prices of the services might increase in an attempt of getting the industry back on its feet. It’s going to be a challenging period, but it will be worth the struggle.
What advice do you have for any CEO today from the travel industry?
Gaurav Bhatnagar: As the travel industry faces difficult times, there are more factors to consider when building a sustainable and strong company. But if I were to choose one essential step we have followed was to keep the team together. It was difficult for all of us to accept the changes we had to undergo, but in the end, we managed to stay strong together. Our team had the opportunity to consolidate with new experienced members, leaders in their markets and that’s what anyone who wants to succeed has to do: become stronger together.