Innovate, Empathize, Remove Conjecture: The Post-Covid Way Forward for Indian Travel Businesses

There is a lot of anger brewing over the last year among everyone who’s livelihoods depend on Indian travel businesses, which contributes to 8% of the total employment in the country and a whopping US$234 billion towards India’s total GDP. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the tourism sector in India, as it has done throughout the world. It forced many large and small businesses to shut shop and hundreds of thousands lost their livelihoods. It was rather shocking for me to receive a call from a renowned tour operator one day, selling, not tours, but PPE kits and sanitization solutions.

The smoldering anger among the Indian travel business community is justified. Despite being such a large-scale employer in a country still struggling with unemployment, COVID or no COVID, and despite contributing so much to the national GDP, the governments at the centre and the states have largely turned a blind eye at the travel businesses. There has been no tourism recovery plan, and there is nothing that seems to come in the near or even far future. The travel businesses have not been given the financial lifeline they so badly need to stay in business and keep paying their employees. The national and state tourism boards, the tourism advocacy groups, travel agents’ associations all seem to have been immobilized by the shock and havoc wreaked by COVID-19 in the industry and have remained clueless about advocacy and a proper recovery plan.

But there is another problem, which I think will be a much larger challenge to navigate if we are to find a sustainable, profitable path to tourism recovery in India. This challenge is more embedded in the psyche of travel businesses, especially the companies who had been in the “field” longer. I see a sense of stasis everywhere. I see a lot of conjecture, a lot of angry shouting on social media about the lack of support from the government for tourism companies. What I do not see from almost everyone of them is introspection. For example, when domestic tourism briefly returned last winter between the first and the second waves of the pandemic, the tour companies went on auto-reset. They went right back into selling the same old itineraries, using the same old brand and pushy advertisement strategies. What was missing in all of this rush to make money in the small window of feast after a long famine, was out-of-the-box thinking and lack of empathy for the customers. There was almost no acknowledgement that travel was changing, and it is changing for good. How people travel, where people go, what they see, and who they choose to go with are changing and transforming. I saw a lot of sneers from travel companies about people who chose to take control on their own travel and decided to book directly without going through agencies.

For example, when numerous backpackers got stuck at Bagdogra Airport on their way to Darjeeling and beyond, because the cars were asking for exorbitant prices, or their pre-booked transport decided not to show up because they got a more lucrative deal elsewhere, I saw gloating throughout my social media, in several travel agency groups. The central theme was that these backpackers who dared to circumvent the travel companies and booked their trip by themselves they deserved to be harassed. This sadistic attitude made me sad, but also flagged up the problem of sticking to, and expecting your potential customers to stick to a tried and tested conventional method even after travel has radically changed in the last couple of years. Conventional doesn’t work in travel. Conventional will probably kill you.

So if you are a travel business in India, here’s my two cents about what you can do. First, you need to accept that a relief and turnaround package from the government, central or the states, may never becoming. So hold that penny that you have. Spend it with caution. At Immersive Trails, we spend more on retaining our colleagues, because they are the heart and soul of our company. We only spend it on advertisement if we think we can make 5-10 times the return from the amount we spent on each ad. Also, social media ads are cheaper, if you know how to target the right people. Much cheaper than print media and placards. If you do not know how to target the right audience, learn to do it yourself. This is the time to introspect on your weaknesses and turn them into your strengths through learning. Hiring a social media management agency might make you bleed money, and they may not send out the right message to your potential customers. You know your company best, so do it yourself! Your staff is more important than your ads. Imagine what will happen if a team you built with your, and their blood and sweat, falls apart because you spent more money to get more eyeballs on your brand, but actually didn’t do enough to keep your company together.

Second, use this time to innovate and empathize. Watch, and deeply research changing customer behaviours. Make travel safe for your potential customers by enacting a well laid out COVID-19 protocol, and then acting it out to the tee. Compromising the safety of those who entrust their travel experience to you to save a few bucks for your company is criminal, and should not be done. Empathize with your customers. Put yourself and your team in the shoes of your customers, ask yourselves what you would like to do if you wanted to travel during the pandemic and beyond? How would you feel safe? What would make it convenient for you to make that decision to travel? Why should you travel with your company? Become more of a travel consultant and not a travel agent. I know you might already call yourself and your team members “travel consultants” , but are you really being a consultant, or is that just a title? Act the title.

What worked in travel before the pandemic, might not, and probably will not work now and in the long-term post pandemic. Invest in the right technology to making a decision to travel with your company easier for a potential customer. Proper confluence of cutting edge travel tech and non-tech elements is going to be the future of any travel product you create. What does that customer journey look like from the time they know about your brand to the time they decide to book a tour with you? Does the customer journey end with their booking? I beg to disagree. The journey of a customer with your brand should be long term, eternal, if possible. How can you achieve that? No, spamming their emails with constant updates, and their mobiles and WhatsApp with unnecessary text messages is not the way. That brings more disgust than loyalty. How can you create a community out of your customers? Again, empathy is the key.

Finally, and this is most important, get away from all the conjecture. Run away as far as possible. Yes, you are right to feel angry because of the government inaction. But conjecturing about that, arguing about that, writing angry posts about that on social media will not get you anywhere. Use that time to focus on your company. Focus on introspecting, keeping your team together, knowing your customer, innovating and building new products. Conjecture might give you a fellow feeling in crisis, but that is a false sense of comfort. You know you are not the only one struggling, but you can be among the few who can come out the other end of this crisis dazzling! So let’s do it.

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Tathagata Neogi

Dr Tathagata Neogi is the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Leader of Immersive Trails, a purpose-driven company based out of Kolkata, India that converts ethical, in-depth research into immersive experiences. Tathagata is a vocal advocate of empathic, ethical, community focused business practices.

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