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How New-Age Tech Powers Services And Engagement To Revive Travel Startups In Covid Times

In 2019, travel and tourism accounted for more than $9 Bn of the global GDP or 10.4%; in the pandemic-hit 2020, it came down to 5.5% or a little more than $4 Bn

Amid the complete shutdown of operations, industry players started focussing on innovation and customer experience

Working with more than 40 brands in the travel and hospitality space, marketing automation firm WebEngage is providing customised solutions to its clients

More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, most industry segments had been pushed to the brink and a few failed to get back on the survival track. But the majority of businesses in India quickly pivoted and tweaked their operations to offset their losses and meet the requirements of the new normal. However, the travel and hospitality sector was hit the hardest during the pandemic, losing nearly three-quarters of its revenue that could amount up to INR 15 Lakh Cr.

Once among the country’s fastest-growing sectors (contributing over $247 Bn in the country’s GDP in 2018 and expected to reach $500 Bn by 2029), its revenue turned to zilch as soon as the pandemic hit India and nationwide lockdowns followed. The subsequent cancellations also affected the sector’s revenue of the previous quarters.

India was not an exception. The brunt was borne at a global level. Travel and tourism accounted for more than $9 Bn, or 10.4% of the global GDP in 2019. A year later, it was down to 5.5%, or a little more than $4 Bn. According to a 2020 statement by the World Travel and Tourism Council, the pandemic could wipe off 50 Mn jobs across this industry, and Asia was expected to be the worst affected.

“Calling this environment harsh is a kind word! This has meant a death sentence to many of the big brands built over the past few decades,” said Srinath Shankar, cofounder of Chennai-based Pickyourtrail, an OTA providing tailor-made international vacations.

As if the past year’s troubles were not enough, the Union Budget 2021 also proved to be a huge disappointment for many players who were expecting some relaxation and support from the government. Worse still, a second wave of the pandemic swept the country just three months into 2021, once again upsetting people’s travel plans and impacting the revival and growth strategies of the businesses in this space. Add to that the fast-changing travel policies and restrictions worldwide, and the reality becomes grim enough. 

Given this scenario, what may keep the businesses going is “the pent-up demand is going to be real when all this is over, and all the competitors will start from zero”, said Hari Ganapathy cofounder, Pickyourtrail.

The Operational Challenge: A Travel And Hospitality Playbook In Corona Times

There is no denying that nations and industries across the globe had never faced a crisis similar to the ongoing pandemic. But the travel and hospitality industry had earlier dealt with the consequences of fast-spreading health hazards such as the SARS epidemic of 2002 and the H1N1 swine flu in 2009.

With the current pandemic bringing business operations and revenues down to zero, most industry players are now focussing on optimising internal operations and developing unique measures to ensure safe and hassle-free travel, better customer service (by leveraging tech) and personalised travel management.

When quizzed about the focus of the businesses at a time when no revenue generation could take place, Sunil Suresh, chief marketing officer at the Goibibo group, elaborated, “Even during the pandemic we focussed on three areas. First, we determined what we needed to do to take care of the concerns of our customers. Second, we looked at the health of our business and focused on optimising costs. And third, we focussed on finding opportunities amidst the adversities.”

For the likes of Pickyourtrail working on survival strategies, these focus points vary a little. “For us, it is all about how to engage with customers and retain goodwill; second, how to show our employees the exciting future ahead and keep the morale high, and third, how can we be more transparent about our assessments with the investors and be bold with our goals,” explained Shankar.

In essence, innovation and consumer focus happens to be the most crucial survival factors for those who want to counter the Covid waves. Rohit Dasgupta, cofounder and CEO of Gurugram-based EazyDiner that provides restaurant listing and online table booking services, concurred. “Last year, when all restaurants in India were closed overnight due to lockdown, we utilised the time to develop new features and improve the existing ones on the platform. It benefited our customers and helped our (restaurant) partners as we were doing something innovative and consumer-focussed,” he said.

Dasgupta added that the product and tech teams at EazyDiner were able to set up and push forward the delivery and takeaway business vertical in about two months. 

Such timely strategies adopted by these businesses enabled them to counter the pandemic and ensure that they were able to revive at least some part of their operations.

In fact, Pickyourtrail told Inc42, that it used to clock 150% YoY in the pre-Covid times and managed to reach nearly 80% of that sum in March 2021. EazyDiner also said that it is now back to almost 75% of the pre-Covid level business despite the low number of restaurants being operational now. Marketing, too, had taken a backseat during lockdowns, but companies feel it is time to focus on the same for a cutting-edge advantage even before the race begins in earnest.

The Communication Challenge: The Need For Intelligent User Engagement In A Crisis 

Customer focus is the lifeblood of the travel and hospitality space. Even during the pandemic, looking after their interests helps strengthen a brand’s value and creates a loyal user base. For instance, when tours and travels or dining-out options are mostly out of bounds, assisting people in navigating through booking cancellations or refunds-claiming can become most important for businesses. Their timely initiatives ensure that customer experience remains seamless and hassle-free. It also means companies need to take customer interaction and engagement up a notch or two in these critical times.

“The first wave had the entire industry at a standstill, we have many major clients from across the globe and most of their messaging was reduced by 95%. Our CRMs worked very closely with these brands to figure out solutions to staying in the minds of the consumers when they are not even thinking about travel. And so the approach had shifted entirely from thinking about what has happened to what is the future and how we could make it better,” Swati Singh, AVP, product marketing, WebEngage.

According to WebEngage, a Mumbai-based marketing automation platform with a focus on this industry since its inception in 2010, the customer engagement strategy of travel brands has undergone a 180-degree change. 

“With the onset of the pandemic, players across the travel and hospitality sector lost a significant chunk of their traffic almost instantly. Forget about engagement; they were not getting any volume or any footfall on their websites or apps. So, the campaigns they would generally use to try and capture users’ attention went out of the window,” said Priyam Jha, AVP, brand marketing, WebEngage.

How these businesses countered the pandemic and scripted communications were a testament to this change. In conversation with many industry leaders, Inc42 realised that almost all players shifted their focus from deals and discounts (in all fairness, such sales triggers became obsolete in the wake of the pandemic) to news, trends and updates of the pandemic as it unfolded across the globe.

WebEngage, which worked with more than 40 brands globally during the entire period, told Inc42 that in sync with the scenarios that came about, especially during the horrors of the second wave in 2021 across India, brands opted for a softer approach in all their messages and communications to their loyal user base. 

For example, it told Inc42 that a clutch of local and global leaders from the industry, including Goibibo, Travel Triangle, Yatra, Wego and more, started raising awareness regarding the Covid-19 pandemic to keep people up to date in uncertain times. Most of the brands featured information on the countries that eased restrictions or extended curbs, regulations, travel advisories, best places to work from home and more.

Incidentally, WebEngage works with more than 12 brands across the Indian subcontinent, including Goibibo, Pickyourtrail, Travel Triangle, Yatra, Headout, EazyDiner, among its clients. Thanks to its vast Asian portfolio, the marketing automation platform has always understood the requirements of these brands better than others and provided targeted solutions for the best possible outcomes. In fact, the company has been putting together its learnings gathered over the years by working with these top players. It is now offering customised solutions derived from that knowledge base.

“Travel and hospitality has been a big part of our brand portfolio. I would date it back to the inception days,” said Jha on the recent launch of these solutions.

How WebEngage Helps

“Having worked with brands for such a long time, the idea to create a custom-built industry solution had always been around. We combined our learnings and solutions from over the years, tweaked them to resonate with the pandemic-induced shift in the markets, formalised it and launched the WebEngage For OTA,” added Singh.

Clubbing its knowledge, insights, learnings and expertise of over the years and incorporating some additional features, WebEngage has launched travel and hospitality-specific solutions. These solutions are leveraged to help brands deal with engagement challenges. 

“Identifying the right set of trigger points is tricky. There needs to be a balance between frequency and relevance for each customer segment. On top of that, the content has to be hyper-personalised based on a customer’s needs, and it requires recommendation models to be in place. Given these challenges, we must seek the right solutions, and thus WebEngage is essential for us,” said Dasgupta of EazyDiner. The brand has been using WebEngage solutions for nearly three years now. 

WebEngage For Travel and Hospitality (OTA)

For Pickyourtrail, the experience has been somewhat similar, said Ganapathy. “One big challenge for startups in our sector is to reach customers with the right set of communications when they are in their decision-making journey. Customers are spoilt for choice with so many digital/online touchpoints across various marketing channels and devices. So, it is important to offer just what they are looking for to retain them. 

After using WebEngage solutions for more than two years, Ganapathy relies on a couple of offerings such as the journey builder and the segmentation from WebEngage’s portfolio to solve communication issues.

Goibibo is one of the earliest clients of WebEngage and the two have been working together since 2013. Commenting on the partnership and the solutions that work for the brand, Suresh told Inc42, “I think the biggest piece that works for us is personalisation. That, I think, is the Holy Grail for (travel) businesses.”

“With such a large user base, it is very difficult to understand how to get to extreme personalisation so that every message we send out is relevant to the customer. Another aspect of that is creating campaign journeys of a customer, which ultimately help you drive personalisation.”

The Future Is Not Grim

In spite of a never-before slump due to frequent lockdowns and total travel bans to contain the Covid-19 pandemic since 2020, travel and hospitality will never go out of style and will bounce back the moment the pandemic scare subsides. To put it more aptly, the sector will thrive as before when the government announces relaxations for travelling, dining out and more public activities. The reopening of the sector will get a further boost when the pan-India vaccination drive picks up pace.

Industry players are also counting on the trends they call revenge travel, workation (working vacation), staycation at hotels and YOLO (you only live once) to help the revival of the industry. “We see the YOLO concept driving consumption in the coming years,” added Ganapathy.

According to Dasgupta of EazyDiner, the pent-up demand, coupled with the permanent shift in consumers’ behavioural patterns, will drive the industry. “As soon as the external environment becomes better, the industry will see a bounce back, especially as Covid-19 has changed the way people are dining out and travelling. Table reservations and online bookings are becoming a norm now instead of the traditional ways (walk-ins), and this trend is definitely here to stay.”

Plus, there will be more opportunities. Of course, the pandemic has affected all offline businesses in India. But it has also opened new channels to rebuild and optimise operations with the help of high-end technology that will drive customer retention. Think of auto check-ins, robotic assistance and managed travel services to ensure safety, security and documentation work (integrating vaccine passports in the regular travel schemes may require a lot of admin work in the initial phase). In other words, the industry is bound to witness many innovative solutions in the near future.

Suresh of Goibibo believes that the future of travel and hospitality would also be data-driven. “I think the biggest shift to come about will be how we manage our data for multiple systems to be able to talk to each other and for all the personalisation. For instance, we have deployed a feature store that sits on top of our data lake and helps us predict what your next trip is likely to be. Furthermore, it allows us to predict what prices are going to look like, and we can give our customers the option of locking in their tickets at the current price,” he said.

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