The pioneer of online travel sites in India is a food and travel enthusiast - and yes, he sometimes uses rival sites to book tickets
So there we are at ThreeSixtyOne on the third floor, confusingly two levels below the fifth-floor hotel reception. We reach a little ahead of time just to be sure that our guest doesn’t have to wait. A corner table, from where we can see the show kitchens, sushi bar and, of course, the midnight blue reflective pool, is ours for the next two hours or so. While we do a quick recce of the abundant natural light and the cheerful interiors, we decide to alert the restaurant staff about our guest. Soon we realise Kalra doesn’t need an introduction. “Everyone here knows him,” says a friendly hostess and she even indicates the route skirting the pool that he would choose to enter the restaurant. Sure enough, he enters within minutes through the same way.
Before meeting us, he exchanges pleasantries with the hotel staff. In a casual blue-and-white striped cotton shirt, Kalra still exudes a boyish charm, though he has occupied several corner offices for the past two decades, faced bad press recently over his site’s “opaque pricing”, and has crossed 40, the commonly designated age of maturity. He puts his cell phone in silent mode and is careful not to take calls during the meal.
When it comes to food, he’s the man in charge at the table. We were debating whether to order homemade ginger ale or not, and Kalra seals the deal by announcing, “It’s the best drink here. My favourite.” Before we start talking about MakeMyTrip, the steep ticket prices, thin margins in the air business, and the fundamental problems in the sector made worse by Kingfisher’s woes, we place our orders. We go for Red Thai Curry and our guest opts, without consulting the menu, for pan-fried red snapper with vegetables. To our relief, he approves of our choice of Thai curry — “they do it really well”.
Before we ask how he knows so much about food, he pre-empts the question by admitting, “I burn the water, but I am a foodie.” In fact, on his birthday recently, his school-going son’s gift to him was a home-cooked lunch, modelled on the popular television show MasterChef Australia.
We focus on his business now. How’s it going? He confesses that these are tough times. “But now we look at it ‘QSQT’ — quarter se quarter tak.” It’s been like that ever since MakeMyTrip got listed on Nasdaq in 2010. He talks at length about the earnings schedule and the back-to-back non-deal roadshow that he attends every quarter in the US. He’s preparing for another round of earnings reports and roadshows in August. “We will be travelling across the East and West Coast — New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles….” Next time, the roadshow may also hit the European circuit, he says.
Not that this hectic travel bothers him; he’s an enthusiastic traveller in his spare time too. He regales us with stories about his Ladakh trip and how he drove to Khardungla Pass on his motorbike. Also, about Bali, and the Ramayana stage show there, though with some departures from what we know of the epic.
Having spent 12 years with MakeMyTrip, isn’t he thinking about what he must do next? “I am thinking all the time … But there’s no Plan B at this point. I’m quite set and happy.” But surely he’s eyeing acquisitions when his rivals like Yatra are doing so big time? “We have to. After all, we are sitting on a cash pile of over $80 million.” In fact, MakeMyTrip did weigh the possibility of buying the India business of Thomas Cook at one point, but did not bid for reasons he did not want to discuss. The guidance for the quarterly earnings is a 30 per cent growth in revenue. Isn’t that rather optimistic in times such as these? Kalra points out it’s the lowest so far.
Any exit plans? He admits he wouldn’t be honest if he said the company never thought of an exit or a sale. “We did. But not since the IPO.”
Before we could ask him about the many advertisements the company has unleashed, he asks us whether we have watched them. Yes, we say, but what really differentiates MakeMyTrip from the other online travel companies? Aren’t they all offering similar products and services? Kalra tries to explain how small things like technology-enhanced platforms and mobile apps for android devices and iPhone act as differentiators for better user experience.
When he travels, does he ever book the tickets himself? Of course, he replies. Always on MakeMyTrip or on rival websites too? That makes him laugh, “I don’t consider them rivals. But yes, I open at least three windows to compare flights and prices….” And yes, we manage to get it out of him that he doesn’t always book on MakeMyTrip — rivals can rejoice.
His plate is almost empty now, having done full justice to the grilled fish dish. He makes us guilty for not being able to finish the Thai curry. We change the topic quickly and ask him how the online travel business would change for his company. “Air margins are thinning, so we are focusing more on hotels. We have a 75:25 ratio for air and hotels now.” Much better than the time when hotels were just a small dot in the total pie. The ideal mix for air and hotels, according to him, is 50:50, which MakeMyTrip hopes to reach in three to four years.
Our guest is not keen on dessert, but sensing our enthusiasm, he good-naturedly takes a scoop of filter coffee ice cream (“just my kind”) but recommends paan ice cream for us. Over dessert, we talk about French and Thai food. “French dessert is great, unlike its main course. Thai food is superb, but dessert is nothing to talk about,” he declares.
The discussion moves on to the online space in general, and about Flipkart, a company for which he has much regard. Beyond MakeMyTrip, Kalra, an IIM-Ahmedabad product who worked in ABN AMRO and GE Capital, is a mentor for entrepreneurs — he schedules at least one mentoring session a week. He has also been investing in companies across other sectors, and claims he does not want to mix it with his core business.
Kalra likes to describe himself as a family man. “I try to meet the family at the table … but sometimes I’m not able to,” he says. Although he became CEO at age 26, at a company called AMF Bowling, success hasn’t reduced his workload — he still works 55 to 60 hours a week. “The higher you go, the work pressure increases,” he tells us.
He claims, however, that he doesn’t usually suffer sleepless nights any longer and tries not to get stressed — perhaps the yoga and badminton help. If there’s anything that makes him nervous, it’s the thought of making a speech at his daughter’s school.
On that note, we wrap it up. But Kalra shows no hurry to leave, though it’s been over two hours already. While we take the conventional exit, he leaves via the pool entrance. As we head back to the office, Kalra texts, “thanks for a delicious lunch and a stimulating conversation.” Quite like the man he was some 12 years ago when he announced the launch of MakeMyTrip, at the New Delhi Oberoi Hotel, and emailed “thank you” notes to journalists who had attended the press conference.