Leading international online travel agency Expedia is expanding its brand presence in India and has entered into a tie-up with Thomas Cook to provide visa services. Its newly-appointed country head Vikram Malhi, speaks to Ruchika Chitravanshi on the company’s strategy. Edited excerpts:
As you lead Expedia's India operations, what is on the top of your to-do list?
My focus is on three things. First, to raise brand awareness in India. We invested in our brand launch early this year and we will continue to do so. Second, we will get the technology and learning from the international markets here. Also, we want to form strategic partnerships which will give us leverage in India.
Apart from RedBus and Clear Trip, what are the other partnerships you are getting into?
We have partnered Thomas Cook for visa services. It is a great example that consumers in India have a very unique need of visa services when they are travelling abroad. Thomas Cook will provide us with the back end services. Internationally, however, we do not provide visa services. The US, for instance, does not really require visa services. India is the first place we are doing that. A lot of this is to make sure we understand the consumers.
You don’t offer ready-made packages. Is that deliberate or do you plan to offer that in the future?
If you think about what Expedia's strengths are, you will see it makes more sense. We haven't done ready-made packages internationally. The type of consumers we want to target are the well-travelled ones. We don't want to dictate the traveller. In fact, it is one of the things we do well, as we offer customers to build their own package. So, consumers are free to pick the airline and hotel. In turn they save a lot of money.
Expedia has also been open to acquisitions. Is there anything on the cards?
We are always open to these things. We are not actively looking at it right now. We have such a strong brand presence outside India that it does not make sense for us to go after someone at this point. We pretty much have all the components. At this point there is nothing in the market that we feel compelling enough to go and get.
You aspire to be among the top five in a year. By when do you think you would become one of the top two players?
The goal for this year is to be in the top five in terms of traffic. Six months ago, we were not even in the top 10. It is a fairly aggressive goal for us. We are making significant investments into branding and marketing. We are now at the seventh position. We are number one in the world and we aspire for that in India as well. It is critical to customise to the Indian need.
What will be your key growth driver in India?
Domestic tourism in India is 500 million, way more than inbound and outbound travel. We have to tap into that market. In the US too, we are number one basically because of domestic travel, as they don't travel as much abroad. Outbound is a big strength for us.
How important is it for you to have an offline presence?
It is important to have that in India. I think the tide is really turning. People are getting comfortable in making online transactions. Broadband and credit card penetration is increasing every year. Infrastructure is coming together. In the long term, efficiency lies in the online medium. We do have 24x7 call centres only for the Indian customers. We haven't really thought about brick and mortar presence. We are an online travel company and that is what we do well. We will make sure if there is a very important need for the Indian market, we will look into that.
Apart from visa services, what is it that you are doing unique in India?
As a global player, there are several things that we have learnt from different geographies . We want to bring those learnings into India and provide what the local competitor may not be able to provide and have an understanding of. Zero fee is an example of that, which no other travel agency provides. It is not unique for us but it is for the Indian market. The second thing is 72-hours sale, which is something we have done fairly successfully outside India. It is about very short-term sales, which are coming up in the next 72 hours catering to the last-minute traveller. Thirdly, we offer last-minute sale or the last minute travel deal between 72 hours and 21 days. Also, we have a deal hunter, where you can go and find a deal outside of the 21-day window.
What is the kind of investment you are planning for India?
We have an outlay of $20 million for the Asia Pacific region for the next 10 years. Of this, $10 million has been allocated for India. We will spend the money equally on marketing activities and bringing in travel technology into the Indian market. As we grow, we will invest in people who have a good understanding of the local market.