Scrolling through social media feeds, travel-related pictures have once again started popping up, even though much of it involves destinations like Dubai, the Maldives and around one’s own state. The immediate future of travel involves careful planning, a lot of getaways and staycations, and taking advice of travel consultants.
Where are we headed? We asked Niloy Nag, founder of Flying Squirrel Holidays, this question. Constantly shuffling between his two homes, in Calcutta and Dubai, his company is in its seven year of operations and has catered to more than 3,000 travellers from different countries and nationalities. The 45-year-old used the pandemic to go into reset mode and plan out the future of his company. Here’s what he has to say.
The last few months have obviously been very difficult for the tourism industry. In what ways have you been able to reinvent yourself?
It has been, indeed, a tough few months for businesses across most industries, with travel and tourism probably the worst hit. The choice for most travel companies was to either wait-and-watch for things to come back to normal and then restart or reinvent. We chose the latter.
As a new age-travel management brand, we continuously innovate to give new experiences to consumers. Apart from tailor-made travel experiences to different destinations across the world, we have been offering sports holidays (tennis, golf, football), diving holidays, wellness retreats, tea tourism, and wine holidays. However, with the pandemic upon us, we had to realign ourselves with the new realities. We realised that it’s going to be a long wait for people to get back to the international skies and hence adapted and embraced the joy of local travel.
After being homebound for months, there is now an urge among people to step out. With work from home becoming the new normal, we introduced the idea of “Work from a New Home”, whereby we presented the opportunity for people to drive in the safety and comfort of their own cars to locations closer home and spend a few days working from a new setting or even enjoying moments of leisure.
We worked with a few properties who are maintaining the highest standards of safety and hygiene to create special short-stay packages, offering meals and in some cases, a few activities too and introduced them at the end of July. The response has been quite encouraging and a large number of people have availed of these packages and returned with a good experience.
Interestingly, after we introduced these packages, we found many travel companies in Calcutta offering similar staycations. We are happy to see the trend getting popular as more companies offering similar propositions mean more people getting to know about the concept.
Are we seeing new trends?
We ran a survey among our clients during the lockdown and a couple of interesting facts emerged — two-thirds of the people who responded said they would like to travel within six months of travel opening and a high percentage of respondents said they would expect a great deal when travel opens. We married both these findings and introduced our special travel vouchers, which give people flexibility to travel until the end of 2021 to a destination of their choice. These vouchers offer substantial savings too, as they give consumers 25 per cent more value. We launched three denominations in July — Rs 20,000 offering value of Rs 25,000, Rs 40,000 offering value of Rs 50,000 and Rs 80,000 offering value of Rs 100,000. We’ve had quite a few takers of this proposition and people have started redeeming the vouchers too.
And then when tourism within India started opening up, we introduced curated holidays from the shores of the Andaman Sea to the valleys of a white Kashmir. We introduced pet-friendly holidays, adventure holidays that included skiing, river rafting in the Himalayas and many more new experiences.
Can the gap left by the absence of international travellers be filled by domestic tourism?
India welcomed 10.56 million international travellers and the estimated foreign exchange earnings of Rs 194,892 crore in 2018 (as per the last full FY report published by the central ministry of tourism). In the same period, there were 1854.9 million domestic tourist visits to all states (180 times higher than foreign tourist arrivals) and 26.3 million departures from India to other countries (2.5 times of foreign tourist arrival).
While a part of the inbound tourism will be compensated by domestic travel, we also need to bear in mind the overall travel industry came to a grinding halt during the pandemic. It’s going to take a bit of time for travel to get back to pre-Covid levels, but when it does, all forms of tourism are expected to come back. The rate of comeback among different verticals of tourism (inbound, outbound and domestic) would also depend on tourism policies of not only our country but other countries too.
Every crisis presents us with an opportunity. The pandemic gave us the opportunity to gain rich experience in the Indian holiday market. The number of clients who travelled with us within India since the pandemic is more than double the number who travelled (within India) in the pre-pandemic year. I can safely say we will come out of it as a strong player in the inbound/local holiday segment.
Before the pandemic, the tourism industry had hundred things to focus on. Now it’s about just two things — keep employees safe and keep the business safe. What are your areas of focus?
We are always listening to our customers and following international trends and best practices. Our findings show that while there is a pent-up demand for travel, safety and hygiene are the key questions in people’s mind around travel. All our current offerings and our upcoming offerings factor in these aspects to give people complete peace of mind. Our brand promise is — ‘it’s taken care of’! That’s always at the heart of what we do whether it’s the propositions that we offer in the market or the service levels we offer to our clientele.
We also stepped up our activities on the digital platforms. While the travel industry witnessed a drop in online traffic in the range of
60-80 per cent, our traffic grew over 20 times since the onset of the pandemic. Engagement on our social media platforms increased significantly as well.
What do you think customers want from a getaway or a vacation?
The good news is that people have started travelling, albeit in small steps. We’ve had people who have already been on a short break and there are many people who have booked their holidays for the upcoming months. We are pleasantly surprised to see that people are not only booking getaways to nearby places but also to other destinations in India and even international destinations.
The key trends emerging are people preferring to travel to safe environments with the average duration ranging between three and 10 days.
People are also preferring to travel within their own bubble of family and friends. They are not too comfortable with travelling with others in large groups. So, the need of customised holidays in small groups is expected to go up in the future compared to travelling in large groups.
There is an inherent desire to travel among human beings. It’s in our DNA. People of Bengal have always been known to be avid travellers. We are quite hopeful of travel and tourism bouncing back sooner rather than later.
We also see a preference for travel consultants or travel advisors. We believe there will be a re-emergence of the traditional travel consultant who gives people personalised advise and a lot of mental comfort during these uncertain times. People won’t mind paying that extra bit to have peace of mind.
Getaways (two-three days): The Sunderbans, Purulia, North Bengal and Murshidabad
Short breaks (five-10 days): Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Goa, Andamans, Darjeeling and Sikkim
International: The Maldives and Dubai are the two destinations where people have been travelling outside India. With the news of air bubbles being created with countries like Russia and Sri Lanka, travellers have started expressing their interest to travel to these destinations too