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EP #43: Digital marketing lessons from India’s travel & tourism major, SOTC Travel Ltd.

About this Podcast

The COVID-19 pandemic and enforced lockdowns have definitely impacted the travel industry. But with things beginning to gradually open up, the industry is bracing itself for future growth. To build greater customer confidence, online travel brands are doubling-down on their digital marketing strategy, experimenting with personalized offers and messaging.

SOTC Travel Ltd., the market leader in this space continues to innovate. They’ve had to adapt and focus on delivering other services and solutions to their customers as a part of their offerings.

To understand how SOTC Travel Ltd. continues to combat the situation and uplift its digital marketing strategy, we caught up with Tushar Ghagawe, AVP- Group Digital Marketing at Thomas Cook India Ltd. and SOTC Travel Ltd. 

Tushar highlights the following:

  • The genesis and growth story of SOTC Travel Ltd.
  • How the travel industry has combated the challenges posed by COVID-19
  • How brands are using digital platforms to improve customer engagement and retention
  • How Netcore Smartech’s omnichannel personalization and marketing automation solution is helping SOTC build a strong digital presence across platforms
  • Key focus areas for marketers to scale digitally in a post COVID-19 world
  • Key metrics to measure and track marketing ROI

Learn how an industry leader like SOTC Travel Ltd. uses omnichannel personalization and marketing automation to “book” a path to re-growth in the Indian travel industry!

Episode Transcripts

Neha Agarwal (host): Hello Guys! Welcoming you to the Smartech podcast series and today on coffee conversation, I have with me Tushar Ghagawe, AVP-Group Digital Marketing at Thomas Cook India limited, and SOTC travel limited. He comes with over of 15 years experience in marketing. And he’s been with SOTC for almost 10 years, a brand, which is a pioneer in the travel and tourism industry. So Tushar welcome to our podcast series. And I think the listeners would like to know your growth story of SOTC and a bit about you as well. 

Tushar Ghagawe (guest): Thank you Neha. Thank you for inviting me to. SOTC was actually established in 1949. So it is one of the older players in the Indian travel market. And since then it has escorted lakhs of travelers across the globe for more than 70 years now. Now SOTC travel limited, which is used to be formerly SOTC travel. Private Limited is a step-down subsidiary of Fairfax financial holding group, and it is held through an Indian listed subsidiary, which is Thomas Cook India. And SOTC India is a leading travel and tourism company, which is active across various travel segments, including leisure travel, incentive travel, and business travel. So if you will notice; SOTC has always been pioneered into many product ranges and different types of travel offerings in India. And SOTC always try to stay ahead of the curve even though it is traditional, it started as a traditional brick-and-mortar kind of a travel company, but we understood the importance of digital very quickly and mewed into digital space a few years back. Since then we have always tried to invest into digital and have seen to it that we respond to the market and changes happening in the travel market. As you are aware that most of the research for all travelers now happens through digital. So first we started focusing on that part and then move into various aspects of digital. So while most of our customers a group kind of already or escorted group to us, we also begin customized holidays and domestic holidays. We also have a separate division for incentive travel, which is another of our big businesses. So SOTC has also pioneered many things like for example, we launched something called On The Go, which is a portal for customers to curate their travel itineraries with great experiences and guided journeys. SOTC also launched the first-ever cashless travel insurance product in association with online travel insurance company GoDigit. SOTC has now expanded into Forex business. SOTC also launched home space and we also launched a three-day report. So if you, we have always tried to do something new and taking all the initiatives to reach out to the right customer and service them in the Indian market. Also, launch innovations like chatbots to seek instant information or AI-powered tools which record planners that we launched. So we invested a lot of amount and a lot of money and budgets in innovating of our organization and giving better service to the customers. 

Neha Agarwal: Absolutely. I also think that Tushar, I completely agree with you. And I think as a customer also, if I have to talk about SOTC, so I think that’s the first name that comes to any of our minds whenever we want to book a holiday, or we want to plan out holiday, forget just the booking. We all would like to first think of SOTC as somebody who will come at me, guide me and tell me and my family that, you know, what should you be doing? Where should you be going, how, and how safe your trip could be, and where you can enjoy the most. So I think SOTC is a default name that comes to our entire mind if I’m not wrong. And I think all our listeners will also agree with it. And then after came many other players in this industry, because this is the oldest, I know it’s been about 50 to 60 years, sorry 70 years brand. That’s been a very, very long journey. And I remember in our days when we were small, so traveling means that you would want to go to a person and you want to have a chat, and you’re not very confident, whether should you be going or not is an expensive affair, like 20, 30 years, 40 years back then, but now it’s been a very normal scenario where everybody wants to travel and know, and there are so many interesting packages which are being developed so easy to travel these days with being the currency on everything. And SOTC, for that matter, there’s always been one brand name, as I said, which has been on top of our minds when it comes to that experience. So that’s very interesting, I think.

Tushar Ghagawe: So you’re absolutely right when you say that. For us in our childhood, our travels used to be just a summer break to our grandparent’s place or to our native place or something. But now it has become a necessity for all of us. So not only the millennials or youngsters, but each one of us travel has become part of the lifestyle. And it is now to the extent that it is a necessity and we need to take a break after three or four months. So you are absolutely right, and I’ll understand this need of customers and accordingly keep on launching different kinds of products, which will cater to these needs, right from a weekend break to a long holiday.  

Neha Agarwal: Yes I think this is the ease of travel that has actually given comfort to people to travel that often and plan it because earlier, as I said, there was no ease off planning or confidence in traveling. And in fact, not just being in India, but traveling outside of India, so that, that entire planning a proposition that has come from the tourism industry and SOTC specifically, I think it gives a lot of comfort to all of us to this plan this. And once we experienced a good holiday and then it’s a repetitive ask from all the customers. So we all would want to, as a person, I would let them keep on wanting to travel because my experience has been great in my previous journey. So I think Tushar while we reach spoke about SOTC, I think in the last couple of months, all industries have seen a major hit or a setback or they’ve also looked at a lot of new customer behavior trends, which have evolved in this Covid world. So how has SOTC been able to look at it and what has been your perspective, not just from a SOTC point of view, but from, as a marketing expert, how have these trends changed in the travel space? 

Tushar Ghagawe: Yes right. Most of the industries are affected and I’ll be completely honest that travel is affected the most. We are actually the reverse of lockdown. So we have traveled but we have to sit at home to work from home. So actually we are the reverse of what people are doing. So that’s why it is the most affected industry. And most of all, while we talk to our customers or we get feedback from them, or we get inquiries or any interaction that we get from customers; we understand that people want to travel. So there is, obviously people are fed up of sitting at home. They are working also from home and now obviously they need a break, so it absolutely customers want to travel. But right now they’re little very about traveling. They’re not sure about foreign time rules or how do they travel from one state to another, international travel is not yet open. So there is a lot of uncertainty right now, and that’s why customers are also hesitant to make a decision about travel. But we are also observing these trends and looking at that we are in some initiators which will help the customer make a decision because right now you cannot force a customer or you cannot push a customer to pay for a holiday. And he’s not sure about his traveling and his safety office, a family, which comes at the top. So we are providing certain services like we have launched the holiday helpline, where a customer can just call us on a number and whether he wants to travel or we will provide customer assistance in terms of rules and regulations around traveling or owner related, traveling safety instructions, which other States are regulations from different States and etc. So we have put together a helpline which will take care of all customer queries related to Covid and travel. So it may not give us immediate same, but at least it will help customers make decisions better, or at least when the customer is sure about his safety and wellbeing, that time the only customer will start considering travel, anywhere travel is a discretionary spend, it’s not a necessity. So important is that we assist customers in multiple ways. Another thing we have now while traveling, you require a Covid negative certification. So you have to take Covid certification 48 hours or 96 hours before you travel. So we are also providing service along with major pathology labs across the country. And we help the customer get that Covid negative certification at home. So somebody will assist them with home service and they’ve been a full certification done for them. That is another service we are offering. So right now, just add offers. We are trying to look at how a customer can feel safe traveling with us. We also launched a short program in association with Apollo clinics, where we have put together guidelines of traveling while your customer is on tour and while he is in the hotel? And we choose all the properties and all the services with the lens of safety and Apollo has validated and approved our program. We have launched this program in association with them. So right now, since the concern of customers is around safety and safe travel while they want to travel, it becomes very important for us as well to think in that direction and provide that service to the customer. So these are two initiatives that we are taking.

Neha Agarwal: Clearly you just mentioned that and I think it’s very evident that how the customer’s behavior has changed completely last four to five months, travel which was something that people just had to do the planning. Now is like; a need that we spoke off when this industry has expanded. Now, in fact, we have seen that from a need. Now it is not that much of a need for somebody as such, because of the whole safety precautions that somebody has to take. Traveling for a holiday purpose is in somebody’s head now a slight burden because of all the security measures and safety measures they have to take, the city that they want to travel to the fear of catching hold of the infection. So I think, it’s pretty obvious that you’ve seen that behavior shift in the customer, and maybe this may bring in something even better, which you just rightly mentioned that you’ve introduced so many new product lines on how they can have these COVID-19 certifications and tying up with a lot of tests centers and everything so that everything is completely confirmed. And a customer feels much safer when he’s traveling with SOTC as a brand. I think that while there’s a change in the customer behavior, there’s a change that the industry is also bringing; the travel industry is bringing from their end which was earlier just involved with ensuring the travel is happening. Now, there are a lot of prerequisites that the industry is looking after, and maybe also the post-travel factors that they will be taking care of. I think that’s the line of thought. 

Tushar Ghagawe: Yes, that’s the line of thought absolutely. And we are seeing a very encouraging response from the customers for all these services and plus travel as a whole, initially when lockdown started,  that time, probably customers were not thinking about travel and they wanted to get done with that phase. But as the lockdown is extended, we see more positivity amongst customers towards travel. And we see a lot of willingness to travel. It’s just that there are some concerns and that we need to address if we could address that, then customers will travel. Also, the whole world is waiting for the vaccine. So if that is announced, then I don’t think there will be an issue with traveling as well. So I think if that happens, the willingness of customers is not a challenge anymore. So we are seeing quite a lot of intent from customers. 

Neha Agarwal: Yes, absolutely. I am totally with you, but this helps me come up with another question that has been there in my mind that people have not traveled or not associated with the brands, travel brands specifically for the last five, six months and, retention and engagement with customers that’s always been the largest challenge for any industry because customers who are not loyal or they have the customers generally move their loyalty very quickly to different brands, especially if they are other competitive brands available from a price advantage or whichever advantage that they will have. So how do you think we will be able to address this, or we’ve been able to address it in the last four or five months from an engagement and retention because primarily, I think as a funda, we all know that 20% of our customer business gives us 80% of our major business? So how do you think that problem we’ve been able to address in the last five, six months? 

Tushar Ghagawe: So Neha, I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon as such, customer being loyal to a brand especially in travel is not a new phenomenon for us or not being gone because it’s a very high spend category. If you’re traveling to Europe, then you are with a family of four or five, you will end up spending 7 or 8 lakh rupees and you will spend that money in the course of 15, 20 days, which is a big amount. So it’s a big investment. 

Neha Agarwal: Yes that’s an experience selling. It’s an experience purchasing for customers.

Tushar Ghagawe: So the customer wants their holiday to be perfect and they want their holiday at the best possible cost. And there is no doubt about it as in every customer will try to get the best possible option. And if we could keep on delivering that service year on year, the customer will pay a little bit of premium also. The customer is not going to pay 50% extra for a brand in any category or not even 20% extra in any category, where there are competent flares available. So travel is no exception and especially after the introduction of digital in India after people became more conversant with digital, this is going to be a reality for every brand and every category of products and service because customers will get that much more choice and customers will be able to compare that it more easily. So that challenge will always remain. As far as retention of our customer goes, many of our customers are repeat customers and they have been with us since few years, not a couple of years or one or two years. And we see that they will continue with us. We look at our service levels very carefully, and we ensure that customer keeps on getting good experience year on year. And we are able to improve that experience because we are into a service industry; experience is something we can deliver. There is nothing tangible that we are offering, how a customer experiences holiday and how they see the situation. The customer reaches out to us through our website or a call or a branch. And until he comes back and even after coming back, how seamless is experiences without hiccups and how pleasurable his actual holidays we’ll define retention. So that is what the brand promises, there is nothing else that we can offer being in service. And we try to take care of all these things through various measures, right from our tour managers to the way our sales points services, the customer to the surveys that we do. We prefer to score in the organization. So we all keep tracking our customer’s satisfaction scores, and then we keep on course-correcting ourselves. That is point number two. And the last point is, as far as being in touch with the customers is concerned. We have always been in touch with our customers, even during the lockdown. So our salespeople have tried to reach out to our past customers, not for selling anything, but just to ensure that they are well and they’re doing fine. And just to be in touch with them, every offer or every new thing that we create, we first try to communicate to our existing and past customers and I am sure that the customer looks at it and customers are much smarter than what we think. The customers look at all this and appreciate that. So I think as far as service levels or service quality is concerned, we are doing everything in our power to retain our customers, and we’ll continue doing that. But as far as, global retention of our brand is concerned, it is going to be more and more challenging going forward as every city and every person gets digitized in this country. And that’s their right I think. 

Neha Agarwal: Absolutely Tushar. I’m with you on that. And yes with the whole increase in digitalization, we have seen that engaging and retaining the customer, while it has always been a challenge but we were able to connect with the customers more easily these days, with the digital, there are so many digital channels that help us to reach out to our customer and give them the information that they required and prompt them, or be connected with them at any given point in time. Maybe even in real-time, if they have any queries and questions, they do not have to, we don’t have to delay it, or they don’t have to meet somebody in person to clarify their questions. And I think the digital channels also help the brand to be on top of everybody’s mind. So I think on that front, I would like you to share your experience on how the Netcore Smartech has helped address some of these concerns using that automation platform and using the multichannel approach that the smart tech platform brings to the table. So from the whole website experience to the segmentation, to personalization and email as a channel, so would you like to just highlight a couple of those things and help our listeners know about it as well? 

Tushar Ghagawe: Yes. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said reaching the customer at right time. So reaching the customer at the right time is very, very important. And that’s why we got associated with Netcore. And just reaching out is not enough; now just a broadcast or mass mailing or mass SMS is not enough anymore. You have to reach out to the customer at the right time when there is the highest intent. So that’s what we are trying to develop with Netcore since the last couple of years. So a few of the things that we have done is that we have done deep integration with the Netcore platform, and we utilize most of their automation services, like email or SMS or web push notification or page drop-off automation. So most of their automation services we utilize, and it’s a journey. It’s not onetime activity activation. So we are very closely engaged with the Netcore team and we try to keep on trying new things, experimenting with various options. And we keep on improving as to our customer will respond as better every time we communicate. And I think to some extent we have become successful in that. We also do very niche segmentation, depending on past responses to our e-mailers or SMS or any communication that goes to what platform. And then we keep on improving on our communication delivery and responses as a result of that. So that has also helped us win. So Netcore helps even help us in maintaining the domain reputation of our emailing service, or there is a lot of exchange of thoughts and exchange of if I could say guidance from the Netcore team to improve our services and communication to the customers in terms of technological point of view and response point. We have also been heavily used their channel to regularly communicate with users regarding our new offers events, new launches, also started on a journey of page customization or personalization, according to how customer visits us from which cities, coming what he would like to see first. So personalization has become another important aspect of a website. And there is information overload for the customers, especially during lockdown when most of the consumption of information consumption is happening on digital. It is very, very important to reach out to the customer with relevant content. So showing what he requires on a website if he is let’s say from Mumbai and he’s searching for a weekend break, there is no point in showing him Himachal Pradesh. So it becomes very important to show relevant content. And we have started on this journey and I think we will further develop this journey and that is also going to help us along the way. So these are few things we are doing with Netcore solution. People who are coming to us for say holidays, how we can sell products to them, or whoever bought domestic from us, how we can sell and international package customer is traveling with us or without us with someone else. So, it’s really important to keep on being very top of mind of the customer and keep on communicating with him. So you have to be visible to the customer and with the relevant content. That is very important. And I think that Netcore is helping us on this journey. 

Neha Agarwal: I think that’s a first-mover advantage if I’m not wrong from a travel industry specifically, I think what you rightly mentioned from a personalization perspective and what personalization brings to the table is the right content to the person or the relevant content to a customer who’s coming and looking out for certain kind of a travel package or a need, or a requirement. And not bombarding them with too much overload of information of multiple things, because that ends up confusing somebody. And if I’m not mistaken, I think SOTC being one of the first brands, or in this industry, in this category to kind of utilize this sort of a feature of Netcore. And I think we’ve also seen some good results and we will see them over a period of time, but personalization, how do you feel? I mean if you have to talk about you being a customer of any brand, and when you see your content, which auto-populate on a screen, which you wanted to see, and only that content comes in front of you, how do you think you’re going to react to it as a customer? I’m just thinking aloud right now. 

Tushar Ghagawe: See right now, personalization is being done by every media. So it is not just a website or not just a travel player; or even by social media. So if you go to social media, any of the social media channels, and if you liked some posts, it is more likely that you will see that kind of post going forward. Because you have shown certain likelihood towards that kind of content, that’s why social media channel tries to serve you more and more of that content. And that’s how they also do customer bucketing. So now for an average customer or anybody who’s consuming digital content, it has become hygiene to me. So it may be me or anybody who is consuming digital content. So that expectation extends to all products and services, not only social media. So that makes it very important to show customized content or becoming more and more relevant to the customer as the digital media will grow as then customers will start consuming more and more digital content. He will have less and less time to consume, a particular channel or particular website or particular digital. So then it becomes very, very important to show the right content at a minimum possible time because then the customer has very less time to give for you. Then if he’s using five minutes today, he might give two minutes tomorrow. If he’s giving say 30 minutes in researching, he might just have 15 minutes in researching and 15 minutes you might spend on OTT. So it will become more and more important to show relevant contextual content to the customer. 

Neha Agarwal: Yeah I think Tushar rightly you know, you spoke about this and it just reminds me of when we started talking, sometime back that why customers or why any human being would like to speak to another human being for any of their inquiries as because they know they will get a very personalized or customized product or a customized thought process which today, I mean, even the online channels are very rightly providing videos, social media, or be it your customers. I mean, we have the client’s or brand’s own website, if they are able to give that seamless and same experience. I think the movement from offline to online will also become very, very smooth and people will gain more confidence in doing a lot of online communication and transaction. And the whole digital solution process within India itself is going to grow very, very rapidly VR on that track, I think eventually it will grow. And you rightly said the relevant content, personalization everywhere is extremely important because people, these days, don’t even have time to do too much of search. They want that thing and things should appear. I think it’s, it’s become a very human norm and phenomena these days. 

Tushar Ghagawe: Yeah, so if I could talk about it more, so three ways of communication, what we call visual vernacular is, are going to become very, very important. And we will have to go more regional because, at the regional end, the dualist consumed more and not the search. So obviously we will have to keep on taking small steps towards this direction also. Voices should be going to be very, very important. So for example, the kids nowadays don’t give the effort to type, they will just give a voice command and they will search for something. We are still used to typing and searching for something. So going forward, we look at the voice as well and, and customization because then it has to recognize Indian voices. It has to recognize the biggest dialects accents and then, so customization will go much further. You made a point about a customer taking help of a person who before book a holiday, I think that will still remain. And we see the need of a customer to connect with somebody to get a final confirmation but earlier, like customers used to make most of the research online, say three, four years back. And then we used to get to the service provider to finalize their requirement probably they will move ahead in their research phase and they will do almost everything. So they will make a decision online but just to fulfill that service, they might have to come to somebody as it is happening on e-commerce channels. So you make your decision online, you buy a product and just service fulfillment happens by actual people. So maybe every industry will move in that direction slowly. But right now we see that customer still needs are human assistance. So they want somebody to speak, to clarify their doubts, even if all the information is given or probably they don’t want to consume every bit of information in detail, for example, terms and conditions because most of the time we don’t read all the terms and conditions of every app. It becomes really difficult to read through everything and understand. So that way customer doesn’t want to consume too much content and want to speak to somebody to get a drill-down of whatever, what has been presented on the website. So if we are as accurate in terms of personalization, I think that will make it easier for us to help customers transact online. So if we are not that precise, then they still need help out, somebody. 

Neha Agarwal: Absolutely. Yes. That’s how I think it is going to be at the personalization; is new right now. It has been there, but I think it’s from the last couple of months with the way the whole digital pieces kind of coming up, personalization has also taken up a very important role. And I think all the organizations are working towards giving that sort of an experience to their own customers. And I’m completely with you on that. Perfect. I think that was a very interesting insight on personalization and how Netcore’s products have also helped SOTC to bring about that change and keep their customers retained and bring in a good engagement level to the shard. I think for my next question and thoughts, would like to know your thoughts on how you think that the marketers are going to look at modifying their strategies in this entire post-Covid era, eventually, the Covid is going to end, but because of consumer behavior we all know has already started to change. So what do you advise all the marketers out there, across industries and brands as per your experience? I think that enlightenment is going to be very interesting to you. 

Tushar Ghagawe: So I think most of the marketers are thinking in that direction and not only me and everybody’s majoring the trend and we can see that when penetration of digital has increased a lot, so online news sites which had few million subscribers and unique users, now probably have doubled their numbers only during these three, four months. So whichever services were digital-only, have obviously grown a lot. So probably that behavior will continue even after lockdown opens and post Covid. Some behavior will remain with the customer, at least news consumption online, or say OTT consumption. So probably the customer may not get that much time that he was getting during lockdown but OTT consumption we have seen an increase. So I think that video consumption has increased apart from the OTT as well. I think that will remain a reality. So accessing digital communication also brings up our previous point, personalization will become important because of the information overload, the customer is not willing to consume everything that comes third or fourth or fifth in the queue, you will have to try and be first or second all the time because the customer is consuming so many digital channels and then consuming top 10 on every channel is not possible. So he’ll pick up the first two or max three from each channel, and there’ll be a race to be in the top three on every channel. So that makes our jobs really difficult because the job will become expensive. So to be in the top three slots will become really expensive as compared to the pre-Covid era. Then I mentioned visual voice and vernacular three V’s of communication and if you have to penetrate into India, if we have to reach out to the right audience and go beyond Metro, these three things will become really, really important. You’ll have to go the regular way and we’ll have to look at voice and visuals as well. And lastly, one very important point is defining clear ROI for every medium as digital mediums have grown during lockdown; it becomes very important for marketers to look at every digital medium and define for him first or her first, what ROI he or she is expecting from a particular medium, whether it is a lead or conversion or click, or just time spent on your platform. Not only for marketers, for media also, has it become very, very important to define literally what kind of ROI they can deliver for marketers because as we have seen that multiple digital channels have grown exponentially during this lockdown, every digital medium also will have to prove their own merit and they will have to define clearly what kind of audience they can retain and what kind of benefit they can deliver for every. So I think I’m going to every discussion that we do with media or internally, and that has become a reality for every digital video, but I’m not saying the ROI should always be a conversion, but defining ROI for a medium and it will also become very challenging for offline mediums because every digital medium will try to define an ROI and will give visibility to our way, but every medium it’ll become a little more challenging, but that discussion we have to for every channel and we have to define our strategy otherwise there will never be enough budget for any brand. And you wouldn’t know what you are actually trying to achieve.

Neha Agarwal: Correct. Yes. That’s how I think it should be Tushar, I think, ROI every conversation, if it’s ROI driven, then it makes more sense. And then I think all that we will know where to invest, where not to invest in what is the kind of returns that we’re expecting while the travel industry is all about experience and what they give as an experience comes back as an investment to them itself and that is where the whole, even the retention strategy stands for the clients, the respective customers and the users of the specific brands. So I’m totally with you on this. And I think with this Tushar, thank you for spending so much time with us on this chat and giving us so much interesting and insightful information, I think I would like to really thank you for pulling out this time and would like to have, I think our listeners would like to have you again after very, very soon for more learnings, for more conversations, for more interesting stuff that you can guide us on. And thanks once again for this discussion with us today.

Tushar Ghagawe: Thank you Neha for giving me this opportunity to talk to you and I also enjoyed it a lot. Thanks once again.

Neha Agarwal: Thank you so much Tushar.

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