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OT: How did you get into the travel business?
Sharat Dhall: It was just serendipity that I got into the industry — I spent most of my early years with Hindustan Lever — then Expedia happened.
OT: What motivates you the most about the online travel services industry?
Sharat Dhall: It’s a nascent sector in India when you compare it to worldwide stats and yet it’s fast growing. It’s also a highly dynamic industry — there are changes and improvements taking place all the time, new competitors, and a constant effort to offer better features. It’s this dynamism that I find exciting. It’s what drives me.
OT: What works well in the online travel services industry in India? And what doesn’t?
Sharat Dhall: Online travel bookings are hugely convenient for the consumer. Comparative facts are clearly visible with a single click and it’s way better than relying on travel agents and middlemen. And the variety is incredible, especially in hotels and holiday packages. But we still have difficulties in realizing the potential of this market because broadband connectivity in India is quite abysmal.
OT: Are you seeing an even demand for services or have some services taken off better than others? How has it all worked out so far?
Sharat Dhall: On the whole, online travel portals are doing very well and growing fast. The booking of hotel rooms online is very low at this stage. We need greater consumer participation for the segment to really take off, but the absence of adequate response is partly a process of natural evolution — consumers are now comfortable with buying air tickets online, but travellers don’t feel so sure about unbranded hotels, which are a vast segment of the hospitality market in India.
OT: So how do you hope to fix this?Sharat Dhall: Yatra.com provides a huge amount of content. You can see photographs and maps, and read user reviews and descriptions before deciding what’s best for you. Online travel portals are especially well-placed to share their expertise on the best value for money in a particular category. So we sort our hotel listings, but also have ‘Yatra recommended’ options.
OT: Does India differ from worldwide travel trends?
Sharat Dhall: Worldwide, over 40 per cent hotel rooms are booked online. In India, it’s about 8-10 per cent, and I expect it will rise to 25 per cent in the next few years. The Indian traveller is also a little different in that, he favours one service provider for everything.
OT: What future do you see for Indian travellers?
Sharat Dhall: The Indian travel market will only continue to grow. Indians now see travel as a necessity and there is a large segment of travellers willing to pay that extra buck.
OT: Does the online travel services segment have credibility issues? How do you manage them?
Sharat Dhall: I doubt if that is the case. The leading players are now among the leading travel brands in India. It’s a fact that the consumer is the king — he has so much choice, so many avenues. Quality is the only differentiator. We have to ensure that our customers are satisfied.
OT: What’s your personal recipe for the ideal vacation, and how do you make it happen?
Sharat Dhall: My aim is to explore new destinations, experiment with the local cuisine, absorb the cultural offerings of the place, and relax and unwind with a glass of wine at the end of the day.
OT: Describe one of your favourite holidays.
Sharat Dhall: When we were growing up in Bangalore, our summer vacations were spent in the small cantonment towns where my uncle was posted. I vividly remember our family trip to Kashmir in the 1970s even though I was pretty young then. Sharm el Sheikh (Egypt) is a place I can visit anytime. The deep sea diving, sandy beaches just off the Red Sea, perfect desert landscape and crystal clear waters with magnificent corals make this a perfect destination.
OT: Any tips for planning a holiday well?
Sharat Dhall: The biggest question when there’s a long weekend coming up is, “So where are we going?” Even my teenage kids have strong opinions on where to go and whom to go with. Just make sure you plan well in advance. For everything else, I’ll simply say, rely on Yatra.com!
Sharat Dhall, President, Yatra.com, 11th Floor, Tower B, Unitech Cyber Park, Sector-39, Gurgaon 122001
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