Sharmishtha Chakraborty, founder and CEO of Voyaah, an all-stop travel advisory platform, had not planned on a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic hitting the world just when she was about to launch her spanking new travel company. Previously managing high net worth individuals (HNIs) and their money as an investment banker, she had never thought of leaving her profession till a couple of years ago. And yet, Voyaah grew leaps and bounds in the two years when the travel industry changed forever. LuxeBook caught up with her over a Google Meet interview to understand how travel has changed since the pandemic.
When did you decide to give up your job to found Voyaah?
Feb 2020 is when I wanted to start this company. Being an avid traveller myself, I felt travel advisory platforms were very transactional and didn’t assist customers in planning their dream vacation. One also needed a one-stop platform to curate a holiday, where one could tweak and customise packages according to one’s likes and preferences.
When COVID hit, just before the company was about to launch what were your thoughts?
It took us five minutes to regather out thoughts when the pandemic situation became grim. Everything can be virtual in this world except for travel. But how to do a holiday online? This is the only thought that made us move on. However, in retrospective, it helped us prepare better, as we could come out of the lockdown strong, it helped us plan partnerships with major travel associated companies and eventually helped us become a better product. Most people in the travel industry were out of jobs and on the lookout. This helped us get veteran staff on board, who may have desisted otherwise. We focused our efforts on building a nice technology. Once everything opened, we could move on. Infrastructure is what we built in the lockdown. August is when domestic travel picked up.
Tell us about your target audience?
We cater to a filtered population, our plans are not to become a mass service provider at the moment. The target audience that we have in mind are the ten million households in India who earn over 20-25 lakh p.a. with disposable income set aside for travel and an aspirational lifestyle. This is the clientele that we have acquired over the past two years and continue to focus on.
Tell us more about your business model.
We productize travel and have acquired more than 15,000 clients with no expenditure on traditional marketing. We didn’t want to put money into digital marketing. Instead, we focused on a different user acquisition model. We became service partners with Club Vistara, CRED, Amazon, as well as a host of other corporates who took us on as part of their employee benefit programme, to encourage employees to take their mandatory annual leaves.
How is travel a product according to Voyaah?
We have made a vacation or travel experience easy-to-buy off our site. We thought it was all about customisation and curation that makes a travel experience memorable for someone. Everyone wants to find their dream trip under one umbrella. Most travel advisory sites would provide scattered information on booking hotels at the best rates, booking flights, curating experience. Our site AI senses your needs and puts together a trip for you, which you can customise again, depending on specific preferences, so it’s a better booking experience. Our service tie-ups helps different customer bases discover us and is value addition for our partners as well.
How has travel changed since the pandemic?
Travel has changed a lot. As a family, you wouldn’t be taking four-five holidays in six months. However, with the pandemic, families want to come out and take these shorter holidays multiple times a year. We see a holiday repeat every seven months. India as a destination has opened up big time. HNI families have also started travelling in India in the last two years, people who would only travel abroad on vacation. Beautiful places which only catered to inbound European travellers are seeing Indian guests. People have started spending more for a holiday from 15,000-30,000 for a weekend, Maldives has almost become a weekend destination for some Indian travellers. Apart from multiple vacations, safety and hygiene has come to play a lot.
What is your regular Indian tourist looking for?
Five-star properties are giving way to exclusive boutique hotels. People want to experience novel things as a family or want the kids to be engaged. For example, multiple resorts in Goa are learning water sports horse-riding, visiting an organic farm, getting involved in some of the meals. Candle night dinners for a couple are still popular. Tourism has become oriented around activities – for instance – some people are travelling to become PADI certified divers, or taking trekking and driving trips.
Exclusive experiences, or once-in-a-lifetime-experiences such as spending a night in a log cabin in a jungle in leopard territory near Udaipur is popular.
What are the popular age-groups that travel, and what destinations are popular?
We get maximum traffic among the 26/28- 55/60 demographic. Goa has always been everyone’s favourite holiday destination.
Destinations in South India have done very well last year. Places such as Coorg, Chikmagaloor, Pondicherry done very well. We are always looking out for Rajasthan in terms of destination weddings. Wildlife has picked up quite a bit. Shimla and Kasauli are perennial favourites. Kashmir was crazy last year. These places have done well because of accessibility to roads. People were avoiding air travel for a large part of last year.
How has the travel industry fared in 2021 vs 2020?
2020 only saw tourist traffic in the last 3-4 months. September is when things started opening up finally.
Jan-Feb 2021 saw a lot of pent up demand, which slowed down during the second wave. After June we didn’t know how to provide inventory. One of the trends in 2021 remains impromptu trips. People don’t book trips in advance. 2020 saw a lot of people buying and travelling later. December travel slowed down again due to Omicron’s shadow. It saw more cancellations. People are not worried about the virus as much as state rules. Newer guidelines which are different across states and RTPCR tests work as deterrents for a lot of travellers. Inventory has opened up a bit as compared to four-five months of pent-up demand. Dusshera/Diwali was when everybody was travelling.
What are the challenges that the travel industry faces today?
The rules of every state government are different as far as Covid protocol is concerned. The rules keep changing, and this has been some of the biggest challenges for hotels and resorts. The infrastructure throughout India is a challenge. Getting the right kind of resorts for our audience and matching their expectations is a challenge. Providing better quality and standards across all locations remains a challenge. Travel is a disorganised sector, and we are hoping the sector will become more organised and more digital in 2022. We foresee a big role to be played by discovery platforms, and a lot of enhancement in this sector. Accessibility and flight connectivity should be increased. When the country opens up, a lot of these tourists would fly international, so we need to look at improving infrastructure across board.