With a mushrooming population of around 1.3bn people, a burgeoning middle class, and travel becoming mainstream, the Indian travel sector is growing swiftly, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Vacationers are not shying away from opening their wallets either, with the Indian travel market projected to reach a value of $48bn by 2020, according to an in-depth report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Google India.
Yatra Online, named after the Hindi word for ‘journey’, prides itself on understanding the true meaning of travel, making sure that whether you’re looking for hotels, holiday packages, bus, rail or flight tickets, it is a name you can count on.
As competition from foreign players like Airbnb and Booking.com has intensified, Yatra has steamed ahead with technological innovations that are helping the firm redefine itself as a digitally-driven tech company, that just so happens to be in travel.
“We are a digital-first organisation which derives most of its value through the use of our technology platforms by customers in various channels – whether it’s a user doing their own travel planning and booking, a corporate user booking for their work travel, or an agent serving a walk-in customer in a remote location,” says Chief Technology Officer Himanshu Verma.
“Technology is front and centre of our operations today and will be a major driver of operational efficiency and service expansion going forward.”
The greatest benefit of such a high-tech travel offering? It allows Yatra to tap into three sales channels of travel – business to business (B2B), business to consumer (B2C) and corporate sales – allowing it to cast a wide net in the lucrative Indian market.
“It gives us a unique value-adding proposition to serve all segments of the market in equal measure,” Verma explains.
“We are among the top three players in all the segments. We have over 7.4mn B2C users, we serve over 650 corporate clients, and we have over 19,000 travel agents across the country using our booking platform.”
Tapping into the rise of mobile
With mobile apps incessantly at our fingertips and mobile internet prices becoming more competitive, Yatra Online has paid special attention to the rise of mobile users, making it the “front and centre of the company’s strategy”, according to Verma.
The results speak for themselves, with the firm’s mobile traffic growing almost 100% and its transactions growing by 130% in recent times.
“A large number of people in India are only using the internet on mobile,” observes Verma. “Many of the younger generation, for example, have skipped using PCs and have been using the internet only on mobile.
“Therefore, from that standpoint, we have really focused on mobile and revamped our entire mobile platform,” he continues. “Over the last 18 months, our traffic on mobile has grown at a fairly fast pace. Today 75-80% of our traffic is on mobile and almost 50% of our transactions happen on mobile and that is the part that has been growing fast.”
In a traditional travel company, tools for search, booking, customer support, and housekeeping are usually standardised with staff providing domain expertise, personal service and trust.
While this model works, says Verma, it’s not scalable and efficient, whereas in a technology company the interface for customers are endpoints like websites, mobile apps and chatbots. Algorithms do most of the tactical decision making and people focus only on what matters – strategic decision making.
“Customers can get most of their queries related to their booking resolved either via proactive communication or speaking with our AI-driven bots to get the answers,” Verma explains.
This makes services scalable, predictive, and highly accessible wherever the customer is.
“While this kind of transformation can be hard, risky, or capital-intensive, it’s not optional for us if we want to remain relevant and progress in the future amidst accelerating changes,” says Verma candidly.
“Our quest has been to serve the customers in their travel itinerary as much as possible – from travel inspiration, to planning, to booking, to in-destination services – so that customers can seamlessly use our services end to end,” he adds.
“This cannot be done without a consistent technology platform behind it. When it comes to customer experience, we want to be wherever the customer is, we want to evolve with our customers and, in some cases, we want to invent new ways for customers to evolve their experiences.”
A one-stop travel firm
Whether it’s finding travel inspiration or booking your flight, no single travel company today provides end-to-end services.
To become a one-stop shop for travel, Verma and his team have seen a root-and-branch transformation of the company’s technologies and platforms.
In doing so, Yatra Online hopes to provide end-to-end services for its customers so that they don’t need to engage with endless companies.
To this end, Yatra Online has internally developed its website, mobile apps and most of its backend systems as well as its customer relationship management (CRM) and customer support system. Yatra has also built its own decision sciences and intelligence platform, which is being used to power services like algorithmic discounting, cross sell and personalisation of services.
With such a tremendous technology push, this has undoubtedly had an impact on Yatra Online’s team and its company culture.
“Our team has doubled in size and there has been a definitive cultural shift,” notes Verma. “We have made continuous learning a key pivot for the organisation so that people are constantly learning new technologies, experimenting with them and figuring out new ways to serve our customers better.
“We recognised that we will not be able to find enough people externally who have depth and expertise in technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and hence we focus on re-learning for a sizable number of people from the team.”
Continuous improvement is at the very foundation of Yatra Online’s strategy and it is this drive to consistently grow and evolve which has propelled the company into the spotlight as a leading travel firm.
Not one to sit on its laurels, the company has ambitious plans for the future.
“The immediate goal is to build deeper organisational skills in new technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence, internet of things, big data, analytics and solve some of the deeper problems around automation, personalisation, and optimisation,” Verma says.
“We have made significant progress in these areas in last year and we are continuing to invest heavily in them,” he continues. “In the long-term, we want to create a solution for multilingual, voice-based interface so that we can provide personal services to non-English speaking demographics.”
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Close industry ties
The Indian travel market is growing exponentially and, with new ground-breaking technologies coming to the fore, every day. Verma says that Yatra Online’s strategic partnerships are crucial for the firm’s operations.
“These partnerships play a significant role not only in our current operations but also on our future preparedness,” he notes. “We have a deep relationship with NetMagic, who is our private cloud hosting provider, we use Akamai deeply for various edge services and we use AWS for everything related to data sciences.
“We also have a partnership with Adobe for analytics and marketing, and we have a close relationship with GDS companies like Travelport and Amadeus,” he adds. “Yatra is constantly talking to or experimenting with a wide-range of technology partners, large companies and startups alike, to see if we can leverage their tools and technologies and move our charter further.
“These partnerships are incredibly important as we cannot do all the work alone.”
India’s travel planner
These trailblazing technologies, strong industry ties and a commitment to providing a best in class customer experience has distinguished Yatra Online as one of the leading travel brands in the country.
Since it was first launched in 2006, more than 7mn customers have used one or more of its travel-related services and, with an array of accolades under its belt, it’s clear that Yatra is set to becoming India’s top travel planner.
“In the next five years, I envision Yatra to be a technology company which owns and operates one of the largest travel platforms that will provide one-stop marketplace for all travel needs with the widest selection, best prices and personalised service at all steps of travels,” Verma says.
“Have we figured out how to achieve it all? Not yet. Are all the technologies available to be able to do it? Not yet. Do we have to fight the organisational and ecosystem inertia to do it? Absolutely. But who said trying to create future is easy.”