Adaptability is part of our DNA

Government initiatives, need for multi-tasking, and his wish list, Madhavan Menon, Chairman & Managing Director of Thomas Cook (India), discussed a variety of issues in a free-wheeling, hour-long interview with TRAVTALK. He believes that we, as Indians, have it in our blood to adapt to changing dynamics of the world.

Hazel Jain

Do you think the government has done enough for the industry so far?
To answer that, we must look at what tourism does for India. At a USD 194 billion billing, which is about 6.8% of GDP, we are amongst the biggest contributors to country’s economy. It is also an employment multiplier. So the government could have been a lot more sensitive to the needs of the industry. I don’t think it needed to directly fund anybody. I wish it had looked at things on a broader perspective such as moratorium on loans, which would have helped. Also, easing indirect taxes and waiving off TCS would have helped. TCS adds 5% to the cost of the traveller which they have to claim a refund for which takes a year. I know the government has reduced GST on low-end rooms for the hospitality industry.

Have our trade associations been able to push the industry’s interest forward?
I can see that multiple organisations are talking to the government on the industry’s behalf. There is IATO, PATA India Chapter, FICCI and CII Tourism Committees, and without a doubt, their representations have been very good. I only wish they talked to the government together. While I’m not privy to all the conversations that are taking place, I believe an amalgamated entity putting out all the requirements of the industry would have made a lot of difference. Right now, everybody is trying to get their voice in and so some of that messaging gets diluted. All associations now need to focus on how to restart the business and that’s where we will all need help.

What about FAITH?
Given the circumstances, we are all in unchartered territory. Nobody was very clear as to what to do or expect. None of us even anticipated how long this would run. I think FAITH has done a good job without a doubt. They lobbied hard and they continue to do so. But one must recognise that there are lots of travel agents who support air travel, hotel bookings, and overseas travel. And that’s where they have got left out.

Do you agree that domestic tourism will lead the rest?
Yes, I think domestic will be the first one to kick-start. We are already seeing green shoots. It is slow recovery but it’s happening. Look at Goa today that has multiple flights coming in from Mumbai and Delhi. Uttarakhand opening up is also creating demand. Once the quarantine requirements that states have start peeling away, domestic travel will start. This will seamlessly lead to many other activities as we go forward.

What about agents who have never done domestic? What do they do?
Adaptability is part of our DNA. Trust me, each and every travel agent will adapt, and is adapting already. I can see agents approaching us to book holidays for their clients, asking if we can provide them with packages. If you have the will to survive, you will adapt however big or small you are. Even we are now adapting, with an increased focus on domestic business, which we had never put in before.

What according to you is the new normal?
The new normal to me is abnormal and uncertain. Nobody knows where this world is going. I believe we will live in uncertain times for many years to come.

Will the basic structure of the industry change?
No, it is not going to change dramatically. There is place for the OTAs, the tour operators, the travel agents. For me, what is going to change is customer behaviour. The customer is going to now look for brands that they can trust. They are going to look for health and hygiene. No longer can we take our customer for granted.

What COVID-19 has done besides everything else is made the customer far more aware. Over time, we as a country will understand that hygiene is a very important element.

Will travel become more expensive from now?
Air fares haven’t jumped dramatically so far – it is too early to tell. But I don’t think prices are going to change dramatically, because all of us are responsible for inducing demand. So I don’t see air fares and hotel prices going up dramatically in the next 12 months – they may correct from where they are a little. All of us want to fill seats and rooms right now. I used to champion the cause of annual budget. I now talk of weekly budgets. So I don’t know where things will be a year from today.

Will the Work from Home culture continue in this industry?
It will continue in some form, but I don’t think it is going to dramatically change the way we work. Yes, organisations are going to be far more adaptable but we need human interaction. Small weddings are already happening. People tell me that I’m an optimist and if COVID-19 has taught me something, it is patience and optimism.

How is Thomas Cook India strategising to tackle the uncertain future?
The longer business takes to come back, the more despair it will create in our minds. What we did at the Thomas Cook Group is focus on restructuring the organisation to meet the situation. All we knew is that we had some downtime and how to use it optimally. So we embarked on a lot of technology projects to try to transform ourselves into a far more technology-driven entity. We recognised that using technology could improve our productivity and our service. We also did a lot of training of more than 400 tour managers. We insisted on training everyone across the major cities that were part of our itinerary around the world. If we are never allowed to go back to the office, we can operate the way we are from home. Multi-tasking is the need of the hour.

If you were the PM for a day, you would:
I would rationalise taxes across air travel, across hospitality, across all these other facilities, which our tax officers believe is the easiest way to milk people. There has to be a degree of trust, I genuinely believe it is lacking. Why would you have TCS because you don’t trust an individual traveller? There are many other ways to keep a check on individual spends. I don’t understand this concept.

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