How many people in the industry would have the guts to put up such a signage on their main door, requesting clients call only with pre-booked appointments ? In all my 29 years of being in this industry, I have only come across one such case, and that too very recently. But first let us take a look at the backdrop for this briefly.
In the online age when commissions are dwindling to a trickle, and in some cases, you have a scenario of zero-commission; the options are becoming more and more limited. Airlines and hotels have jumped on to the online bandwagon, leaving the traditional travel agent in a lurch. When the traveler holds direct access to flights and hotels in the palm of his hand, indeed some might say that the role of the traditional travel agent has become redundant, and they would not be wide off the mark.
The most disruptive technology of our times, online booking engines have forced the industry to either adapt or be wiped out, and we have seen several such instances in the last few years. Winston Churchill was so right when he said – “We must take change by the hand or rest assuredly, change will take us by the throat.” – and this applies to our industry as well.
Some have adapted well to this change and moved on, and some are still struggling to come to grips with the new reality that has been forced upon them. Even those who have moved into the online arena have been forced to fall back upon service fees in many instances where the airlines offer zero-commission, except for the larger online players who are still favoured by airlines with net fares, available exclusively to a few chosen ones, forcing the smaller players to go running to buy from them so as to be able to stay competitive.
However, when it comes to booking of complete holiday packages, the online market is yet to come of age in India, because there is still a large population in India that is more comfortable using the services of an agent who can put everything together for them. But even in such cases, the traveler is smart. He does his homework online, gets indicative pricing from various sites, and then sits across the table with his chosen agent to negotiate rates based on the rates being offered by others for similar packages. Costing of packaged holiday products, which used to be an in-house secret in the olden days, is now like an open book – the internet has made this possible, barring packages built on specially negotiated nett rates. One doesn’t have to be an insider to get some idea of the costing of various components.
All one needs to do is check online prices for the components, add it up together, and he has a fair idea of what it would cost, in most cases. Armed with this information, he goes hopping from one agent to the other in the hope of further squeezing the pricing. At the end of the day, he manages to get his way with one of the agents he has visited – one or the other will always succumb to the pressure, ending up selling it at low margins just to be able to make a sale.
Now, with this backdrop in mind, imagine my surprise when I see such a signage outside Ekido Holiday Tours in Chandigarh city. Ekido is not a new name in the industry. They are veterans of the industry who have made a name for themselves. I have seen them growing from strength to strength over the years, from a small operation in a cubicle in the 90’s to one of the finest offices in the city that would put a swanky airline office to shame today.
Once inside, while waiting to meet with Kapil Mahotra, the Director of the company, I also noticed another signage which boldly stated that they charged a sum of INR 10,000/- as a Consultancy Fee, which is adjustable in the package cost once the booking is made through them, otherwise it stands forfeited !
My curiosity got the better of me. Although I had gone to meet him for some other purpose, I ended up interviewing him on these two notices meant for the customers. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Me: With regards to the notice outside your office, requesting customers to seek a prior appointment before visiting. Does this have any negative impact on them ? How do you handle standard walk-ins ?
Kapil: These days, considering the hectic times we live in, probably even before visiting a relative we check their availability. Prior to visiting a doctor too, we fix and appointment, so what is wrong in fixing a prior appointment before visiting someone’s office. Our customers – most of whom are old and loyal customers or those referred by existing customers, take it very positively, as any customer – a genuine traveler – would want to be given time and full attention, as well as heard when he visits. While fixing the appointment, we also take down their exact requirements. A prior appointment gives time to our team to put together all the possible information related to their queries.
Me: The consultation fee concept is unique in the industry. What made you think of applying this, and since when has it been in place? To the best of my knowledge, not many companies have had the courage to apply this so far.
Kapil: “VALUE YOUR TIME” is the key concern which gave birth to this concept, which we have implemented very successfully since 1st of April, 2011 . We were probably the firsts ones in India to implement this and I am not yet aware of anyone else working along the same lines.
Me: Could you shed some light on how this works, and how long is the consultation fee valid, and how many destinations can a customer seek your consultation on by paying this fee ?
Kapil: The guest needs to close his booking within a month of paying the initial Consultancy Fee. The fee is valid for the specific destination that the guest wants to visit, and this information is also taken from them at the time of the initial appointment being booked. The rest, of course, depends on our skills as sellers as to how long the query is stretched, but in most cases, we manage to close the booking in much lesser times. The fact that we have the requirements well in advance helps us to prepare all information well and the clients too appreciate it, as they feel that they are getting all the information that is connected to their query and more.
Me: Do customers actually pay the consultancy fees in advance ? What happens when the customer pays the fee but eventually does not travel ?
Kapil: Yes they do pay the fees willingly. If it does happen that they inquire only and do not book, then of course, it is forfeited. However, such instances are very rare and it has only happened in two cases since 2011.
Me: How does this concept improve your functioning ?
Kapil: Most importantly, it helps us to get our priorities and focus right, and it also helps us to better serve our customers. As I said earlier, getting to know in advance what the customer requires gives us adequate time to prepare for the appointment. When we eventually meet the customer, we have all the information on our fingertips and this greatly assists with the customization of the package, just as the customer wants it. It also helps to effectively weed out the window-shopper from the genuine customers. Our staff is able to better focus on the customer, and there is no unnecessary wastage of time – either the customers’ or ours.
Me: Has your unique business approach had any negative impact on your business volumes ?
Kapil: Not at all. On the contrary, our customers appreciate it and they feel that they are getting full value for their money as well as time. We have gained several repeat and referral customers due to this process.
Me: What is the reaction of your peers in the industry to this concept ?
Kapil: Our competitors, particularly the smaller players, do try to take advantage by deriding our business process. They use this as a selling pitch to the prospective customers by telling them that they will help them to plan their holidays for free, while some actually tried to cash in on it by assuring the customer that “Don’t worry, you pay us a fee of only INR 2000 and we still plan it all for you”. Some actually gained out of this. But the fact is that both business models can co-exist and emerge as winners. It depends on how you approach the customer. It is s like somebody’s bread is somebody else’s butter, I guess.
Me: What would be your advice to your industry colleagues in this regard ?
Kapil: I would simply tell them to move ahead professionally. Money is not everything – place value on your own time and do justice to the customer’s dream. Making money is easy but actually delivering on commitments is difficult.
While some readers may scoff at this idea, it would be worth pointing out that there does seem to be some merit in this approach. To the casual observer visiting Kapil’s office, it may appear that there are no customers sitting around, and there are very few staff members. And yet, the staff who are visible appear to be thoroughly busy. But given the fact that they meet customers only with a prior appointment gives them a lot of time to work on the actually work on trip planning for the forthcoming appointments. The fact that Kapil’s side-table was full of client passports is also a silent testimony to the fact that there is no dearth of business.
A lot of food for thought here. How many people in the trade would be willing to take this kind of a bold step today ? Not many, I can bet.
What say you ? Do share your thoughts with us by commenting below.