After expanding Thomas Cook’s footprint in the retail segment with the ‘Holidaywallas’ campaign in 2009, Rakshit Desai, Executive Director, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd is talking about the entire service portfolio of Thomas Cook in the new campaign ‘Travel Smooth’
ABOUT THE BRAND
In 1881, Thomas Cook started its India operations, setting up the first office in Mumbai. On October 21, 1978, it was christened Thomas Cook (India) Ltd. Thomas Cook India introduced a unique marketing campaign in 2009, ‘The Holidaywallas’. It was launched against the backdrop of a highly cluttered and competitive ‘me-too’ market, to counter an ‘expensive British’ imagery; to create a unique space and own it while reaching out to a wider audience. Thomas Cook’s footprints currently extend to over 216 locations in 78 cities across India, Mauritius & Sri Lanka and is supported by partner network of 107 Gold Circle Partners and 180 Preferred Sales Agents in over 100 cities pan-India.
Rakshit Desai, Executive Director, Travel Services on the Board of Thomas Cook (India) Limited, has worked extensively across Europe, the Middle East and North America. He started his career with a brief stint at Contract Advertising, Mumbai in 1998. He then joined Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, London in 2000 where he specialized in strategic and transformational issues for major multinational corporations. He joined the Thomas Cook Group in 2003. Rakshit has graduated from Sydenham College, Mumbai and done his MBA in International Business from Griffith University, Australia. He is also an MSc in Economics from the London School of Economics & Political Science.
Q] How does your new campaign ‘Travel Smooth’ take your brand forward after your earlier campaign, ‘The Holidaywallas’?
We have been in India for 160-odd years and mostly focused on the institutional side of the business. Only recently did we look at the retail end, and over the last three years, we have grown our distribution network, improved our customer reach and expanded our product portfolio. We have invested substantially on the marketing and communication front. The most important thing for us is to tell customers that we are serious about serving them directly. Secondly, we needed to be known as a travel provider because customers used to associate us with leisure. Thirdly, our research showed that Thomas Cook was perceived to be an expensive brand and less accessible than we would have liked it to be. So we came up with the concept of ‘Holidaywallas’ and it has effectively repositioned our brand as a leisure-focused retail services provider. It helps calibrate the brand with its audience and define that we have started speaking the language of middle class India. The size of our leisure and retail business has doubled over the last two-and-a-half years. We have realized that the customer’s underlined travel experience is quite OK but the whole process of arranging flights, visa applications, travel insurance, etc is harrowing. So we decided to put these things together for the customer. Hence, we came up with the platform of ‘Travel Smooth’ and we believe it will give people a good end-to-end travel experience. We launched the TVC last week.
Q] How do you plan to execute the campaign?
It will largely be on TV, some of it online and some outdoor. All the tactical promotions will be in print and we will do a lot of old-fashioned social networking, which is holding community-driven events at housing societies, neighbourhood colleges, etc.
Q] Do you plan to do anything on social media?
A fair amount of activity is planned on those lines. I am a little sceptical about going commercial with activities on social media because the more commercially driven, the less credible it is. So, I would rather talk to our customers and give them products and services that they want to buy, and deliver them with panache, so that they talk about it. That is probably the best approach to online.
Q] How much are you spending on this campaign?
Our annual marketing investment is usually between Rs 20-30 crore. That is double of what it used to be about two to three years ago.
Q] What were the key factors based on which you re-looked at your strategy adopted three years ago and focused on the retail side?
One was that we already enjoyed significant market share in the institutional end of the market, and were exploring avenues of growth. We also understood that the retail market was highly fragmented and that there is scope for consolidation. We did a couple of activations to help facilitate that about 4-5 years ago and then we embarked on the organic expansion of the brand to take it to the next level. So, it was a strategic decision to build a retail business. Also, the purchasing power of the country was rising and disposable incomes were going up. The annual leisure experience is now more or less a fixed component of most people’s annual budget, which used to be highly discretionary five years ago.
Q] After ‘The Holidaywallas’ campaign, is your brand now perceived to be accessible, at the lower end of the market?
It is a benchmark for quality. I don’t think we are perceived as a discount market player, but a good value-for-money brand. The accessibility is driven as much by the marketing campaign as by our presence in Tier II and Tier III markets. We were virtually unknown in these markets and now we are the emerging market leaders.
Q] Could you not have continued with your ‘The Holidaywallas’ positioning this time?
We actually needed something that would stretch across the entire product offering.
Q] And the fact that you have a 160-year history in the country, is that not a good talking point to build trust around the brand?
Most people today recognize the fact that we’ve been around for over a hundred years, but I’m not quite sure whether the Indian traveller particularly connects to it.
Q] In 2009, you changed your creative agency from Dentsu to JWT.
There was a conscious change in the strategy and the relationship with the previous incumbent wasn’t delivering. We consciously went to the market and started working with JWT. We are happy with the output. And our media agency has also done a stellar job in media planning and buying.
Q] How has the last festival and winter season been for Thomas Cook and the travel industry on the whole? Has the slowdown in European economies impacted the Indian travel business?
For outbound travel, last year was an outstanding year and we have great expectations from this year. The slowdown in European economies does impact inbound side of the business as Europeans are reluctant to come to India.
Q] How has the rupee fluctuation impacted the business?
It will obviously make an overseas trip more expensive. As soon as we saw this trend emerging, we went out and re-contracted with most of our arrangements so we could offset that impact. On the exchange side of the business, it is better for us because you earn more.
Q] Do online travel sites in any way impact travel agencies or companies like Thomas Cook?
I’m not sure whether we have seen much of an impact. I don’t think we were ever active in the very single point-to-point ticketing business. That is not our core area of expertise. We are more extensive with services like multi-point itinerary, integrated travel components, ground transport, food, tour escorts, etc. The online guys haven’t really gone that far because they are online and this is a high touch and high involvement category. I believe that there are a lot of mid-size travel agencies out there that have business in single point domestic ticketing and they have been hurt by the online guys.
Q] Do you see any change in the dynamics of the industry going forward? Do you think the online travel players will get into your territory?
The online guys don’t have a choice but to get into this kind of stuff, because there is no money in the simple point-to-point product. First you do it for growth, and then you do it to show people that there is money, then you raise the money and you spend it to drive more growth and then eventually you start thinking about your pockets. That’s where the online travel industry is right now. They are all scratching their heads, wondering how to get into our space and we are not quite sure that we want to go into their space. So we are charting a new territory and trying to take customization and personalization to new highs. We are trying to help people plan an entire calendar of travel because we see fragmentation of travel purchase. We are not really worried about others replicating what we offer because we took a long time to gain the equity, expertise, credibility and customer trust.
Q] You mentioned further customization of services... but taking a cue from the developed markets, the situation is pretty grim, especially the London business. So, what is the next step forward?
Business models in India and other parts of the world are completely different. The operating leverage there is very high because you have to exercise control over the entire vertical chain. In India, the business is more about brokerage and aggregation. So, we do not make anything or operate any hotel or airline. We have no assets and no operating leverage. We are just a middleman using a lot of skill and imagination to glue together something that customers can dream of. It is quite unfair to say that we are going the same way as the developed markets. Most of our European businesses are actually doing quite well despite their operating models.
Q] Will that put pressure on the Indian business in terms of more expectations and larger returns from the Indian market?
If there is an expectation, we would deliver it. Our job is to do our best. Even if that pressure wasn’t there, we would be working quite hard to do our best.