Our special travel issue was just the right time to have insights from one of the leading online travel booking portals – Booking. com – and learn about its functioning and challenges. In an exclusive e-conversation with Mr. Vikas Bhola, Head of India Sub-Continent, Booking.com, Utsavi Jha got his first hand views on travel and technology and they’re very interesting.
Exhibit: Can you talk about your role at Booking. com in depth?
Vikas Bhola: My role at Booking. com is to build the best and broadest offering of accommodations across India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives for our customers. That means running a team of over 100 people across 5 offices. On a daily basis I work with the teams in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Colombo in Sri Lanka to make sure they are building relationships with as many properties across the subcontinent and beyond as possible. We are also there to support our property partners when it comes to Booking.com, including how to optimise their property listing to attract more customers. I also work closely with our regional Asia Pacific team based in Singapore as well as connecting often with our global headquarters in Amsterdam. This is a company that truly lives and breathes travel and as a result I travel more than 50% of my time, visiting the offices and meeting with partners throughout India, as well as meeting with the teams in Singapore and Amsterdam.
Exhibit: What do you think of the current Tech scene in India where do you see it heading in the next 5 years?
Vikas Bhola: The technology space in India has undergone a huge evolution. Currently, the adoption of Artificial Intelligence across the different industries is the key focus in technology. We are seeing that the biggest adopters of innovative technology are the startups in the country and they are increasingly using AI for their operations. Larger technology firms are making artificial intelligence more accessible for the start-up eco-system resulting in better benefits for the end consumer. I think in the next 5 years there will be further penetration of technology across all the different sectors and customers will be using technology more seamlessly. Plus, further enhancements in artificial intelligence will enable companies to service the customers better and provide them with real-time experience.
Exhibit: What do you think of India as a start-up hub?
Vikas Bhola: It is an exciting time to do business in India and there has been a tremendous growth in the start-up eco-system in the country. The different start-ups with their innovative business models have created a disruption in the country. They have successfully attracted the interest of foreign investors which has resulted in the different businesses spreading across the country and contributing to the growth of the economy. At Booking.com we have a start-up accelerator program called the Booking Booster to promote sustainable tourism. Last year, 700 start-ups from across 102 countries applied to the programme with entities from India registering the third highest number of applications. Among them was Authenticook which made it to the final selection of the top 10 ventures globally and received a grant of €200,000 from the program. In 2018, we have decided to double our support for start-ups and change-makers in sustainable tourism and we hope to receive an unprecedented response to the program this year as well.
Exhibit: Tell us about your thoughts on social media, travel bloggers and how they’re capitalising on travel.
Vikas Bhola: Social media is an important tool to reach out to the customers directly. Through social media, customers can understand the ethos of the brand and are able to get real-time updates from the brand. Influencers such as travel bloggers help in conveying the brand philosophy. We work with influencers across many of our markets and believe they can have a great impact on the decision-making process when it comes to their followers making travel choices.
Exhibit: What’s the next big thing in the travel industry?
Vikas Bhola: Technological advancements will be of prime importance in the travel industry. Travellers are always looking at using technology to make their travel simpler. They would like to make travel plans with just a few swipes of the finger as well as want real-time customer service that is ready to respond when it’s most convenient for the travellers. To meet these requirements of the travellers, enhancements in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning that will provide smarter, quicker and personalised interactions will be one of the key driving forces behind the next innovations in travel. They will be able to increasingly access customised travel options based on personal preferences and past behaviour. Chat-like service and support will be dominated by hyper-efficient automation for routine enquiries, leaving even more resources to be allocated to outstanding in-person experiences when the human touch can make the most difference. Soon, all travellers will need for any trip will be the smartphone and a bit of imagination – technology will do the rest. The only job of travellers will be to take it all in and enjoy the experience!
“ Soon, all travellers will need for any trip will be the smartphone and a bit of imagination – technology will do the rest. The only job of travellers will be to take it all in and enjoy the experience! ”
Exhibit: What do you have to keep in mind when operating in India and what alterations does the portal have to make to fit as per the Indian travel scenario?
Vikas Bhola: India seems to have unending potential and it is an exciting time for the company to be in India. International visitors love visiting India and Indians also like to travel within their own country. There are so many wonderful things to experience and explore in India, ranging from the ancient sites and landmarks to the hillside stations, from our deserts and beaches to the backwaters and bustling metropolises with our worldfamous cuisine. Since India is such a diverse country with some many wonderful things to experience and explore, our team in India is constantly working towards bringing more partners on board and making more accommodation options available to travellers. As mentioned previously, our pay-when-you-stay model works well for many of our Indian customers as well as the ability to make a booking without a credit card.
Exhibit: What’s the next big thing in Tech according to you?
Vikas Bhola: As mentioned previously, the use of Artificial Intelligence and enhancements in the field will be the next big thing in technology. Overall, there will be further penetration of technology across the different sectors.
Exhibit: What’s more in store for Booking.com?
Vikas Bhola: Booking.com’s mission has always been a simple one – to help leisure and business travellers whatever their budgets, and easily discover, book and enjoy the world’s best places to stay.
In India, we want to keep adding more amazing and unique accommodation options for our customers to choose from. Innovation is part of our DNA, and we are always exploring new ways to empower travellers to simply search and book an accommodation that is just right for them – no matter which screen or device.
In this light, we are innovating on products such as Passion Search – platform to help travellers easily search and discover the most amazing destinations based on their passions. We are also optimising products to enhance our customers’ entire travel experience, including Booking Experiences – the ability to book tours, activities and sights directly through the site.
For us it has always been about creating a great consumer product to deliver amazing, unrivalled travel experiences to our guests and building win-win relationships with our more than 1 million accommodation partners worldwide and this continues to be our number one goal. Therefore, as long as we keep moving toward that goal, we will grow.