Travelstart and MakeMyTrip: Charting a post-pandemic future

TWO online travel pioneers – Travelstart founded in 1999 in Africa and MakeMyTrip founded in India in 2000 – were at WiT Experience Singapore to share how they are facing the future as they emerge from the dust of Covid.

In a wide-ranging conversation, both companies talked about new services, new norms in working, innovations, expansion to new markets, and more. Here is a snapshot of the discussion.

On remote working

Despite the
slowdown in international travel, Travelstart has been busy preparing for
post-pandemic travel “with a whole bunch of various projects and a few of them
we haven’t even launched yet,” said its CEO Stephan Ekbergh.

The one product the
South African firm did launch is Day One, a bespoke service for digital nomads,
which helps nomads work from Cape Town.

On why it launched Day One, Ekbergh explained that despite not much business during this period he noticed many expatriates going to Cape Town to work remotely. To help them overcome some of the hassles in setting up new lives for a few months, his team developed Day One – “part emigration in a box to make it easy for people to come to Cape Town and work here for three to six months.” He predicted at least 10% of them would probably return to buy property and eventually invest –  paving the way to get more investments into South Africa.

Commenting on the remote working trend in Asia and Japan, Deep Kalra, MakeMyTrip founder & group executive chairman, said it is also happening in India, not so much by choice but due to the country’s national lockdown from end March to end May in 2020. After 1.5 years of work from home about 20% of his  staff  – fully vaccinated and subject to random Covid tests – are  back in the office. The rest comes in two to three days a week.

“Productivity is
going up again, so I do believe that, going forward, we’re going to have a
hybrid kind of version, where people now will work half the time from office,
half the time from home.”

He stressed that this way of working may not be the right thing to do. “I’m just saying this might be the new norm, and companies and employees have to get comfortable with it, and asking how can I make this work, is that a win-win …. We’re all experimenting. I think we’ve got to find the new norm which is comfortable.”

Travelstart’s Stephan Ekbergh (right) and MakeMyTrip’s Deep Kalra (centre) in conversation with WiT’s Yeoh Siew Hoon at WiT Homecoming event.

Is the pandemic
a period about evolution or revolution?

Ekbergh said the current crisis would change people’s behaviour at least for
the next 10 to 20 years.

He opined that any
kind of restrictions, be it vaccine requirements or high costs of going to a
destination (due to travel requirements), would have negative effects on
travel. “While we’re all super happy now that things will go back to normal, I
think that the normal will just be a little bit different now if you want to
call it evolution or revolution.”

But he added that
one thing that is “very sure” for the next couple of years is there will be a
lot of M&A (mergers and acquisitions).

Two things that
excite them about the future of travel  

On India, Kalra
said:“The first is the pandemic has fundamentally accelerated the
number of people who are buying online. So the reported numbers are that pre-pandemic
we had 110 million people buying online of the 500 million people who were
online in India. That number now is anywhere between 220 (double) or 250
million, which is pretty much the entire population of the US. So I think
that’s the most exciting part where we have just doubled the market that is comfortable
buying online, and there were many hesitations about buying online.

“The second is the
mainstreaming of alternative accommodation, or homestays. That’s something
which people seek out the most during the pandemic, and it has become
mainstream now, which wasn’t the case in India. We’ve been pushing it for a
while, and people were still looking at it as a corner case or certain kind of
people were looking at it.

“The third is
travel is going upmarket. People have saved a lot of money because they haven’t
been travelling and now they’re saying, you know we can afford a resort where
we will have more space, I feel safer as they’re taking all the precautions,
etc. We’re seeing this distinct shift.”

On Africa, Ekbergh
said domestic travel is the first: “People stay a lot more at home, so they
travel more locally. I think that (domestic travel) kept us alive during this
whole period. This (trend) will stay because the money stays within the
ecosystem here instead of going to Europe and other places. Africa is an
incredible continent with some of the most spectacular stuff that you can experience

The second is
Africa is “very complex. We like that because that makes it hard for
competition to come in here,” he added.

On expanding to
other markets including Middle East

Kalra: “We went to
the Middle East for a very specific reason. In fact, we are in the GCC with an
Arabic offering. We get a lot of natural traffic from that, and it’s largely
because of the Indian diaspora who is comfortable with the brand.”

He added that as
Dubai and places in the Middle East are only about three hours away from India
there is a big Indian diaspora in the region, who also own homes. So an Arabic
site was built to cater to this segment and the response has been good despite
the pandemic. “We will look at similar markets, but I think India is big enough
for us right now.”

Ekbergh said the company has not pulled out of the Middle East completely, but
is not as active as before due to having to do some trade off because of the pandemic
and with limited cash, the company had to focus. “So I wouldn’t say yes or no,
we haven’t pulled out completely, we’re not as active as we were before. Will
that change? Maybe, maybe not.”

What “Infinity”
means to them

Ekbergh: “I would
say for me, infinity looks like a steady stream of beautiful constant cash
flow. That’s what I want to see.”

Kalra: “It’s
something like a tangible dream. I do believe travel is coming back, probably
the most resurgent industry possible – revenge, resurgence whatever we want to
call it. And for us, very tangibly, if every customer could end up being a
brand ambassador, then I think we’re well on the way.

“This really tough time might have been the best thing for many companies, particularly if you’re a market leader. … When we look back in 2025, we’ll say ‘You know what, we came back much stronger’.”

• The inaugural WiT Africa is happening this Thursday, November 25, at 10am-1pm (South Africa time, GMT+2). Have you registered yet? Sign up now for free, if you still haven’t. Check out the Programme.

Watch video of panel here.

Featured image credit: nikauforest/Getty Images