Travel Agent NewsMadhavan Menon shares how the pandemic turbo-charged Thomas Cook India's pivot towards customer-centric digitalisation.

Travel reimagined in a global crisis through technology

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Thomas Cook India managing director Madhavan Menon saw a need to focus on "customer centricity."
Thomas Cook India managing director Madhavan Menon saw a need to focus on "customer centricity."

The Covid-19 pandemic has honed the survival instinct for many people around the world; for travel industry veteran Madhavan Menon, the crisis only sharpened his instinct to ensure the survival and resilience of Thomas Cook India, an established travel brand with a heritage dating back to 1881.

I had the benefit of leadership support. I have all these CEOs that we have in the group, and we always talk to each other. I keep saying this, ‘if I had to make a lot of these decisions on my own, would I have done it?’

At the onset of the pandemic, Menon, managing director of Thomas Cook India, drew on his past experience with SARS with the Asian Trails team and projected that business recovery would likely take six months or even longer. That assumption proved prescient.

Beyond immediate moves to immediately pivot the entire organisation to operate from home during lockdown, Menon and his management team also led the company through a series of steps to quickly adapt and prepare for survival during what he could already see were going to be tough months ahead.

The mission on hand was to "reimagine the organisation and restructure it with technology," said Menon.

The pandemic effectively turbo-charged the digitalisation processes at both SOTC and Thomas Cook India, including automating and integrating both entities on the back-end, whilst retaining two separate brand identities on the customer-facing front.

Menon also saw a need to “focus on customer centricity,” especially in a climate where consumers grew accustomed to booking anything and everything online. “Over the next 18 to 24 months, our focus went from selling products to customers, to customers telling us what they want,” he added.

To follow customers wherever they are, Thomas Cook adopted an omni-channel model. “Customer can choose whatever channel that they want to approach us, and the experience should be identical. If someone comes to us through a call centre, online, or want a hybrid approach combining human interaction with online interaction, they could have it. The screens that the agent and the customer would look at would be identical."

The efforts bore results for the company as Indians started travelling again when the devastating Delta wave subsided in 2021. Since September last year, Menon saw a resurgence in the number of people booking for holidays, both domestically and internationally.

Existing as well as new customers, especially the younger generation, started reaching out to Thomas Cook India and SOTC through its various channels. “We were a legacy company that sold tour packages, but suddenly, we found that the demand was for customised tours,” said Menon.

Looking ahead, the business leader believes the company is now in a better position to meet customer needs through multiple channels. He also remains unruffled about any potential competition arising from OTAs. “We will not compete directly with the OTA; we will remain in a segment different from them. They will continue to sell more flights as their primary source and hotels as a secondary source of revenue. We, in turn, will sell packages with many customised options.”

He added, “We recognise that in the travel business, especially in India, in a B2C environment, you're fulfilling a dream. When you're fully fulfilling something intangible, all of us want reassurance.”

For the former banker-turned-seasoned-travel-executive, who has encountered his fair share of crises through his twenty-plus-years travel career, what the pandemic drove home was the combined necessity of “the strength of a balance sheet” and “leadership support."

“I had the benefit of leadership support. I have all these CEOs that we have in the group, and we always talk to each other. I keep saying this, ‘if I had to make a lot of these decisions on my own, would I have done it?’”

Amidst pandemic-induced changes in consumer behaviour, did Menon see any changes in his own behaviour? “Netflix, Prime, YouTube and all these various streaming apps… I think I watch them with a little more intensity today than I did before,” he replied, with a laugh.

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