Tourist volumes have decimated in Uttarakhand

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Hari Nair, Founder & CEO, HolidayIQ.com, is not new to YS. There have been regular stories about the holiday information portal powered by travel community. Catching up with Hari once again was work, however, but he made it fun, because the subject matter revolved around holiday and travel. There were a few grim subjects, though, that came up during our telephonic and email interaction, such as the impact of natural disasters on holiday travel. Read on.

YS: About HolidayIQ.com’s current and future mobile and social strategy

Mobile is particularly relevant for India, seeing that a lot of people in India will get on to the Internet for the first time through a mobile device, and existing users will use mobile devices more and more.

At HolidayIQ.com, we are looking at our mobile strategy in two dimensions, viz. consumer facing, and B2B. We see a significant opportunity in both and have arrived at an integrated strategy.

On the consumer front, we are already seeing significant traction: 35% of our audience today use mobile devices to access our content. Considering the fact that HolidayIQ.com gets 5 million users a month, this is not an insignificant number and is expected to grow much more over time. This means we have to do a number of things to ensure people have a good experience consuming our content. Today we have a mobile site, m.holidayIQ.com, which is currently in the process of being revamped and over the next couple of months going to have a very good contemporary mobile site feel. More importantly, the mobile site will contain all the information available on the main site purposed for mobile devices.

We also have a mobile app which currently focused on information about hotels such as reviews, photographs and contact details of all 30,000 hotels across India. Effectively, if you have this app, you can never be lost. You can always find a bunch of hotels nearest to you and find a place to stay. It is a very simple idea of powering the user with access to hotels. As time goes by, we will expand that app to cover a lot of other information. The premise of using the app is that people can have the information even if they are not connected to the net.

On the B2B front, we recently launched hiq!PAD. We got feedback from hotels that they would like to get more reviews from guests but didn’t know how to do it. We are converting the software in this tablet to a stand alone app such that if the hotel doesn’t get the hardware from HolidayIQ.com, they can download the software from our website on to an android device to get reviews from guests at checkout.

Between consumer-facing and trade-facing initiatives we have many exciting things that we are working on currently, expected to roll out in the next 12-18 months.

YS: Are you also working with travel agents?

We are currently focused on hotels, but as a second phase we will be working with travel agents. We are working with 1000+ travel agents currently and one of the things we want to do is help them get into a much more efficient world of mobile. We are planning a device similar to the hiq!PAD for travel agents to get reviews about themselves from their own customers. We won’t be launching this in the near future but certainly two quarters from now, this would be something we would look at.

YS: What about airlines?

Once we do travel agents, we will extend this to every category of travel players including airlines, cabs, etc. So, if you travel from Chennai to Mahabalipuram in a taxi, you can rate your experience on the device the taxi driver gives you and be assured that your feedback is going up on HolidayIQ.com without anyone tampering with it.

YS: How many hiq!PAD devices are being used currently?

We are doing pilot project with 300 hotels now, 40% of which are extremely efficient in using the gadget and have been able to collect a large number of guest reviews. Around 50% are facing issues as this requires a behavioural change. We are working closely with them to figure out solutions for the same.

YS: On the impact of natural calamities on holiday behaviour

I think this is a really important subject and would like to approach it from a broader perspective. In some of the research and focus groups we did with our member travellers, we have observed that today, safety and security is one of the most important considerations in deciding various aspects of travel.

In the last couple of years, lots of things have happened like boat tragedies, manmade occurrences and natural disasters that have made people very cautious. I was looking at data as to what happened to traveller sentiments immediately post the occurrence in Uttarakhand. Between mid-June and after June, typically there is a fall in volume of tourists heading to Uttarakhand, largely owing to the possibility of rain. However, this year the volumes have decimated. I was looking at 2012 data, after mid-June there was about 40% drop in tourists going to Uttarakhand last year. Against that, this year the drop is in excess of 80%. This shows that as far as people are concerned, this has become a very difficult option to consider practically.

In fact, this is for the broader Uttarakhand area; if you look at the Himalayan region within Uttarakhand, the fall is even higher, at almost 97%. Which means, this season, tourism to the Himalayan region is over. No one is travelling. If you look at the same period last year, it was a 50% drop, so against that this year is a 100% drop. So, that particular region will take a long time to recover for travellers to have confidence. This kind of disaster affects not only that particular destination, but the entire region.

The fact of the matter is that the Uttarakhand disaster is going to have a major impact on pan-Himalayan tourism in India and to some extent devastate the Himalayan economy. Its impact will be felt positively in some other regions in India and probably abroad. Places like these are majorly dependent on tourism. We have got to find ways to manage this by effectively managing the post disaster recovery process – how long it will take, what needs to be done and what’s is the best way to do it to instil a sense of safety in tourists. There are a lot of lessons to be learnt here and that is what the focus should be on.

YS: Is HolidayIQ.com working with partners in that region to help them come back to normalcy?

This is exactly what HolidayIQ.com wants to do and the way we want to do this is to work with intrepid travellers who are ready to go back to these places earlier than everybody else. So, as soon as our intrepid members head to these places our endeavour is to bring actual ground level information from there on to our website so that more and more people can actually understand what the actual situation is like.

We did something similar with J&K a few years ago. When J&K was slowly coming back to normalcy in terms of tourism, it was some of the HolidayIQ.com travellers who wrote a lot of good content and contributed a lot of good photos giving a very good sense of the reality on the ground and gave confidence to the larger group of travellers to go there. That is the best we can do after something like this happens to give travellers confidence that the actual situation has improved. However, this can be done only if the on-ground situation actually improves. If travellers find that things have not improved, then it is really unlikely you get any change.

Tomorrow we shall run the second part of this interview, where Hari talks about brand initiatives done by the travel portal and how the falling rupee is affecting travel.

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