Ratna Chadha, the Chief Executive of TIRUN Travel Marketing, has pioneered the concept of cruise vacations in India over the past two decades. She has over 35 years of experience within the travel industry, having worked with various leading travel brands during her career. An honours graduate from India’s premiere educational institute, Lady Shri Ram College, Ratna was selected as a management trainee by ITC’s Welcomgroup Hotels division in 1977, and, subsequently spent over a decade in various roles within the organisation.
Ratna moved to the UK with her husband Gautam Chadha where she worked with the Sheraton Hotels’ marketing office briefly. They soon returned to India to ensure that their children received the quality boarding school education that they had received themselves. In 1991, Ratna along with her husband established the franchise of Discover the World Marketing (DTWM) in India representing global travel brands in the country, including Hertz, US Airways, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn Hotels, Universal Studios and subsequently Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in 1993. “We both joined hands together and started our office with one peon, two tables and cartons to sit on. And we never looked back,” recalls Ratna.
In 1993, finding a market for cruise vacations was like “looking for a needle in a haystack.” However, Ratna and Gautam braved the odds and went ahead. “Starting on our own was a huge risk. We had young kids. We had no idea whether this was going to take off and how successful it would become. We didn’t have surplus money and disposable incomes to bank on. Neither of us came from business families so if we failed, we would have to go back to our previous jobs. The only thing we had in our favour was our entrepreneurial skills and our desire to achieve,” recounts Ratna.
In her initial capacity as Director of Sales and Marketing, Ratna spearheaded the strategic development of all brands and drove all sales channels, leading to year-on-year growth and industry ‘benchmarks’ of service quality across products. Gautam had worked with British Airways and American Express. He had experience with their marketing organisations in the UK before setting up their franchise. “Obviously he brought his experiences to the fore. I had my experience as well. He was a marketing person and I was a sales person and we complimented each other to that extent and brought in some of the principles that we had learned and picked up in our previous avatars,” says Ratna.
Was handling an entrepreneurial venture with a spouse an easy task? Ratna maintained that she did hesitate at the prospect at first. The usual apprehensions of segregating personal and professional lives and handling conflict came to mind. It was Gautam who put her mind at ease and reminded her that she “can be professional anywhere and instead of working somewhere else, you work in your own organisation and business. You will work harder and do much better and this is what happened.” When debates and arguments arose, Ratna knew that only one person must lead and allowed Gautam to do so. As their children spent nearly eight months away at boarding school, Ratna also stepped back to spend time with them when they were home. “Both my husband and I were boarding school products and both of us wanted our children to have the same experiences. I think being in a boarding school allowed for an early development towards entrepreneurship as you’re fairly independent at a young age and you think differently. Also, there’s no one to take you out of your upheavals in life. It’s how we got the impetus and push to be on our own,” says Ratna.
By 2001, DTWM-India was rechristened TIRUN Travel Marketing, from there on focusing exclusively on cruise vacations promoting the three cruise brands within the umbrella of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. – Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises. Ratna and Gautam used their past industry experience and retooled themselves to steer it towards success. “We had to educate our channel partners, customers, staff as well as ourselves in order to market this luxury experience and expand the market in India,” she said. Word of mouth turned out the best results in spite of the niche marketing efforts that had to be undertaken during the early days. “It was a very small number game and even today it continues to remain small. For the potential that India has to offer, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the tip of the iceberg,” she admits.
Market segments determine current cruising trends in India. People travel with friends and family and well-heeled travellers want to try out exotic destinations such as the Black Sea, Arctic and Antarctic. Families accompanying young kids look to newer ships and equipment with the right amenities. Those who have cruised before want to do longer cruises so they go for the Baltic or Norwegian fjord cruise options. “Themed tours are becoming popular. But in a market like India, where we’re still trying to get people to raise aspirational levels, it may take time to get that niche,” says Ratna.
In terms of how she would like the future to take shape, Ratna says, “I’m hoping that at least out of the 50 million who are expected to travel annually by 2020 out of India, if we get even 5% to take a cruise then we will have our market. India will then have emerged as a cruise market.”
In 2012, Ratna took on the reins at TIRUN Travel Marketing when Gautam passed away. “I learned from his experience. You will never fail if you focus, are flexible and if you follow through. I followed a lot of principles and practices that he had set up and then I dovetailed with my own experience,” says Ratna. With her children joining her with newer and fresher ideas, she is convinced that this has catapulted their organisation to the next level since branding and marketing are a different ball game now with technology and social media leading the way. “I’m at a stage where I’ve come full circle. I’m figuring out how to blend leadership decisions with these newer techniques. I have to go through the learning curve now. My experience stands me in good stead to know how to get things done,” she adds.
Ratna advises entrepreneurs to seize the day as market conditions are very conducive for entrepreneurs in India. “If you’re young, you have that much more time to make mistakes and learn, unlike us who were older when we started off because we spent most of our youth working. Do not give up your drive or your aspirations unless you’ve really tried to the core because if you’re persuasive and have confidence in yourself then there’s nothing that can come in your way,” she offers.
In 2013, TIRUN Travel Marketing celebrates 20 years of its partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in India. The success of this continued relationship and growth is a reflection of Gautam Chadha’s leadership, which is now carried on by Ratna Chadha and her team. TIRUN Travel Marketing is currently headquartered out of New Delhi, with a network of five proprietary offices in New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai, as well as representative presence in Hyderabad and Kolkata.