As we browse Facebook from our urban-corporate prisons, the joke “If travelling was free, you’d never see me again,” hits too close to home. Luckily, a startup was born out of the frustration of a jilted customer, and intends to approach the ever-so-crowded OTA space as an ambitious service provider, keen on helping us with all our travel fancies. Bringing the average wanderlust-plagued worker one step closer to the ultimate fantasy, Nagpur-based startup WTFares introduced free cancellation on all domestic flights, hoping to pioneer the next wave in travel e-commerce.
The trio of 27-year-olds, Bhaskar Prakash, Gunjan Agarwalla and Varun Sarda, is from the BITS’ mechanical engineering class of 2010, and 25-year-old Vedant Sarda, Varun’s younger brother, is a Rutgers graduate. Back in 2010, when the term ‘startup’ was still exotic, and the concept even more so, Varun came out as a mass media connoisseur, and started a business with four of his college-mates — a student tabloid by the name of TILT (The iLike Times).
While the product was extremely popular amongst the students back then, it lacked long-term financial gains. Varun wanted to explore his newfound love for media further, but his parents insisted that he join the family business instead. “I have always been of the opinion that just because your father has put in great effort to build a business, you shouldn’t just randomly take over unless you’ve proved your interest and worthiness. You’re skipping a vital life cycle of finding what you’re destined to!” he says. He did join forces with his father for two years but felt restless during that time. “Besides, e-commerce was a hot cake around 2012 and 2013,” he says.
Around the same time, a popular online travel company managed to ruin his trip completely. “They gave us a hotel that didn’t even exist and were unable to solve my problem. It was their customer service attitude that made me take to Facebook, and there was my eureka moment!” he recalls.
The post went viral, and in quick succession came comments brimming with similar experiences faced by jaded travellers. “That is when I pledged to get into travel e-commerce and deliver excellent service. I knew little about travel back then, though. So, I became a travel agent to understand the business model and its workings before taking it online,” he says. This was when he realised that the glitch in bookings that hurts Indian customers the most was the airline cancellation fee.
And that observation was right on the money — today, WTFARES.com has numerous reviews online, and all of them ranked the startup 4/5 or above. But let’s rewind.
The co-founders, then merely college friends, were all living in different cities. Varun pitched the idea of investing as co-founders to Bhaskar and Gunjan, and they were instantly onboard.
“From 2014 to this day, the airline industry has significantly changed due to oil prices, and facilitators/agents have been struggling to distinguish themselves,” he explains. It was in such a scenario that WTFares entered the race with a striking differentiator — flights, hotels and holidays across the globe at pre-negotiated prices — and, as of last month, it became India’s first website to offer absolutely free cancellation on all domestic flights.
It was in August of 2013 that Varun turned this into his day and night job; the other co-founders are still part-timers. They went live in October 2014.
WTFares acts a consolidator, meaning that they buy flights, hotels and tours from a number of places, using pre-purchase agreements, so that they can offer their customers free cancellation, “no questions asked.”
By charging a small 10 percent premium, they secure flight changes and cancellations, which can be as little as Rs 125, and increase in proportion with the airfare. The premium charged is non-refundable, and the refund can be used on the website for future bookings. They grant refunds even on no-show or ‘non-refundable’ tickets.
“We also offer normal fares; customers can put in a promo code (WTFNOCON) and get rid of the security premium. This fare beats most of the OTAs in India today,” he says.
“We do not boast of having direct contracting everywhere, but we take pride in having achieved the best bargains on all flight deals, something that helps us be the most competitive in the market, and we take every OTA head-on,” he says, commenting on their hacks.
By the end of 2014, they had two other full-time employees and had expanded into organising tours as well. Today, the team is 12-strong, and works out of its own rented office space in Nagpur.
Two years down the line, they’ve catered to 20,000 customers, carrying out nearly 500 transactions a month and grossing around Rs 9 crore over the past year, with a steady growth of 15 percent MoM. Last month, they had their 1,000th trip booking which was a moment Varun cherishes.
“A lot has to do with the dip in airfares since the 2015 fuel drop,” he recalls, adding, “It took us an awfully long time to gain attention and traction on our website; for the first two or three months, we didn’t see anything happening. We had a monthly volume of 20 transactions.”
This was hitting them hard, and they started thinking like customers. “Where do we go to search for flights? We Google ‘flights’, right? That was a huge realisation, and hence, a huge investment, probably even bigger than the cost of building the online system. That changed everything — we got to the high of 1,000 transactions in a month,” he reveals.
Thinking from the customer’s perspective is what has gotten them this far, whether it’s about creating perfect SEO metrics or providing free cancellation. “Travel might be an overcrowded space, but our competitors are too big to think about creating happy customers right now,” he says.
Besides being the first company to offer free cancellation, their trips are centred on exploring offbeat destinations — like Seychelles for honeymoons, Taiwan for business, or Jordan and Turkey for family vacations.
WTFares just launched an app on Google Playstore, and they think that should give them a good boost. The app for iOS is on its way as well. They are currently vying to become a marketplace for travel and cater to small and medium players and travel agencies, helping them maximise revenues. Towards that goal, they have also launched a travel CRM, Travforce.com, for these players that helps build, monitor and customise their database along with holiday itineraries.
They have bootstrapped their way through all their major changes in offerings, with some help from family and friends. “We feel that WTFares can be bootstrapped to success on its own! However, we would be open to having a mentor-cum-investor onboard,” Varun says.