The next time you have a great holiday at a star hotel in Munnar, or enjoy an unforgettable meal at that swanky new restaurant in town, you should probably thank Girish Prabhu and his wife Suma G. Prabhu.
Let’s say a long weekend’s coming up and you are planning a much-needed getaway. Or some old friends from school are in town, and you are looking for the perfect place to hang out. If you are amongst the hordes of digitally-savvy urbanites, your next step would be going online, checking out options, and reading reviews on places that look promising. Here’s where Kochi-based Instio Experiences, co-founded by Girish and Suma, gets involved.
Instio plays a key role in enhancing customer experiences for the hospitality industry. What started off as an electronic feedback management system for restaurants is today an end-to-end guest experience management platform for hotels, resorts, and restaurants in India. The startup is a part of NASSCOM’s 10,000 Startups programme, and was incubated at the Kochi startup warehouse launched by the apex industry body in association with the Kerala state government in 2015. Instio also went on to be selected for NASSCOM Innotrek 2017 – an invitation-only programme where a delegation of Indian startups get a chance to visit Silicon Valley.
Girish, who’s the CEO of Instio, says, “I had visited an upscale restaurant in Kochi with my family on my son’s birthday and had a really bad experience. We wanted to give feedback, and wrote about our experience on their feedback form. But we never heard back from the restaurant after that. Instead, we started to get marketing offers from the same place the day after our visit. When I inquired, I was told that the management is notified about the feedback only two weeks after it is collected.”
For businesses, this delay could mean the risk of losing a customer. On the other hand, good feedback would attract more potential customers to the hotel or restaurant. Girish says, “We wanted to fix this scenario of missing feedback.” This was in 2015. They spoke to several hotel and restaurant owners to validate the problem, and the company was incorporated in 2016. “Once we came up with something, we realised that there were a number of other important issues that we could solve using the same solution,” he adds.
And so, they expanded their scope to offer guest feedback and guest engagement solutions to help hospitality providers better engage with guests during various stages of their stay. “Today, we offer an intelligent CRM tool to identify hotel guests and provide a detailed profile for each of them. We offer automated email and SMS communications that hotels can send guests before they check in, on how they can customise their stay and avail special offers. Such real-time alerts and offers engage customers and improve sales,” says Girish.
The other and equally important aspect of their business is collecting feedback from customers through various mechanisms. For a hotel, the front office staff can collect real-time feedback via a tablet during check-out which enables the hotel staff to take necessary action where needed, even before the guests leave the premises. For restaurants, a tablet or similar device is handed to the guest when they are presented with the bill. The request for feedback is usually sweetened with the inclusion of incentives or rewards such as discount coupons for customers.
“We saw that one of the biggest challenges for hotels is internal communication between various departments to cater to requests in proper time. Delivering the requests was difficult as there are several layers of communication and there is no technology for hotel staff to communicate with each other,” says Suma.
Today, Instio’s GEM (Guest Experience Management) system offers a single operating system for various departments of hotels, connecting them seamlessly and enabling the employees to work more effectively.
During their stay, customers can use the hotel’s custom-designed, multi-lingual guest app to avail of various services and establish ongoing communication with the hotel staff. The hotel employees are also empowered with a mobile app to fulfill these service requests. “We enable both applications to communicate in various languages. So a French or German guest can order in their native language and the hotel employee would be able to read this request in Hindi or English. This helps the hotels offer better service to their customers,” Suma adds.
“At the end of their stay, we ask guests to share their experience on TripAdvisor, which helps improve the TripAdvisor rankings for the hotels,” says Girish.
Being one of the few TripAdvisor Review collection partners worldwide, and one of only two in India, has enabled the startup to sign up a number of properties. They have nearly 50 paying properties and nearly 70 others in the pipeline for their guest feedback platform. Their customers include Spree Hotels, Abad Hotels, Tatva Hospitality, and Pai Hotels, among others. The GEM platform is getting beta tested with a few handpicked hotel groups and they are also in discussion with leading five and four star properties for deployment of this solution.
Currently, the focus of the eight-member team is on providing GEM services to three, four and five star hotels and resorts in India and abroad. “We are targeting 250-300 properties by the end of 2018 and nearly 1000 properties by end of 2019,” says Girish. In terms of sector, they are planning to diversify into Healthcare (Hospitals) and Real Estate segments later in 2019.
Both Girish and Suma, who have been married for 14 years, have a background in computer science. Prior to starting Instio, the duo had a software services company, which developed web-based ERP systems for clients in the US and other countries. Girish is an ex-TCS and ex-Nielsen employee, with nearly 19 years’ experience in development and product management, and Suma is a Bachelor of Engineering with nearly 7 years’ experience in developing and supporting web applications.
Talking about the challenges they faced when starting up, Girish says, “The customer experience management space is still evolving in India. Globally, while there are leading providers like GuestFolio, Revinate, ReviewPro, and Medallia, in India the domain has always been linked to reputation management. We ourselves did not have much experience in the hospitality domain, and it was really tough to sell the solution, initially. We started to engage more with our target customers, learnt more about the domain, and learnt to provide real value for our customers,” says Girish.
According to Girish, “Initially, we were not sure whether to focus on raising capital or on customer development. Unlike other startups with multiple founders, where one founder can focus on fund-raising, another on technology and yet another on sales and marketing, it was just the two of us. So we both did everything we had to by putting in additional time. At first, we were chasing funding; after a few months, we decided to focus on customer development.”
Validation came when a customer, who had signed up with a competitor returned to Instio. “One of our 'lost customers', who had signed up with our competitors returned to us. Within two months, they became the top property in their market on TripAdvisor. Now, they have started referring more customers to us.”
“NASSCOM has been a constant supporter. With their help and the sponsorship of the Kerala Startup Mission, we visited San Francisco. At the time, our focus was on customer experience management and enterprise feedback solutions for various industries. As ours was a horizontal solution, we were not making much headway. We met an expert in San Francisco, who advised us to focus on industry-specific solutions. So, we decided to focus on hospitality, to begin with. This changed our story, and we have had more customers signing up after that,” says Girish.
They’ve been self-funded so far, with a majority of their own money and finds from high net worth individuals and friends and family. “Kerala Startup Mission has selected us for the K-Accelerator Program and a grant. We would like to engage with other external funds once we have a good mass of customers. We expect that to happen by August 2018,” he shares.