Ram Papatla, VP-Experiences of Booking.com, talks to YourStory about his journey, opportunities, mentors, and the difference between ecommerce and travel businesses.Athira Nair
Spending more than a decade at a trillion dollar company, followed by stints at the world’s largest e-tailer and India’s ecommerce titan, 43-year-old Ram Papatla has had an enviable journey. If ecommerce is the today’s buzzword, travel is tomorrow’s – something Ram seems to have an eye for.
He was in the US for 14 years, working in program management at Microsoft. Following that, he was in Amazon’s Bengaluru office before moving to Flipkart as VP-Product Management. In 2018, Ram left Flipkart and moved to Amsterdam to join online travel platform Booking.com.
Talking to YourStory at the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, Ram calls his journey ‘fortunate’, saying that he has had great opportunities and mentors. At Flipkart, CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy himself was his mentor.
Ram says, “He was spectacular in bringing in the business sense. Some of my managers at Microsoft also helped me - one of them was Brett Brewer, who is now the General Manager of growth at Microsoft Office.”
He has made a few deliberate choices too. “While at Microsoft, I desperately looked for a team that was working with anything to do with mobile because the mobile-first trend had begun. Later, I thought ecommerce was the future, so I was looking for anything to do with that,” he says.
The move from ecommerce to travel, however, is a gigantic one in terms of business aspects. Both sectors work very differently in operations as well as consumer experience. As Ram puts it, online travel is not just about ‘shipping a box’, where the relationship with the customer ends for an ecommerce player. But in the travel sector, customer experience starts after the transaction is made.
“We are sending the customer to a property, a museum or an attraction, and that’s the customer experience. For ecommerce players, the focus is on optimisation in supply chain and fast delivery. But activities and experience in travel are not substitutable, and so we have to add personalisation.”
Another major difference Ram spots is Booking.com’s equation with the partner ecosystem, saying, "Ecommerce companies have done well by removing partners from their system. They get products/orders from them, put it in their systems, and that's where the magic starts. You can't do that with online travel partners. We can’t tell a listed museum that they are not involved anymore. We can’t ask them to give all their availability (in slots). They want to be involved in terms of the content you are writing about them, and they don't want you to do any sort of weird pricing that will destroy their reputation.”
Also, figuring out what your customer will buy next on travel is a hard task. Ecommerce companies could give baby wipes free with diapers, as the customer would probably need it as the next thing to buy. But to figure out the next best thing to buy in travel is almost impossible to guess because it's about who they are and what they want to do. Ram explains,
“Maybe your customer doesn't like modern art or doesn't want to go to a museum, so there's no point showing it to them. Or maybe they have already been there.”
With travel and tourism sector being transformed with internet, will the future see more travel choices coming online? Ram has a unique view on this. “I believe a lot more people are yet to travel than people who have. So we have to figure out how the ones who have not travelled yet will do so, and I don't believe one size fits all.”
Some customers don't want anything surprising. They are the ones who just want to get out of the airport, check in to the hotel, eat breakfast, go on a walking tour, eat lunch at noon, and get done by 6 pm. Two days later, they are back to the airport flying home. They want a high degree of predictability and trust, and want to know that someone is watching their back if something goes wrong. He adds,
“I believe these basic traits won't change. People will always look for the right price, convenience, and trust in travel."
Another recent trend in the travel sector is the affinity towards local attractions. “Usually, when you think about travelling, you first think about going outside your home country, probably because domestic tourism is not organised/accessible. But, that is starting to change. We've seen it in Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Nepal,” says Ram, adding that innovations will develop around pricing and affordability with Machine Learning (ML) and more personalisation.
Booking.com also has a strong academic connection to bring in new tech to the commercial world.
According to Ram, Flipkart and Amazon pride themselves in thinking big. “No problem is considered small. Ambition is big, and so is scale. I didn’t know how to think big; I learned to do so and make sure that to lay the path to make it work.”
Whether in Amazon or Booking.com, Ram says his biggest achievement is building the right team. He says,
“When I started at Booking, I had a very small team. Now, we have grown so much that we're in a different building.”
At present, he leads a team of 200. He adds, “It's all about bringing in great leadership and talent with a belief in the company’s mission. You have to be clear with people, telling them what they are signing up for, and make them aware of the cultural norms. Some want high-growth at any cost - this is not the place for it. For us, trust and what we have built in 18 years is important to preserve than selling a silly €20 ticket.”
On the other hand, Flipkart and Amazon are also infamous for their burn. Ram says that once they have a proof of concept, they completely shift to the new way of doing it. “It is a hard concept to copy, and it worked for their markets. But we are a financially responsible, publicly listed company, and we are very clear about what we think about R&D (research and development). Here, we try to do things in a more ‘stage-gate’ process. We work on a project in phases, prove each part, and grow.”
Similar to Amazon, Booking.com also use writing as a method to discuss and decide on investment narratives and business decisions. Ram says, “The discipline to write, and make a decision based on what you have written is really hard, because to get everybody on the same page means that everybody understands it the same way.”
He adds that Booking.com has an open environment and round tables for quarterly and monthly developments. “We can openly talk about why things are going well or not going well,” says Ram.
Despite his vast experience and mentoring some startups, Ram never wanted to start up on his own.
“For me, it’s all about scale. I am not saying that startups do not achieve scale. But when I talked to Gillian (Tans, Booking CEO) and David (Vismans, SVP and Chief Product Officer), it was really exciting to hear their aspirations to sell different travel products in hundreds of countries. That is something I had never done. That’s a big job, and I am always up for a challenge. I am happy I came,” he signs off.