MakeMyTrip’s Deep Kalra opens up on navigating COVID-19, revenge travel, and the way ahead

At a session at TechSparks 2021, MakeMyTrip Co-founder Deep Kalra reveals how the travel company dealt with COVID-10 challenges, the revenge travel trend, and why he feels the Indian economy will be driven by the startup ecosystem.
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COVID-19 upended most businesses across the world, but the travel industry took one of the greatest hits. 

Speaking at TechSparks 2021, YourStory’s flagship startup-tech conference, Deep Kalra, Co-founder of MakeMyTrip, one of the most prominent players in the Indian travel industry, spoke about the hardships he faced as an entrepreneur in the last one and a half years, and how the pandemic has changed and should continue to change the perspective of humanity to ensure a better tomorrow. 

In a session titled ‘Ticket to nowhere: Travel in pandemic world’, Deep sounded wary about letting “our guard down” as the vaccination drive continues and pent-up demand drives recovery.

That said, he stated that the internet in India accelerated to a different level because of COVID-19, and that India’s internet moment has come. “Rather the internet's India moment has come after Silicon Valley (in America) and China,” he said.

Lockdown-led challenges

Deep reminisced about the days leading up to the nationwide lockdown in the second half of March 2020 and the challenges that followed thereafter.

“Two weeks before the national lockdown, we started working from home. We started taking steps and encouraged people to get used to this,” he said. 

However, the lockdown did not last a week or a month – it went on for much longer and the revenues of the company started plummeting.  

Deep said the company’s revenue fell by 95.5 percent during the second quarter. “It was very hard,” he said, adding that MakeMyTrip started cutting down on variable costs such as marketing budget, etc. 

When that did not suffice, the hardest part came in – slashing fixed and semi-fixed costs.

“Rajesh (Rajesh Magow, Group CEO and Co-founder) and I took a 100 percent pay cut while the senior management took a 50 percent cut,” he says, adding that the company also had to let go of 10 percent of its employees. 

“It was the toughest decision I have made in the last 21 years,” he admitted. He also expressed gratitude to employees who took the pay cut willingly. “I owe a huge debt to the team.”

He also urged young entrepreneurs to be mindful and warned against the tendency of over-hiring. “Hiring in good times is easy but trimming is very hard.”

Revenge travel and more

Just like revenge shopping, revenge travel is a term being used to describe the recovery of the travel industry due to pent-up demand.

Deep feels “people have been locked up for too long”, and while they were able to manage everything else, including watching movies, thanks to platforms like Netflix, the same was not true for travel.

He also noted that people are not traveling to beautiful places like Switzerland because they are afraid, and that Maldives is one place that has become overly crowded during the pandemic. 

He said the airline industry and people travelling “must go about life in a responsible manner”, including wearing masks and following other hygiene protocols, to ensure that the need to get locked up again doesn’t arise.

“We have to get used to it till we get a complete fix on the virus,” Deep said. 

Over the years, other than air travel, MakeMyTrip has also diversified into other verticals such as accommodation, inter-state bus services, and more. 

In his own words, Deep describes MakeMyTrip as a platform “for anything in travel”. He added that diversification happened because people trust the brand, and today the accommodation vertical “contributes more to the revenues of the company than air travel”. 

Building a team

Deep started MakeMyTrip 21 years ago. The Nasdaq-listed company has weathered numerous storms to reach where it is today. Deep, also an angel investor, has become a poster boy of sorts for the Indian startup ecosystem. 

And yet, he believes there is a long way to go.

On being asked about his mistakes or decisions he regrets, he didn’t hesitate. “So many! We need a different show for that!”

He said this is a very exciting time wherein the Indian economy will be fundamentally driven by the startup ecosystem, and that the recent line-up of startup IPOs is evidence of the same.

Deep also said the secret to succeeding lies in building a solid team where everyone has the autonomy to be themselves or express themselves freely.

“The team is the one that makes it all happen,” he said, adding, “You should be ready to take criticism and admit you are wrong when you are.”

According to him, employees must be treated like micro-entrepreneurs to help them manifest their highest potential.

Deep also clarified a very important point on acquisitions, a trend that has picked steam over the years. “It is easy to make the agreement but the toughest thing to make it work. You must truly integrate the team after acquiring it rather than just focusing on integrating their platform or technology.”

The future of travel

Deep emphasised that the future of the travel industry has altered drastically because of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that several trends will now see the light of the day. 

First, a rise in cancellation policies. “People are saying, “Hey these are uncertain times. Give me free cancellation.”

The second change is an increase in hygiene and safety norms, and the third is the rediscovery of India. “People have realised that there are so many beautiful places in India to travel to. Additionally, the infrastructure has really improved.”

The fourth, he listed, is the rise in staycations and homestays.

The last is making travel sustainable and greener, which includes driving initiatives that focus on eliminating the use of single-plastic and encourage planting more trees. 

“We want to ensure that the next generation should also enjoy these places,” Deep concluded. 


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Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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