Amsterdam-based Booking.com is one of the leading online hotel aggregators globally. Since its entry into the Indian market in 2012, the company now has nearly 900,000 listings in India, including homes, apartments and resorts. Ritu Mehrotra, country manager, India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, talks about the journey so far, the trends and challenges for the Indian traveller and more.
Did the consumption slowdown affect year-end holiday plans of Indian travellers? What change are you witnessing this time compared to previous years?
There is a general slowdown but our business for November and December was fantastic. We’ve been growing well. I think Indians want to travel more—both domestically and internationally—which is visible from our growth numbers. Though there’s a general slowdown in the market, at least within this quarter, we have not seen a big impact in terms of the travel numbers.
What are some of the top domestic and international destinations for Indians?
We have seen southern India, including Karnataka and Kerala, being on top of the radar. We are also seeing travellers picking traditional locations such as Rajasthan. We’ve also seen some very interesting trends such as more people from Tier-II cities like Shillong, Guwahati and Pune going to international destinations. Where they are travelling to is also interesting. We see Indians traditionally travelling to Thailand and Phuket but here we are seeing Tier-II city travellers preferring smaller locations such as South Korea, Istanbul or Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
Indians are traditionally known to be price conscious. What has your experience been? Is the shift happening from being price conscious to being experience-oriented?
The modern-day Indian traveller is continuously evolving with the need to chase unique and authentic experiences and is far more open to experimenting with destinations. This strong upward trend in growth is also being underlined by millennials who are reinventing the Indian travel sector. While they are price conscious, they also seek value in what they buy, and don’t mind paying a premium for a diverse holiday experience. Indians now are travelling more frequently, and their spend on travel has risen. They are increasingly moving towards alternative accommodations like tree houses, villas, homestays and apartments that enable them to experience the local culture. In the new decade, we will see travel becoming more sustainable and technologically advanced, aided by enhanced services and offerings.
Hotels are one of your primary offerings but you also book apartments, resorts, villas and cabins. How is the demand for these non-hotel options?
Our listings are a little short of 900,000, and we have 23 different types of alternative accommodations. So, the number of hostels, beach villas, home stays, tree houses, and so on, is around 140,000 in India. Just to give you a perspective, globally, every one second there are seven people checking into an alternative accommodation. We’re also seeing this trend in India. More and more people want to have an experiential stay and are looking at places other than the traditional hotels and resorts.
Within non-hotel options, hostels is one of our fastest growing segment. But it also depends on the region. For example, in Goa, you’ll see a lot of beach huts getting booked, in Kerala, you’ll see a lot of boat houses or rural stays getting booked. So it’s region specific. Last year, we grew just below 70% in terms of acquiring supply within this segment.
While Booking.com dominates many international markets, the market share in India is still low comparatively. What have been some of the key challenges for a market like India?
We started our journey in 2012 and we are one of the largest travel companies even locally in India. There is a perception in the market that Booking.com is used largely by people from abroad visiting India or by Indians visiting abroad. But our domestic business portion is very large. I think that’s due to the experience on our app. We provide a lot of personalization using data, analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and it has been one of the biggest wins for us.
There were challenges as well. In the Indian market, not too many people have credit cards. That’s where our “pay at hotel" model worked very well. In fact, there are a lot of partners that will not even ask for your credit card details. The other issue we faced when we entered the market was of bandwidth. So we introduced Booking Lite for users as well as our parters. Also, while Indian users are very price sensitive, they also seek value in terms of the experience, and we have had one of the most compelling prices.
You recently entered the already crowded online flight-booking market. What is the value add for your customers?
It’s a crowded market but we are looking at improving the experience of our users. We want to give each user a different, personalized experience. For example, if we know that there are six people travelling in a flight, then the accommodation option that we show to them is different. We look at the whole journey and not compartmentalized offerings.
What kind of checks do you have in place to ensure the quality of hotel listings?
We have a robust process to check properties. We have algorithms that help us figure out which are high- and low-risk properties. We scrape a lot of different data from various platforms. So if we figure a property is high-risk, we actually call those partners or even visit some to complete the verification process.