Travel portals eye corporate travel, pose a threat to travel agents

Travel portals greedily eye making further inroads into corporate travel

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Quick question. When was the last time you went to a travel agent to book a flight ticket? Chances are you from a generation which has never been to a travel agency office or even seen the booklet-like hard copy tickets that used to be issued.

You couldn't do without travel agencies in the pre-internet era — they got the tickets and arranged the logistics, which often included staying in the hotel they decided for you to visit the places they said you should visit. But the internet, followed by the plethora of travel portals, meant individual and leisure travellers almost entirely migrated to using the speed and convenience of online sites to do their bookings. Brick-and-mortar travel companies and travel agents had to primarily fall back on the travel needs of companies and business enterprises to survive.

Now, even that is under threat, as the travel portals greedily eye making further inroads into this lucrative segment. While many leading Indian travel sites like Yatra, Cleartrip and others have had corporate tie-ups, a new service is aiming to disrupt this model by going further.

“A lot of business flight bookings are within managed environs today, primarily available only for large companies who've tied up with travel management companies,” points out Balu Ramachandran, senior vice president of Cleartrip. “This means many of the 25 million or so MSMEs (small and medium businesses) in the country don't have access to the kind of offers an online or even a brick and mortar world travel company offers big corporates.”

Solution? An easy-to-access 'workfare' that is unlocked when businesses log in to a new feature launched by the travel port this week, called “Cleartrip for Work.” This can be accessed simply by logging in with your work email id and GST number.

Separate from the feature for big businesses, which most travel portals have had for some time and requires a physical contract between the corporate and the travel site (that involves assurance of a minimum number of trips which may be too high for a small business), the new feature is a first, as it is easy to access for any small enterprise, the GST number acting as the checkpoint to confirm if one is a business or not. It offers a flat 4 per cent discount on retail offers, free or low charges on cancellation or rescheduling, seat selection and meals bundled in the case of low-cost carriers. The 'Cleartrip for Work' feature also offers GST compliant invoices, which means companies can claim input credit, and even cash back which can be used for future bookings.

There is more bad news for the offline travel companies— MakeMyTrip, another leading player, is looking at expanding itself into a super travel company, wanting to go beyond the usual flight and hotel bookings to anything from holiday packages, curated travels and cruises. “When you’re travelling, and whatever comes to your mind, in terms of your need for travel, we should be able to sell (it),” Rajesh Magow, co-founder and CEO of MakeMyTrip told business daily recently. 

These moves could be a game-changer, and not a pleasant one for offline travel companies, who are yet to recover from the recent collapse of travel biggie Thomas Cook. India is the seventh biggest corporate travel market in the world and is estimated to break into the global top five in a few years. The stakes are indeed high.

Perhaps all is not lost yet. Many believe that specialist travel agents can still offer that customised, or curated service which an automated service you access on the web may still find harder to deliver. Perhaps the biggest proof could be internet's own big success story, Oyo, which announced on Thursday a portal for travel agents called 'Super Agents'. The online hotel booking firm was going back to offline travel agents, according to Oyo COO Gaurav Ajmera, “to provide customised service to every guest based on their requirements.”