In "Spotlight" we will be discussing the opportunities and challenges that our clients face in various sectors, in conversation with CXOs. This month, we speak to the Managing Director of Globus Family of Brands India (GFOBI) a group company of Group Voyagers Inc., Mr. Varesh Chopra. Group Voyagers Inc. is an international group in the tourism industry that runs tours under the Globus, Cosmos, Monograms and Avalon brand names. Originally founded in Switzerland, Group Voyagers is now a global group with significant presence in North America, Europe, Oceania, India and other countries across the globe. We caught up with Mr. Chopra to discuss the pre- and post-pandemic India story, for GFOBI and the travel industry.

Group Voyagers Inc. is an established global business in the tourism industry with a history of over 90 years in Europe and North America. You entered the Indian market only in 2008 - what has the experience over the last 12 years been like? What are some specific challenges posed by Indian customers and how has Group Voyagers dealt with these?

It has been a very good decision. In fact, we were distributing our products through our Swiss headquarters for at least 3 decades before setting up an office here and were seeing a growing need to have a direct presence. India has been a special and consistent market for GFOB since then. The level of repeat and referral business is very high and we realise that we are perfectly geared to an emerging segment of travellers who wish to explore the world in a more international manner.

The fact that we do not offer one's home fare on our tours is not a preference for some. It has taken a dedicated communications campaign through the last many years to bring home the point that we focus on unparalleled & authentic destination experiences and one of the aspects towards achieving that is to get out of the mundane and try the local cuisine of the host destination.

What is Group Voyagers' unique offering and what niche does it occupy? What forms the target audience for Cosmos, Globus, Avalon and Monogram?

Our offering is a comprehensive selection of almost 500+ travel programs both touring and cruising spread across 7 continents and 73 countries. With the sheer range of itineraries on offer, a traveller will never be short of choices: be it a multi-country experience or a more deeper dive into a single destination. Our key USP is an opportunity to tour with a multinational group of travellers to make one's tour a far richer pursuit. Our tour directors belong to the region you are travelling in and that's how we offer the unbeatable experience and knowledge that no other organisation can. This also happens to be the top reviewed element of our tour amongst others. It is like having a local friend wherever one goes.

All our four brands have a unified approach in offering authentic destination experiences but appeal to slightly different set of travellers. Overall, the average age of the traveller is between 45-50 and even seniors, solos, couples and families. We basically appeal to urban professionals who are versatile travellers from all across South Asia & the Middle East.

Overseas travel for Indian customers is a lucrative albeit small segment of the general Indian population. Is domestic travel for Indian customers an attractive opportunity for a company like Group Voyagers? Is there scope to provide premium offerings within this segment?

We have always offered an interesting selection of tours in India for our incoming customers. The product ethos remains the same as all other GFOB brands. Infact, we have an Avalon cruise product on the river Ganges since the last two years, which has done very well.

We have recently launched a selection of India tours under the Monograms brand called Monograms India discoveries. They are a selection of hub and spoke travel programs, which are an interesting mix of the already popular and some more exotic journeys within India. With the Monograms branding, we offer a carefully selected list of unique hotels, safe and higher end transportation, unique experiences built with guided sightseeing and the "Local Host" concept. Last but not the least, we offer health & safety assurance and all protocols as per international standards. We've already received a lot of enthusiasm from our loyal customers and have a strong belief that quality sells! Today's discerning traveller demands premium experiences that can be great value, which don't have to be the most expensive.

Group Voyagers' Indian entity started out as a liaison office to promote and sell GV USA's products to Indian customers. However, since then, GV has set up an Indian subsidiary that fulfils multiple functions apart from being a sales office. What are these functions and how has it benefitted the group to outsource these to India?

There are multiple advantages to increasing the functions in the India office. Our channel of distributors are able to speak and communicate with our support team based in Bangalore all days of the week and this also sorts out the time zone challenges due to the massive geography we operate in.

We have a sales team which covers all parts of the country as well other international markets and there is nothing to beat the direct connect and relationships. Customers also feel more assured and confident once they realise that GFOB has a direct corporate office here in India. With the adage that you need to be always within hearing distance of your end clients - having our own office in India provides our marketing team with grassroots intelligence as well as ample creativity to connect directly with the network and travelers alike.

Some international tourism companies run their global call-centre from India due to the obvious advantages - cost arbitrage, English being commonly spoken and so on. Is there any possibility that the Group will outsource some of its global functions to India?

There have been internal discussions about this in the recent past and I'm sure the time will come.

What is the degree of reliance on travel agents to make sales, for tour operators such as yourself? Has this changed over the last ten years with consumers becoming more internet-savvy?

We have a major reliance on the trade and I don't see that changing due to the nature of our products. We play in a niche category, where the travel programming is based on multiple sub-components to create experiences and are preferred by savvy, intellectual travelers. They want to deal with a name and a face and want to experience their travel dream in a conversation even before they get on a tour or a cruise. The mass market approach doesn't work here and our websites primarily remain an informational and branding resource where the clients discover us, rather than book online.

Are your customers driven by price, by brand (or perception of quality) or by some other factor? What is the ratio of new customers vs. returning customers in any given year?

Our customers not only in India but worldwide appreciate the value and quality that we bring to their travel experiences. Price is important, but a secondary aspect of the buying decision. We have a 67% returning customer rate with the last survey and study we did. On a worldwide level, our NPS (Net promoter score) is on a very high count.

The travel and tourism industry in India (and globally) is a competitive space with many players in both the organised and unorganised sector. What does a company need to do to set itself apart?

Well, it is a very good question, at the same time the answer cannot be simplified because of the sheer availability of choices and the competition out there with everyone sounding the same at times. However, we recommend what we call internally, the "GFOB way" of doing things- At Globus Family, we use the word family not only to give a common umbrella to all our brands but also in the way we deal with our customers and all stakeholders.

If you were to call all the tourist attractions , destinations and the accommodation options as the hardware of a travel program, then the software would really be the culture, the quality and dedication of the human resources of an organisation like us. The hardware available to all of us is perhaps all the same, it is the people in the organisation who really make a difference. This translates into bringing highly immersive content into all our travel programs and experiences and making sure that we are always creating happy travellers, which comes by having a professional and transparent product offer and pricing. Our innovations and value-adds are industry leading and our Tour Directors who really make that difference, are the very best in the trade. We are committed to making travel partners and associates successful and we are genuine, loyal and trusted in our approach. It is a lot to achieve and balance but it has become our second nature: for us, that is the sweet spot of success and differentiation and make us a segment leader worldwide.

What according to your customers makes the GVI experience delightful? What helps you earn their loyalty?

Our Indian customers are increasingly appreciating that we offer exploration through culture and cuisine and the authenticity of experiences is top notch as well as great value for their time and money spent.

Our touring and cruising experiences do a deeper dive into the story of a destination, its history, culture, sights, smells, sounds and tastes. We aren't superficial in our approach and do not sell tourism in the name of a 'tick it off your list' fleeting tour that's bound to impress only on the outside packaging.

Apart from bringing the destination to life through the top notch storytelling and concierge-like skills of our affable Tour Directors, we stand for making multicultural friendships along the way, seeing the world through many eyes rather than only yours! This what our clients expect from us and love about the Globus Family of brands.

How has Covid-19 impacted 2020 and 2021 for GVI globally, across geographies? What is your expectation on a return to 'normalcy' for the travel/tourism industry, and what potential changes do you think we will see in group tours as a result of the pandemic?

Nearly half of our customer source market being from North America and a similar fraction of our ground operations on both touring and cruising happening in Europe, we have definitely not been spared from the repercussions. I must mention here that, when this situation started we had some customers travelling on the ground in various countries. GFOB brought in quick policy initiatives and proactive measures including footing the bill wherever required, as well as threw in some amount of heroics to get all the customers back home safely.

The pandemic situation in the US, EU and UK has been particularly acute. We are currently hoping for some return to normalcy after Q2, owing to the vaccinations starting worldwide and the eventual hope that clear regulations on border entries as well as exits would emerge. GFOB on its part was the earliest mover to ensure we had further strengthened our already robust Health and Safety protocols and received the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Safe travels seal. Under our On Trip assurance program, we continue to follow guidelines given by CDC, ECDC as well as WHO, CLIA & USTOA. We have introduced a travel bubble concept which will offer the highest level of safety as well have reduced participant numbers on our tours an average of 40% to ensure social distancing and bring peace of mind. Top it off with a meticulous selection of third party vendors, hotels and F&B establishments as well as attractions which fully comply with our protocols and we have a strong formula for a completely safe operation. GFOB has also had a very robust incident response SOP for any eventuality in parts of the world where we operate.

We believe that by the time it finally ends, this pandemic would have taught all travel industry players as well as the travelers themselves the difference between lucrative-looking pricing / packaging, so-called "steal deals" and the sincere health-and-safety-focused and value-added offering of authentic travel experiences offered by players like us.

How is Group Voyagers India, specifically, dealing with Covid-19 related slowdowns and the effects of travel restrictions?

The well-being of our customers as well as employees remains paramount and we are waiting for the right moment to restart our operations. Though we had hoped to commence operations at the beginning of October 2020 but had to unfortunately push back that plan as the situation continued. Our operations currently remain suspended till the end of March 2021. We continue to study the situation very closely and will restart in accordance with the respective Government and Health authority guidelines, never ever compromising on health and safety aspects of customers and employees.

Do you expect mergers/acquisitions and consolidation of smaller players across the tourism industry as a result of the ongoing downturn?

It seems inevitable especially with the situation continuing over 2021 and lack of governmental support for the Indian tourism industry as a whole here.

We understand that despite 2020 being a washout for the tourism industry which led to widespread staff reductions globally, GVI decided not to lay off any of its people. What prompted this?

The situation that has come upon us as an organisation and consequently upon all our stakeholders including employees is undoubtedly unexpected & unprecedented. In our 93 years of history as an organisation, we have been through many ups and downs, the most significant being the Great Depression and World War-II. We have not only survived but emerged stronger. It is in the culture of the organisation to take the word 'Family' literally and we have endeavoured to have the least impact on our staff as we believe once things will turn around, it is they who will be partners in building the future of the organisation post-Covid.

What do you think are the key measures that can be undertaken both at the Government level and the industry level, to help travel and hospitality return to stability and growth?

The government should realise the massive employment as well as revenue-generating potential of the industry especially with the incoming tourism bringing in massive foreign exchange earnings. Tourism is amongst the top employers in the country and assistance in terms of direct measures like supporting some part of the salaries for a short term, offering moratoriums on loan repayments, GST rebates and speedy GST refunds are required. The proposed TCS on overseas travel should be scrapped, and if not, at least postponed for a period of 24-36 months.

There have been massive job losses in the industry and I'm afraid many operators would never be able to bounce back and many livelihoods are gone forever. From a purely incoming tourism perspective, short-term visa fee waivers or reductions as well as reduction in entry fees for monuments, lowering taxes on the hospitality sector should help ease the woes and liquidity crunch and getting back to business once tourism opens up.

What trends do you think will drive the travel and tourism industry over the next decade or two?

According to me, the pursuit of more immersive and unique experiences as well as more independent-minded travel will be the name of the game going forward. Sustainability is a big and very important word in the western world already, it hasn't yet caught the attention and imagination of travellers from this part of the world, but is eventually bound to be recognised. The Globus family of brands has existing as well as well-meaning and long term plans on all of these aspects and it will take me another few thousand words to explain them if you wish so.

To read more on this topic from Asit Mehta & Associates, please click here.

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