Editor’s Note: Skift is publishing a series of interviews with online travel CEOs talking about the Future of Travel Booking, and the evolving habits and device preferences of travel consumers. Check out all the interviews as they come out here.
Some travel companies, such as Expedia and Hipmunk, believe the future of travel bookings is in arming travelers with the ability to easily transition between smartphones, tablets and desktops without missing a beat.
Indian online travel agency, MakeMyTrip, a public company that sees about 25% of its hotel bookings completed on smartphones, isn’t taking the bait, and is focusing instead on keeping Indian travelers on smartphones.
Skift interviewed MakeMyTrip CEO Deep Kalra, who spoke about booking trends in India and the allure of apps; the Expedia-AirAsia’s speed bump in India; what he believes is the looming arrival in force of Booking.com in the country, and what MakeMyTrip got out of its EasyToBook acquisition.
An edited version of the interview follows:
Skift: What trends are you seeing in the way MakeMyTrip customers book their travel, and how might it be the same or different from travelers using other sites elsewhere in India and Asia?
Deep Kalra: I think the big change for us in the last year has really been around mobile becoming such an important channel for us for people not just doing research. For us, to our pleasant surprise, to consummate the transaction online, as well. I’m not quite sure how that compares with other parts [of the world]. I know in China there is probably a lot of research online, but then people call to close the transaction.
Our numbers on mobile are up significantly. I’d say 18 months ago we had hardly any visitors coming through mobile or transactions. And, today that number has changed dramatically. So end of last quarter, June 30, 2014, we had 29% of our unique visitors coming through mobile. We are present on all the app platforms, Android, iOS, Windows, BlackBerry and the mobile Web, and this 29% of unique visitors translated into 14-15% of transactions.
Some verticals are very high. The interesting part is if I look at domestic flight transactions, which is still our largest business, around 13% [on mobile]. If I look at domestic standalone hotels, which is a very important line of business for us, it was actually 25% [through mobile]. We are sure that the conversion actually stayed the same. I’ll tell you in a minute why that number is so high, but 29% of unique visitors giving 25% conversion. One of the big reasons is that we have very interesting deals for last-minute hotel bookings, which you cannot find on the Web. More importantly, the use case is when people are traveling.
Very often people show up in a city and they didn’t plan to stay back and they are staying back. People are saying, we are here, we showed up to this place by train or by plane and now we need to book a hotel, and they are somewhat aware they can book a hotel and get a last-minute deal. For us it is an encouraging sign because this tells us that the mobile medium is not only here to stay, but it’s really the future. Of the 240 million people who are online in India today, three-fourths of that number, 75% are on mobile. More and more people coming online are going to be on mobile.
Skift: What other booking trends are you seeing?
Kalra: The other big change for us is how booking behavior is changing. People are actually planning a little better, last-minute hotel notwithstanding. Overall, we’ve found, both for flights and as well as for hotels, advance purchase has increased. People are planning longer, and that’s great. On the flight side, it’s probably driven quite strongly by the fact that the airlines have started deeper discounts on longer bookings. Two years ago, booking more than a month in advance were probably just about 15%. That is now at about 23%.
For hotels there was a very big cluster around one-day and same-day bookings were close to 67%. And that is now at least 10% lower. Yes, people are still booking a lot toward the end, which is something that might be typical in India and you might not see a lot of that in any other markets, but people are also overall planning a little better.
A third trend is where people are coming from. We are now seeing that people who are originating from non-metro cities, with metro being the big five or six cities of the country, has increased. People are definitely booking more there, which means that the penetration of the Internet is trickling down into these markets. And non-metro to non-metro travel is for us one of the big growth areas as people are traveling for leisure or a mix of leisure and business.
Another trend is that for most of us growing up, holidays were at best an annual event, and it was sometimes at a relative’s house. That has fundamentally changed. When I look at my kids and people in the organization, people are holidaying multiple times a year, and this is not necessarily people who are working in banking jobs or consulting jobs. These are people who are working for a company like MakeMyTrip, and a good chunk of their disposable income is now being reserved for multiple breaks, including beach travel. That’s driven by people in their late 20s to late 30s, early 40s, as well.
Skift: When you talked about the proliferation of mobile, are users starting their research on smartphones and staying on smartphones to book or are they switching to different kinds of devices?
Kalra: We are doing a couple of things. We are using the Google cookie across Android and Web so you can get a pretty good sense of Android being about 90% of the market. So what we are getting is that about 75% are actually closing the transaction on mobile, but about 25% are really closing the transaction on the desktop. And there are two hypotheses there. One is that it is a little more clunky to get the payments done on mobile. I think innovation is happening every day. We are doing a ton of work there to make it easier. The second is that time between the commute to do research, but they are maybe putting down [the smartphone] at home with their partner, with their family to close that transaction.
Skift: So is it a priority for you to make it easier for customers to switch from mobile to desktop and vice versa so they can start their search on one device and pick it right up on another? Or is that not much of a priority.
Kalra: No, actually I would say for us the priority is to solve for the issue of why do people need to leave [mobile] at all. We understand when it is a holiday booking people might want to consumer richer content, but for a hotel bookings, including the fact that we saw that 29% correlating to 25% of bookings, there is no reason we can’t go there, keeping them on the phone itself. So it is nice to have a kind of hand-over across devices. But, we’d like to have people just close the transaction on the phone itself.
Definitely apps are our favorite medium because of the obvious advantage of not having to reacquire the customer. App customers convert higher, and then you can attribute some kind of lifetime value there. We incentivize people not to download our app, but to do their first transaction through our app. We have 3.2 million app downloads through the end of last quarter, and that number is growing well.
Skift: Do you see some of the larger international players such as Booking.com and Expedia with its AirAsia joint venture coming into India in a bigger way than they do now and what might that mean for MakeMyTrip?
Kalra: I’m glad you mentioned Expedia’s AirAsia joint venture because very interestingly they made their departure from the joint venture for India. Interestingly, I met AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes a few weeks ago at a conference in Singapore; we were on the same panel. And he said India is the only country in Asia that they’ve actually broken away from the joint venture. That did that because they realized Expedia very little reach in the country it would be very hard for them to make a success of their airline because they really want to sell more tickets online without signing up with the leading online travel agencies, most of which are Indian venture-backed companies like ours. Ours being the only public company.
Even before they launched in India, AirAsia was here and we had several discussions, and the local management did share that they want to work with us, with our kind of market share. About 40% of all air tickets in the country are sold online, of which about 25 percentage points are sold through OTAs, of which MakeMyTrip has about 12.5%. So we have 50% of the OTA market, but also 12.5% of the overall market. The balance, 15%, is supplier direct. So I guess AirAsia realized when they looked at that number that they wanted to work with the OTAs and other suppliers.
To line up with Expedia alone, by the way, I don’t understand why that is such a great tie-up for AirAsia. I don’t understand why any supplier would do an exclusive deal with an OTA. I get it from an OTA point of view, but I don’t get it from a supplier point of view. They [AirAsia] carved out India in the right way, the carved out India [away] from the Expedia joint venture in Asia.
Expedia on their own have been in the country about five years with their own presence. They haven’t made a big mark. If you look at ComScore you’ll see that they are probably number five, but I’m sure over time they will get their act together. We do welcome good competition.
Booking.com is focused mainly on the inbound market. I think we are hearing more rumblings theta they are getting interested in the domestic market, and I’m pretty sure we are going to see them take a more aggressive position in the market here. I think it is just a matter of time.
Skift: Your hotel and package business is growing much faster than air and it’s fueled by your acquisition of EasyToBook in February 2014. What lessons or learnings have you drawn from that acquisition?
Kalra: Hotels and packages are growing faster, but on the other side it is fair to say that the air industry is growing slower. The fact is that the air industry is on the mend. It’s gone through a rough time over the last couple of years with Kingfisher going bust. There is only one airline, Indigo, which is growing, but the good news is that we have a couple of new entrants. AirAsia is a formidable player in the low-cost segment, and Tata, which is India’s largest or second-largest conglomerate, signed up with Singapore Airlines, and they’re just launching.
EasyToBook was not a revenue acquisition. It was more that we did see some interesting technologies out there, both on the front end and back end, in which they did much quicker than we did. We are doing the best practices sharing. They do a much better job of the extranet, their latency is fantastic. But, fundamentally hotel growth has been driven by Indians booking both domestic hotels as well as outbound. And, EasyToBook definitely helps us there on the supply side just as did HotelTravel in Southeast Asia and Thailand.
Skift: Where do rail bookings and tours and activities fit into MakeMyTrip’s strategy?
Kalra: As you know, India moves on rail. But, the reality is that rail is a government-owned monopoly, and unfortunately there is very little leeway that one has in terms of the margin and what you can make on a rail ticket. It is tiny but we think it is important to maintain a full suite of offerings.
On the bus side, we are offering the state bus tickets, I guess, let’s say, similar to Greyhound in the U.S. We’ve tied up with more than 1,300 bus operators, and we cover about 12,000 routes across the country. A lot of Indians tend to travel, particularly in south India and west India using interstate buses and those have definitely improved in the country.
Tours and activities is still fairly new. And the reason goes back to the way people in India really book. There are not too many activities where things get sold out. Except for the theater, where you have different booking sites, you don’t have too many activities where you show up there and you can’t get in. But, when people are traveling internationally, we do offer tours, which are typically built into the package or are offered as an additional tour which can either book in advance or you take a chance when you are in that place.