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How well are online travel communities performing in India?

by Satrajit Sen

by Satrajit Sen

Recently, online marketing research firm Hitwise found that content driven websites attract 73 per cent more internet visitors in UK than their transactional counterparts. This means that an increasing proportion of online time is spent browsing content before making a buying decision. In India, we have several such sites offering travel reviews for consumers, but how well are they reaching to their target audience? AlooTechie talked with some of the leaders in the space to find out the answer.

According to Pawan Pathak, product head, Raahi.com, the trend of visiting user generated content (UGC) websites to make a better travel buying decision is picking up in India but it still has not reached a quantum of significance since UGC is the premium mode. “It has always been a challenge in reaching out to the right constituency of contributors constituting travellers who are educated, English speaking and computer savvy people. Besides, since the medium allows people to write posts incognito, lot of business people from the eco-system use it to promote their respective business interests thereby skewing the content relevance and balance,” said Pathak.

Agreeing with Pathak, Ankit Rastogi, co-founder and business head, IndiaHotelReview.com, said, “Mostly in our country a travel review site is taken as a platform to vent grouses against hotels, infrastructure, logistics or whatever. So, the outcome is invariably a negative flow of information. The foreign sites do get a positive feedback on a number of factors but Indian sites have to continue with limited positive feedbacks.”

Rastogi further added that in India, much attention is given towards the fulfilment of basic amenities. “In a hotel review, most of the attention is concentrated to bad experiences in respect of stay and dine. The presence or absence of swimming pool or WiFi connectivity does not make much sense to the Indian travellers but say TV with a cable connection in an obscure place like Tuljapur does. India is not just about the big cities; ground realities here are different and we have to conform to it. About 80 per cent of the hotels still do not have any kind of rating yet do a roaring business.”

According to Sachin Bhatia, co-founder, MakeMyTrip.com (the company which runs travel community site OkTataByeBye.com), the real challenges actually hinge around adoption related to the relative ‘newness’ of a vertical community concept — both among users and importantly among stakeholders. “As more people gradually use the internet to research their travel, they will also adopt it as a public feedback medium. So, a robust growth of online review websites depends on the internet penetration and the evolution and behavioural maturity of the user. As internet usage becomes integral to our lives, the numbers would be easier to cross,” opined Bhatia.

Sharat Dhall, managing director – India, TripAdvisor.com, said that Indians have become experimental on the internet now and information on far more destinations is being searched today. “Thus, creating a critical mass on a much larger scale for these platforms becomes imperative for us to satisfy our users. I think that will be attained once more people come online,” said Dhall.

On a similar note, Hari Nair, founder and CEO, HolidayIQ.com, said, “HolidayIQ gets almost one million visitors per month during peak holiday season which compares extremely well to the overall Indian internet audience of about 50 million. Scaling up further will be in line with the growth in online audiences.”

Speaking about numbers, Sachin Bhatia of OkTataByeBye.com said that the website was launched in March 2007 and currently has over one lakh registered users and more than 10,000 hotel reviews. “But if you include the user contributions around destinations which could range from destination information or advice, answers to queries by fellow members, user contributed travel directions and uploaded photos then the number would be 10 times as much,” informed Bhatia.

According to Pawan Pathak of Raahi.com, the website was launched in February 2007 and currently has around 30,000 registered users, hosting around 15,000 hotel reviews. Ankit Rastogi of IndiaHotelReview.com said that the site came into existence in January 2007 and has seen about 45,000 registered users accessing about 15,000 hotel reviews on the platform.

Hari Nair of HolidayIQ.com said that the site was launched in 2007 and has about 700,000 registered users and hosts around 5000 hotels and 700 destinations reviews. Sharat Dhall of TripAdvisor refused to divulge their India numbers and said that their international site gets around 25 million unique visitors per month and has around 23 million reviews and opinions (including Indian hotels) posted on the site. “We launched in India around August 2008 and have a 50/50 split of content regarding domestic and international destinations,” said Dhall, adding, “TripAdvisor gets more than 1.5 million unique visitors a month from India itself.”

Commenting on their experience in operating the business in India, Pawan Pathak of Raahi.com said, “There is a lack of cultural homogeneity in India which leads to diluting the content’s relevance from another person’s point of view. A Himachali writing a restaurant review might not appeal to a Tamilian with a completely different set of parameters to judge the same. At the same time, this diversity lends itself very well to a person willing to expand his horizon and potentially his future experiences.”

Pathak further added that access difficulties and the speed of internet poses a challenge in building the numbers. Other factors include less disposable income and temperamentally less adventurous nature of Indians.

Ankit Rastogi of IndiaHotelReview.com said that the primary hurdle in India is the internet penetration. “Let’s be realistic. It would be a really tough call to ask people to write reviews of a journey by spending 30 rupees an hour in a dingy internet cafe. Then mostly people are shy of writing. When we call people they do respond but this does not always translate into writing. Vernacular challenges also make the job no less easy,” he said.

According to Sachin Bhatia of OkTataByeBye, India is not really different from the world; at the core it’s the same motivators or de-motivators. “Technology-wise or for infrastructure, everything you need is available here. At the business level the seriousness of intent and expectations need to be set carefully both for internal and external customers,” said Bhatia.

Discussing the potential of the online travel review market in India and MakeMyTrip’s plans to expand its travel review site OkTataByeBye.com, Sachin Bhatia said, “As far as internet adoption, usage and online behaviour go, the life-cycle here has been a very crunched one, but if we take a global view, there is no reason why growth prospects should not be robust. Our future plans are around stabilizing our revenue model mix and providing real value to end users.”

According to Pawan Pathak of Raahi.com, with more people travelling and writing the chances of more suggestions at large are likely to emerge. “For example, you have 30 budget hotels in the narrow Chandni Chowk lane, all costing about Rs 3000 with similar tangible offerings and similar advertisements; how does one decide where to stay? The answer is simple — experiences of past guests. A print media guide may have an inherent limitation since it may be based on an individual’s experience and understanding. However, with travel community websites you get many more perspectives and can also match your areas of interest,” said Pathak.

Ankit Rastogi of IndiaHotelReview.com said that it is a challenging task to bridge the gap between those who travel and those who respond through reviews. “As of now among the Indian online users it is only five per cent who actually come up with a feedback. Internet penetration is slow but at least it has broken the barriers with more elbow room to the ‘aam admi’ to declare his arrival. We are trying to rope in the net savvy younger generation to have a bigger say. We plan to suffuse our content with more researched content promoting event based tourism via local festivals and events as we feel that local is the way to go,” added Rastogi.

Sharat Dhall of TripAdvisor felt that the Indian online travel review market is still a nascent one but has the potential to catalyse the decision making process of a consumer buying online travel products. According to Dhall, the online travel review sites have a tremendous potential from the micro-economic perspective as they can add tremendous value to fellow travellers. According to Hari Nair of HolidayIQ.com, the company plans to consolidate and grow in this space along with the growth in online audiences.

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