“Flight fares starting at 999” and there goes the next hour looking for the routes and dates for when fares are cheap. Of course it makes perfect sense for low cost carriers to lure potential customers this way, mostly first time air travellers. However, these deals and promotions are good only for the spontaneous plans, which is rarely the case for most people. On most occasions, you will be searching for your options on multiple booking sites and filtering through them to book at the best prices and that is exactly where metasearch platforms enter the picture. With the growth of online travel market and the ever increasing number of online travel providers, metasearch platforms hold more relevance than ever in the Indian market.
To discuss about the metasearch market in India and many other developments in this space, we had a chat with Ashwin Jayasankar, General Manager of Wego India. Here is an edited excerpt from the conversation:
How has the market for metasearch services evolved in India?
The challenge for metasearch services is mainly when they first enter a market like India. The first time users from a new market experience the product, they have to get acquainted to the aggregator model. Beyond that, it is smooth sailing for the customer. Travellers are always looking to discover the best deals and browse through the available options and once they realise that metasearch services are offering them both, there is no reason for them to not come back.
We have been in the Indian market for around four years now and we have observed that the mobile route has really worked for us. Mobile serves as the right channel for relatively younger and tech savvy customers. The Wego mobile app is one of our strongest products. That coupled with the fact that most of the mobile customers are open to new technologies and it works very well for us.
How is the Indian market different for you from your other markets?
The Indian market is very price sensitive and as the competition is high, the customers have lot of options to choose from. We observed that our partners here are fast paced and very competitive compared to some developed countries and we have adapted to that pace. As an example, the deals and discounts come very frequently and Wego has to be actively involved with these partners. The advantages of having a dedicated team in India come into play here.
Another major difference is the number of strong domestic OTAs we have here. Whether they are old players or relatively newer players, the number of booking options for customers is much higher than any other market. This results in high competition which is generally good for the user. They are fighting with each other which drives down the prices. You can argue about the advantages and disadvantages of discounting from a business point of view but at the end of the day, a customer is happy. In my mind, India is an ideal market for metasearch, not just for travel but for any metasearch player. Being a price sensitive market, even a hundred rupee difference can affect the consumer decision and metasearch allows customers to account for that to find the best deals.
Do brands see lack of loyalty as a challenge while working with metasearch services?
Speaking from my experience of working with various brands including OTAs, hotels and airlines, I don’t think they see us as a competitor or any sort of threat. In fact, the lack of loyalty is caused by other brands competing with them not the metasearch players. They view us as important partners that bring customers that are more likely to convert. Compared to their other channels, metasearch platforms send them customers who have already provided the details of their travel. In most cases, these customers are ready to book and not just casually browsing.
Another advantage of working with meta players for them is the reach to new pool of customers. Wego operates across multiple geographies and caters to over 50 countries. The local brands, even the big ones like MakeMyTrip or Goibibo could be popular in certain geographies but with metasearch services, they get access to customers from new markets, the ones where metasearch players operate.
On any metasearch website, the user experience changes from the search page to the booking page as they are redirected to the provider’s website. Do you think that inconsistent experience is a challenge for mobile users?
Actually for us it isn’t turning out to be a major challenge. We are observing an increase in clicks and conversions for mobile users when compared to few months back. Typically in most industries, you will see that the views and clicks will be higher on mobile but conversions will be lower when compared to desktop. This could change in near future but at this point, people prefer the comfort of larger screen to some extent.
However, to ensure that the conversion rates are high, we have to take extreme care that the user is transferred to mobile friendly pages of the partner. When mobile was a relatively fresh platform, some of our partners were missing mobile websites. Customers would end up on a website that isn’t mobile friendly and would eventually leave. So the technical integration part is very important to avoid this situation. At times we also have to filter out some partners from mobile searches if they don’t have a proper mobile website. We might lose some money by not selling their inventory on mobile but we have to make sure the customer experience is smooth.
While we are at the topic of mobile, the mobile app also helps in this direction to a large extent. There are many regions where the users prefer their native language over English so we have made the app available in multiple languages. We saw a significant increase in usage from regions like Saudi Arabia soon after we made the platform available in Arabic.
What is your opinion on TripAdvisor Instant booking?
It is quite an interesting feature but there are both sides to the argument. There will be partners who are willing to be a part and there will be certain partners who won’t be happy with it. But you also have to think about it from the customer’s point of view. We were just discussing about the user experience on mobile. This will provide a smooth experience to the customers. Users will have a single interface throughout and will be more comfortable with the process. I don’t really have a strong view in favour or against it and it is a bit debatable at this point.
With Google constantly working on travel related searches, do you see it turning into a competitor in future?
I don’t see Google turning into a competitor. They have been experimenting with flights and hotels in Google searches for a while now but I don’t see that becoming a strong product. Google is a huge brand with much wider focus and multiple products. With such a wide array of products and services, it is not possible for them to concentrate on positioning themselves as travel experts. So branding is certainly one challenge for them. When you think of Google, you will not think of travel.
Along with that, the metasearch players, the established ones, have built their products around customer requirement, have got strong network of partners, returning customers and a better understanding of the travel market. It would be very tough for Google to compete with a dedicated company strongly focused only on travel. Only time will tell how they plan to take it further but we are certain that we will be ahead on many fronts. We have also got people in different markets who are taking care of the partner associations in their respective geographies, Google won’t be able to match that level of engagement.
What are some new developments in pipeline at Wego?
On the product front, we are constantly improving and adding new features, particularly on mobile. We are not only focusing on the features we offer on mobile but also at mobile as a marketing channel. On mobile, it is all about reaching the right customer at the right time. It makes sense to offer deals on a hotel in Mumbai to a customer who has just booked a flight to Mumbai. There will be huge improvements in the system by using data that we generate over time.
Lot of efforts are being directed towards improving the customer experience both on desktop and mobile. However, we are not too keen on getting into buses and cabs right now. The market of buses and cabs is very fragmented. As a metasearch player, you have to compare the options available to the customer. However, the products or services vary widely when you are talking about buses and cabs. The offering is not standardised hence it doesn’t make much sense for metasearch players to jump into this space at this point.
We are spending a lot of time on improving the level of personalisation for our customers. Data analytics will have a major role to play towards that. We set up a team around two years back in India to look at data analytics of Wego’s all the geographies. The team is helping us switch from a conventional approach to a more data driven approach. We are using the data analytics to provide better performance to our partners and to better understand our customers.
Other than that, we also have plans to expand to some new geographies in near future. We recently launched in Iran and we are the only meta player in that market right now. More such announcements will be coming from Wego soon.