Conversational Messaging Podcast by Gupshup

Episode 014: Conversational Travel: Making Traveler Experiences Better

January 13, 2022 Beerud Sheth and Srinivas Vijayaraghavan Season 3 Episode 14
Conversational Messaging Podcast by Gupshup
Episode 014: Conversational Travel: Making Traveler Experiences Better
Show Notes Transcript

In today’s episode of the Conversational Messaging Podcast, Thiagarajan “Thia” Rajagopalan, Founder and CEO of Tripeur, joins Srini to discuss how conversational messaging can massively get rid of customer pain points while increasing brands’ efficiency. Tune in for a conversation about how better communication equates better brand reputation. 

The Changes in Consumer Requirements 

COVID has definitely brought massive changes on the way people travel, regardless if its for leisure or for business. According to Thia, people demand more information about travel arrangements, places they’re travelling to (restrictions, policies, etc.), and have expectations in terms of the place, hotel, etc.). All of these are driven by the fact that people’s regard for safety alongside convenience has become higher. This drives the need for better communication. 

“I would say the travel industry is innovating and adapting to the new needs of the travelers. I would say this is just the beginning, we are just scratching the surface.” - Thia Rajagopalan

The Increased Need for Communication

Because people’s priority is safety, communication has become more important than ever. As many travelling transactions are affected by the pandemic, there is also an enormous need to provide consumers with the information. Hence, it is important to provide contactless but reliable communication to consumers. 

Thia believes that automating this process through conversational messaging is the best way to optimise operations.  

“Since we are a tech company, we started focusing on, ‘how do I let the user help himself or herself, without having to speak to anybody without having to even pick up the phone and talk to somebody?’” - Thia Rajagopalan

Ensuring Your Brand’s Good Reputation 

Before, brands’ reputation used to be completely based on their customers’ offline and real-time experience. However, with the accessibility of technology, the market has become so much more competitive than the way it used to be. Consumers now assess brands in terms of their online services (e.g. mobile apps performance, etc.). Hence, today, brands should be making an effort to impress the users not only while they are actively transacting with brands but also before and after their transactions. Brands can do this by sending out personalised messages to customers, which Thia believes to have a positive influence on brands’ reputation.

“Social media is becoming very, very common for all the users. The direct connectivity between the service provider and the consumer is only going to accelerate, and it'll go to the next level.” - Thia Rajagopalan


Thiagarajan “Thia” Rajagopalan founded Tripeur, an AI-powered end-to-end corporate travel management platform. With a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in Computer Science, Thia is a known figure in product management and product marketing associated with telecom giants such as Motorola, Qualcomm, and Mobileum . 

Srini has over 2 decades of experience in running marketing for high-growth technology companies and managing corporate marketing, product marketing and demand generation. Prior to Gupshup, he held marketing leadership positions with Qubole, Pluralsight, Mobileum and Tejas Networks.



Listen to insights on how conversational messaging is changing the way businesses and their customers engage. Join gupshup CEO Baroud and VP for marketing, training, and an array of guest for conversations about conversations. This is the gupshup conversational messaging podcast.



Hello, and welcome to  season three of the conversational messaging podcast and on behalf of gupshup, I want to wish all of our listeners are very happy, and more importantly, a safe and healthy year. And I also want to take this opportunity to welcome to the show, we always promised you that we will bring in experts from different walks of life from different industries, to talk to us about how those industries are transforming fundamentally when it comes to customer engagement. And today, we have Thiagarajan, who goes by the name of thea in the industry. So Thea, welcome to the show. Thanks, Jerry. Great to be here. Thanks for having me. Absolutely. And Thea and I go back a long way, and in a minute allow him to introduce himself. But Thea is a hardcore products guy. He's lead product management for several tech companies. And now he's an entrepreneur in the area of travel. He runs a company called tripper that works with a lot of corporates on providing travel tech solutions. And the reason he is joining us today is because we want to go deep into the travel industry as an all of you out there, including me, frequent travelers, we've been frequent travelers, but because of the pandemic, as travelers, we've been sort of forced to stay indoors. And as an industry travel has borne the brunt of this pandemic, and at the same time is also an industry that has rapidly adopted digital technologies. And we'll go deeper into that in this conversation. So Thea, let me invite you to introduce yourself for the audience. So they know a little bit more about you. Yeah, sure. First of all, happy new year to all the listeners, hopefully 2022 is going to be a fantastic year, compared to the last two years that we had. So we're all looking forward to what the new year brings to us. As for me, I come from a computer science background. I did my bachelor's and master's in computer science, bachelor's in which Kalani and Master's in the US. And after that, I've been doing a lot of product roles, initially product development in the software area. And then later product management and product marketing, and primarily in the telecom areas. So I was with companies like Motorola, Qualcomm, and most recently with motilium. But different kinds of products, both user based, mobile phone kind of products, as well as infrastructure, software, in telecom. So in case you're wondering how I ended up in travel, it's an interesting story, even though travel is not a domain that I have worked in, it's been so personal to me, because I've experienced a lot of pain as a business traveler in pretty much all the companies be it Motorola, Qualcomm, and William, the travel arrangement, as well as the travel experience, self has been pretty painful. And I could clearly see it could be a lot better. So for example, I wouldn't get the let's say, the seat that I wanted a meal I wanted, or the hotel, I wanted to get the name wrong, they won't get my frequent flyer number. And it was always painful experience. And the travel itself was also very friction oriented and led to a lot of small small issues that could have been avoided from simple things like cab pickup cab drop off to the airport. So there was a lot of, let's say, tension around the travel as an experience. And that's when I thought, you know, there should be a better way to do this. And that's why I took the plunge along with a partner and started this company focusing on corporate travel, you don't do consumer travel, leisure travel, it only corporate travel, how do we make that a fantastic experience, both for the traveler, as well as for a company. So that's a little bit about myself and where I am. Thanks a lot for that context. The end, great innovations always start with that question, right, there has to be a better way. So I'm glad you asked yourself that question as well. So let's dive in. Let's look at a few mega trends in travel if we can. I mean, if you look at the last couple of years, I somehow feel that the pandemic has accelerated. The pace of digitization of the traveler experience, like something that might have been done in five years is now being crunched into maybe 12 or 18 months. So what are some trends that you're seeing in this industry? And of course, travel is very wide. So if you can give us some perspective on let's say headlines So transportation side, the hospitality side, and even the experience at locations and things like that.



Yeah, so let me talk about it in the two different ways. One is what COVID has done to travel as a need for anybody, whether it's a leisure or business, and then how the industry is responding to those needs. Let's look at it from both angles, right? Sure. So from the user perspective of the travelers perspective, historically, travel was a luxury. If you go back 100 years, people who are well traveled, there only rich people, a common man couldn't even imagine going to a different country, let alone going to point even a different town, they would go only when there is a need. But now, fast forward to this century. And as decades, travel is taken for granted, people from all walks of life travel, not only on a need basis, but also for leisure fun, and to make themselves more efficient, and whatnot. So given this COVID structures, there was a major uncertainty for a few months about will people go back to where they were, they will travel only if there is a need, they will keep away from traveling, and so on. And we also went through the same kind of an existential crisis as a travel technology company. But very soon, it was very clear that travel has become an inherent part of all the people's lives, and they wouldn't let it go. Because we all could see, after the first wave subsided, people started traveling a lot more what you term called Revenge travel came about where people will travel even more than what they used to write. And this has happened both in the case of personal or leisure travel, as well as corporate travel. So even in corporate travel, we used to wonder, you know, maybe people will get so used to zoom and other remote way of interacting, that the sales guys will close the deals over the phone, over zoom calls, and they don't have to travel. But again, if you became very clear that the fundamental relationship people build, when they meet in person is irreplaceable, you know, you just cannot build that kind of relationship on a zoom call. So we could clearly see that even business travelers started traveling much more, to basically enhance their efficiency and to improve their business. Right. So but when this shift happened, it was not back to where they were pre COVID. People wanted to travel, but they had newer requirements, they had newer concerns, they had newer needs, right? So if you look at those needs, I would put them into, let's say, three buckets. One is how people make travel arrangements, what factors they look at how they make those arrangements, that is one part. Second thing is getting ready for travel, how they become well informed. During travel, for example, if I'm traveling from one state to another, what are the restrictions? What do I need to take? And stuff like that? And the third part is the travel experience itself. So when you are on travel, what do you expect? When you check into hotel? What do you expect when you get on a plane? What do you expect? Right? So those are the three aspects that people look at. And as you can imagine, the primary factor is 50. You know, now that is, first and foremost, in people's minds, whether it's selecting a location to travel to, or the mode of transportation, or where you stay, the entire thing is centered around, am I going to be safe? You know, is it the safest option? Or is it appealing to me for my safety requirements, so that becomes the number one thing. And when safety comes second thing, which is am I going to be well informed about where I'm going, how I'm going, and so on. So the communication from the service providers becomes a very important part for the traveler. And of course, the third thing is the actual experience that they see the experience that they have in booking and undertaking the travel also. So this is what the consumer has transformed to become. Now, when you look at it from provider's perspective, like us, we are a travel tech company. But I would also speak for other players like let's say an airline in the hotel, how do you respond to this different need from the user compared to wherever, let's say a year ago or two years ago? So what we see is, from our perspective, the one thing that we focus on is how do we give as much information to the user as possible? How do we keep them informed while they are making travel arrangements, as well as once they have booked? How do we keep them informed about what's happening in the location that they're traveling to? What to expect while traveling and so on. So communication became a big thing for us. So during the last two years, we had to innovate in our product to change the way we were looking at it earlier, the focus was on choices, and cost and analytics and stuff like that. But when we transitioned to where we are now, we are now focusing more on communication. So we started introducing, you know, keep them informed on channels like WhatsApp about the ticket about,



let's say, COVID, appropriate behavior, what to look for in the New City and stuff like that. So that is one thing that we really focused on. And the second thing that we saw is people don't want any kind of physical interaction with when they are making travel arrangements during travel or when they are also, right. So for that, we are a tech company, we started focusing on how do I let the user help himself or herself, without having to speak to anybody without having to even pick up the phone and talk to somebody. So essentially, what we are now doing is eliminate what used to be called the implant in companies where the travel agents will be sitting in the company, you would simply walk over to that person, give them your requirement, they will give you some choices, right there, you will select, and then you go and book the options. So what we are now doing is digitizing this entire operation, from the time you say I want to travel to location x to giving them all the options of flights, hotels, and so on, user selects everything. And we take care of policy compliance, we take care of even getting the approvals for the user and booking the tickets. So the friction is removed from our perspective, right. So this is the second thing. And the last thing is, when you are actually traveling, what we're seeing all the service providers doing is, now the contact is pretty much eliminated. So if you fly now, if you go to the airport, now, what we used to do was carry a printout, you had to give it to the security guard, you have to give it to the guy on the security line, he physically takes it, and then they put a stamp on it. And then you pass through, right. So all those things have been eliminated. Now, if you look at the innovation that has come about, now you have a QR code and your boarding pass or your ticket, they just have to scan it. So nobody touches anything, you can keep your distance, you can wear your mask, and you are going to be safe. So this is from the airline perspective. And same thing is coming in the hotels also. So there are a lot of innovations about how you can straightaway walk to your room, as soon as you're ready to check in, you can do it from your mobile phone. And when you have checked in, it will tell you which room and your mobile phone acts as your key, you don't even need a physical key that you have to pick up, you know, maybe you're afraid of contracting something, and whatnot. So you can just go straight to your room, open the room with your phone, and you are in the hotel, right. And we have seen the same innovation come about restaurants. Also, when you're traveling and you're eating out, you can order everything just by scanning a QR code, selecting the item from the menu and ordering. So you don't need to physically look at a menu, touch it, and so on. So these are all various things that the world, I would say the travel industry is innovating and adapting to the new needs of the travelers. And I would say this is just the beginning, we are just scratching the surface. And on innovation that is going to come as users become more and more sophisticated in this area. Thanks to for that comprehensive update on the mega trends in travel. And it sort of resonates with the conversations that we've been having with a lot of travel companies as well that, you know, in the past, you know one way notifications that an airline or hotel or an online travel aggregator, or any location that takes a booking from you like a museum or something a one way notification would suffice because there was absolutely no reason to believe that you will not land up there. But today, what's happening is there is an increased need for brands for these travel brands to have a two way conversation with the traveler, because your travel plans keep changing all the time. And you know, they want to have certain facilities available to them, like you mentioned, the pre check in or the contactless thing, or even rescheduling trips based on their own health or health and safety concerns. And all of this is to be done at scale. So you have millions of billions of travelers around the world. And so if you're a travel brand, then you need to be able to cater to all of this in real time by having these two way chats and scaling up contact center and those kinds of things are not feasible beyond a point. So one segment which we didn't touch upon was the online travel aggregators. You know, the booking companies that book trips and they book hotels and all of that, what are some of the changes that you're seeing there in terms of these when they are like digital anyway, but what has changed there in terms of the travel experience or the use case? Is there really?



Yeah, absolutely. That's a very good point, Sherry. So there are two key trends. You know, one is there is an offline to online transition that is happening very fast. Right. So there were many users that were more comfortable dealing with people talking to someone, I will look through this agent, and so on. Now, they are more comfortable going to an online travel agency, and booking the tickets online. So that is one trend that has definitely accelerated, thanks to COVID. And from the OTAs perspective, they play a very important role. Because there are so many providers that are like hundreds of hotels that you can book with, there are hundreds of airlines that you can book with, when it comes to international airlines. And you need one place where you can go compare and find something and you can book the things of your choice, right. So they play a very important role. But from their perspective, apart from just simple digitization and aggregation, one of the things that they are focusing on and that users are also demanding, is 24 by seven support. And as you rightly said, all the COVID restrictions, things changed dynamically, even when I was on vacation, the end of the year, you know, just two weeks ago, you know, things change, flight got canceled, you had to rebook. So these things do happen. In fact, they happen more now than before, which means customers are looking for this kind of service, where somebody can serve them across service providers. So I can't rely on just one service provider, I need somebody who can provide me the service. That is one. And from service perspective, what used to be just email or phone call earlier, is now becoming more and more common to do just over chat. You know, many companies are now offering it over their own chat client on the website. Or even better, they're doing it over WhatsApp, right, you can just open WhatsApp send them in, I want to change the slide, they give you options, you select something and they book it. And we are some structure is no exception. And we have enabled a chat client using which we offer not only the booking services, but also any kind of post booking service like changes and so on. Right, the simple WhatsApp message, right. So something that has really taken off the last two years or so, with COVID. Because people now feel comfortable saying, you know, I can reach someone, anytime, with a simple chat, I don't need to wait in the queue. When it comes to an IVR. It's like you just in the cycle of prompts, and you just stuck with us forever. It's a very bad experience for the users. But the chat, somebody responds to you right away. And it's a much better experience. But it used to be hated by users, because it was viewed to be impersonal, you're not talking to a person, and so on. And now with all this, it has become more acceptable. Right. And now, the last thing is on top of this chat, one of the things that people are having the technology is adding is having these bots respond to you instead of physical people. So when I'm chatting the basic queries, like what is the status of my flight? When is my flight landing? What is my seat number, stuff like that can be answered by a bot, you don't need a physical person to do it. And it'll be much faster and more accurate, without asking you too many questions, and so on. So that is also taken off to me. OTAs are primarily focusing on these days, they were already good at aggregating and providing you with a nice user interface and so on. But service in the form of bots, and chat has become a central focus, as far as OTAs are concerned. So we covered the seven interesting use cases across travel segments like airlines OTAs, luxury and hospitality segments. What we are seeing and this is across the board, but even when it comes to travel is that I feel a lot of travel companies have gone through, let's say the website phase where maybe the start of the century, you had a lot of these online isation or E hyphenation of a lot of the travel experience. Every travel company has a website now and the web experience is what they invested in. Then after 2008 2009, we went through the mobile app phase where you know, everything that was available on our website was now available on a much smaller form factor. But we are now seeing another shift that's taking place where a lot of these business to let's say traveler brand, travel brand to traveler conversations exchanges are moving into the messaging app. So are we looking at a future where a travel ban now lives on your whatsapp along with your friends and family? Like do you see the industry moving in that way when it comes to the customer experience, but



yeah, absolutely. So you I hit the nail on the head, see, with many brands out there for the user to choose from, it has always been important for the brands to differentiate themselves, right. And the differentiation earlier was only in the service that they provide. So for example, if you like an airline, because when you fly the airline, the experience is good, or you like a hotel, because when you go there, you stay there, the experience is good. That has been the focus for all these so called offline businesses. But now, right that users have so much data that they are having access to, in the form of social media and whatnot, it is also important for these brands, whoever is offering these services to really impress the user, not only when they are offering the service, but also before and after, right. So that is why direct communication with the user, both before and after the service itself, is extremely important. This is where all these WhatsApp and other social media Graco huge difference. So people really like it when you send personalized message before you travel, you know, have you remembered to do this, and so on. And similarly, after the service, if you, you know, personally check with them, you know, I hope this was good, you know, something personal, something nice that they have done, you share something personal with them, that is very much appreciated. And it adds to the level of satisfaction, the positive image that I'm going to carry about the brand, after the services offered. So which makes it very important for the brands to really directly connect with the user. So the direct connection with the consumer is really gaining traction. So that is definitely a huge trend that is going to come. And it's also being accelerated by all these blockchain based movement that is happening, which is going to decentralize everything. So today, there is a lot of middlemen between the service provider and the service consumer. Good. All the decentralization happening with technology. And also the social media becoming very, very common for all the users, the direct connectivity between the service provider and the consumer is only going to accelerate, and it'll go to the next level. Right? That's great. Yeah. And also, finally, when it comes to your wheelhouse at Ripper, which is the corporate travel and the business travel, do you see the same sort of experience that business travelers also seek? Or is any different than? Oh, yes, yes, absolutely. So earlier, as you pointed out earlier, you know, the booking process was just like a necessary evil, this customer service was more like a necessary evil, that people were just offering it, just for the sake of offering it. But now with COVID, there is a huge wave of digital transformation that is sweeping the entire corporate world, the corporate want to digitize everything, because all the workers are going remote. So you can't have physical paper physical processes, hindering your progress. So that is one thing that is really transforming the way even travel is conducted as far as corporates are concerned. But along with digital transformation, the benefit are expected by both the companies as well as the travelers. So companies now expect, you know, all kinds of reports, analytics, insights, optimization, mechanisms, controlling user behavior, and all these advanced features are demanded by the corporates. So that is one thing that we are really good at. And we are really pushing the benefits of digitizing for the corporate. But more importantly, consumers are now more aware, they are getting much more personalized service from the consumer portals and consumers service providers. And they expect a new level of service when it comes to corporate also. So when I am looking at my corporate travel, I don't want to be restricted by what is being offered by the travel agent, I don't want to be restricted by only three choices. I want to see all these choices and choose what I like, right. And I want to be told what is compliant with my policy and so on and not after I select it, right. So they expect a much, much better level of service, not only while booking, but also after booking. In fact, for example, filing expenses, they expect all kinds of services in a digital way through the process of business travel. So we see this as a huge, positive thing that has happened as far as business travel is concerned, since that is what we're focused on. As well as for consumer travel. So sky's the limit in terms of where this is going to go in terms of what we will experience going forward.



Thanks a lot. The I think this was really really educated. I mean, I personally learned a lot about when we talk about traveling In a very broad sense, but it has so many nuances and sub segments and use cases. And thanks for bringing a lot of that detail out in our conversation today. And to our listeners, I think if you work for a travel brand, or, or an airline or hospitality or if you're part of hospitality, or even manage a site or a location that people come to start thinking about how your traveler experience can be more personalized, where you can have two way conversations at scale, and how we can bring in sort of messaging chatbot technology and some of the other things that we spoke about today to ultimately make the traveler experience really good. So I want to on behalf of Gupshup. Also, thank you for joining us today, and to our listeners. Goodbye for now and we'll be back in a week's time with another person. Thank you. Thanks. Thanks for having me.