While many companies have focused on core operations during the pandemic, MakeMyTrip took the step to expand to the Middle East in the midst of COVID.
CEO Rajesh Magow says that while it seemed like a bold move much of the groundwork had already been laid.
Speaking during last week’s WebinTravel Middle East Virtual 2020, he says: “From our point of view, it was already kind of in the works. We had done pretty much all the work in terms of what we needed to develop the platform.”
The company was also able to leverage the team in India to build the platform.
“We ended up taking a long-term view. We were very clear it’s going to be a longer recovery process so in this market, whatever you got to do, you got to do and then you take the second track, which is the longer term view.”
MakeMyTrip felt there was an opportunity within the crisis to do a soft launch, test the product and figure out the gaps.
It’s launched in English in United Arab Emirates and is now working on an Arabic language platform.
The idea is to get the building blocks ready so that when the time is right, it can start marketing and investing for a proper launch.
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It’s not the only initiative with MakeMyTrip investing in at least three initiatives over the course of the pandemic.
MyPartner, is an affiliate platform for travel agents, while a mini fintech platform called TripMoney will focus on consumer lending for travel and non-travel, as well as insurance, and a third party advertisement platform has also been developed.
Magow says: “This is the right time, to be honest. One track is to keep working on how you survive and how do you weather the storm effectively? The other one is very important – to focus on what will you do and attack those projects to be ready when the storm is over and emerge even stronger.”
Seera Group is also investing its way out of the crisis.
Muzzammil Ahussain, executive vice president of consumer travel, says: “We’ve taken a couple of very strategic projects, across our group, within our OTA and travel business, but also in our other businesses. The growth of the Saudi inbound for international visitors is coming, we have new initiatives in our travel business around alternative accommodation and car rentals.
“We are taking this opportunity to pick the right big projects and we’re going to continue to invest in and grow, at the same time being smart and optimizing our costs on the day-to-day business.”
Meanwhile, Wego’s CEO and co-founder Ross Veitch announced the launch of its new vertical, ShopCash, at the event this week, a new business line to tide the company over till travel comes back.
With Covid having fast-tracked online shopping in the Middle East, the shopping app will allow Wego users to earn cash back when they book flights and hotels.
And when they use ShopCash to buy non travel categories like groceries and fashion, they earn cash back which they can use to redeem flights, making it effectively a rewards platform for Wego users.
Veitch says: “It’s going to have a life independent of Wego, but it’s also going to be the core of the loyalty programme on Wego. It’s a bit of a moonshot for us. One of the sectors that is actually booming at the moment is general ecommerce, so we’re trying to ride that wave.”
The “cash back” business is huge in markets like South-east Asia but is nascent in the Middle East and Veitch feels this will give Wego a first mover advantage in the region.
While hedging his bets, Veitch says: “I’m certainly more optimistic than I was a couple weeks ago before we had multiple positive results from the vaccine makers of the world. We know the Middle East is certainly not going to be at the back of the queue for vaccine distribution.
So I’m hopeful that by around the summer next year, a majority of the people living in the Gulf have been vaccinated, and it’s going to be off to the races with regards to outbound travel.”
But what does the panel think about what they had to "unlearn" during the pandemic.
Subramanya Sharma, chief strategy officer of Cleartrip, which had to cut its staff by 70%, called the year “super humbling.”
“Surprisingly, that has helped us to be more purposeful, and there’s more gratification. People are itching to travel and we are asking, what can we do and help people travel? It’s using this time to go back to the roots of product.”
Magow says one revelation is that “you probably don’t need physical offices to effectively operate”.
“The way the world has adapted to the virtual way of operating and running companies, it was amazing. It was amazing to see the amount of productivity that we were still able to get at the end of every project. I think we will go into a hybrid way of operating.”
* A version of this article originally appeared on WebinTravel.