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Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 14 : 54 PM [IST]

Scaling new ‘Heights’ - Sheetal Munshaw, Director, Atout France in India

Language as they say has no barriers. And it won’t be wrong to say that her love for the French language and France as a destination has taken Sheetal Munshaw to newer heights in her career. With over 14 years of experience in destination marketing, Sheetal has emerged as one of the prominent and astute overseas tourism board representatives in India today. TravelBiz Monitor recognises Sheetal Munshaw who holds the distinction of being the first ever non-French national to head an Atout France mission globally.

If Chamonix Mont-Blanc today has become an inseparable part of the European itineraries of Indian tour operators, the credit goes to Sheetal Munshaw. Back in 2006, when travel trend from India to France was still Paris and Eiffel Tower-centric, it was Sheetal, then the Promotions Manager of Maison de la France who introduced the Indian market to the natural grandeur of Chamonix Mont-Blanc through a partnership with Cox & Kings. Today, Chamonix Mont-Blanc has become a permanent fixture of the GIT itineraries of almost all tour operators so much so that the destination has gained popularity among FITs as well. For France which was competing with established European destinations, the right positioning and popularity of Chamonix Mont-Blanc was just the push they needed.

Mention Chamonix Mont-Blanc and France, Sheetal’s eyes immediately brighten up. It is with her sheer love for the language and the destination that she shoulders the responsibility of heading Atout France in India with so much ease. She took over the reins at the age of 37, and holds the distinction of being the first non-French national to head an Atout France office globally.

Vrinda Raje, CEO, Joint Custodian Initiative at Eternal Mewar,
Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur and Sheetal Munshaw

A Masters in French Literature and Superior Diploma holder at the Alliance Francaise, Sheetal, at 21 like most people of her age was unclear of the career opportunities that lie ahead. “There were not many opportunities back then with the French language so I decided to pursue writing which was a hobby with the business publication division of The Indian Express. I stumbled upon the hospitality and travel segments and went on to specialise in the tourism board beat because destination marketing excited me,” she says. This was followed by a brief stint with the Canadian Tourism Board. However soon began her love affair with destination France when she took up the role of Promotions Manager at Maison de la France. This was 2004 when Sheetal was operating out of the Air France office, reporting to the Asia headquarters in Singapore.

“The role gave me lot of exposure and learning since I was the only person handling the department, which required me to juggle all the portfolios. Despite the challenges, it was an exciting job, and kept me closer to France.” This was the period when recognition of France in India was Eiffel Towercentric, and its awareness was very low, even among the trade fraternity. Paris was a 2-night destination in all the European group tour itineraries, and the visa process wasn’t as smooth as it is today. “Firstly, France wasn’t a popular tourist destination among Indians and we were pitted against the UK, which was very well entrenched in the minds of the consumers and trade alike.” For Sheetal, the challenge was to clear the myths about the destination so that the travel trade starts becoming comfortable with selling France. This was the time France received a meager 60,000 – 80,000 tourists from India. “The flip side of this was since France was not a popular destination among Indians, Maison de la France didn’t have India on the top of its radar. However, India was identified as an emerging source market and it was decided to introduce Chamonix because it was an appropriate product that the market needed.”

Within a year of introducing Chamonix in India, in 2007, Sheetal was promoted to the post of Deputy Director. This was also the phase which saw a major change for Atout France in India. “Atout France started with promoting the French Riveria, Chamonix and the French Alps, which slowly and gradually became our top-selling products.”

Sheetal giving away the token of appreciation to Alexandre Ziegler, Ambassador of France
to India at the Ambassador’s Travel Awards 2017 in Mumbai

In 2011, Sheetal went on a year-long sabbatical and eventually decided to turn entrepreneur with the launch of Avant Garde Consulting, when she started representing Chamonix Mont-Blanc independently in India. “Being an entrepreneur was new to me. This is when my multi-tasking skills developed at Maison de la France came handy.” Sheetal had a clear vision to be qualitative and therefore decided to focus on high-end luxury products. “I worked with a consortium created for Portugal, an unknown destination in India. Europe was a space I was comfortable with and decided to make it my focus.”

During all these years, Sheetal continued to engage with the trade community for promoting the products and destinations she represented, while brushing up her entrepreneurial skills. However, it was the year 2015, when an offer from Atout France turned out to be a turning point in her career. While Avant Garde was growing, Atout France wanted Sheetal to take over as the India head since Catherine Oden was moving to China. This was a major breakthrough for Sheetal, and almost like a home-coming to her favourite brand. While this opportunity with France seemed like a dream job for Sheetal, she was well aware of the demands of this job. “I had to give up the flexibility of working hours that I could enjoy with my own company. However, considering the role that I had to take on that seemed like a small issue. The challenge was to ensure France maintains its position in the market. On a personal note, I was under immense pressure to not disappoint anyone.”

While the role brought a fair number of challenges on the destination marketing front, Sheetal and Atout France globally had a crucial role to play. In 2015, France was faced with a series of coordinated attacks which led to news of France suspending the Schengen agreement which started doing the rounds. While this created confusion among the trade fraternity, Atout France and the Embassy of France were prompt in clearing the air, with Sheetal and her team leading from the front sending out the right message to the travel trade community in India. “While the authorities in France were prompt, what was heartening was all of us spoke the same language in sending out the correct information.” France came out strongly in supporting the cause of tourism, ensuring tourist safety is paramount.

Today, the challenge for Sheetal is to ensure France remains on the topof- the-recall of the Indian traveller, having received 6 lakh tourists in 2016. “There is no time to sit and relax. We need to stay on top of our game.”

Sheetal credits her success to the learning from her seniors over the years. “The level of commitment and passion of Catherine Oden who has been my mentor par excellence for several years and has always been ever so inspiring. I learnt to stay positive and to prioritise from Frederic Meyer. Our current MD M Christian Mantei is a veritable powerhouse, an astute analyst and perceptive marketer who constantly inspires us to outdo ourselves and strive to maintain the coveted Numero Uno position that France continues to enjoy on a global footprint.”

“Needless to say success is an ever evolving process and it can never come without some sacrifice and tremendous support from your inner circle – your family.”

One of the beliefs that Sheetal stays by is, “You are your own benchmark, and you set your new goals. And nothing is done single handedly, it is a concerted team effort and we all need to move together and in the same direction.”
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