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Monday, 26 March, 2018, 13 : 02 PM [IST]

The Game Changer - Ankush Nijhawan MD, Nijhawan Group & Co-Founder, TBO Group

Disha Shah Ghosh

There are times some decisions throw life completely out of gear. However, the one who faces the challenges head on stands the test of time. This holds completely true for Ankush Nijhawan. Born in an illustrious business family, who would have thought his struggles would grow multi-fold, for he decided to make some brave moves to realise a dream never before envisaged by any. While proving that his ideas were a breakthrough, he also had a family name to live up to, and one can truly say he has been successful in doing so on both fronts. TravelBiz Monitor recognises Ankush Nijhawan for making Nijhawan Group a diversified global entity in a span of just 15 years, which competes with the big boys in the global market today.

For a 40-year old regional brand like Nijhawan Group to become a global entity within a span of 15 years is no mean feat. Not only has the company expanded its geographical footprint across continents, but also has diversified into verticals hitherto it didn’t operate into. In fact, no one would have ever thought that Nijhawan Group’s brand Travel Boutique, a B2B brick and mortar agency with presence in 3 cities, would go on to establish its foothold in 90 countries today to offer products and customised solutions to the trade community. The early seeds of expansion of Nijhawan Group were sown in 2000 when a fresh graduate from Bryant College USA found himself as a misfit within 2 days of joining ESPN.

“I went to my dad and asked for an opportunity to prove myself. That’s when my journey really began. I joined as a front line executive, issuing physical tickets and waiting in queues for visas at the embassies just like any young employee in the company. This went on for 2-3 years, which laid a solid foundation of my career. I moved up the ladder working across various departments. When you learn from the bottom, you can’t be easily fooled,” says Ankush Nijhawan, MD, Nijhawan Group, reminiscing about his early days.

When Ankush joined Travel Boutique in early 2000, it was the GSA of British Airways in North/South and West India having a presence in Delhi, Lucknow and Jalandhar, with annual turnover of INR 30 crore. However, Ankush realised that actual growth would follow only by moving out of his comfort zone and competing with the big boys in the business. This gave rise to a long struggle of sleepless nights and relentless hard work to reach out and convince trade partners about Travel Boutique and its varied products and services across West, East and South India. Ankush and his team started reaching out the agents in the major metros of India and he credits the success of his loyal network of agents to inter-personal relationships and service delivery. “My mother always said there is no substitute for hard work and personal communication. Despite the technological advancement, nothing can replace a direct call to the customer or an informal chat to create a comfort level. Therefore, I ensure that I am available to all my clients at any given point of time.”

Ankush Nijhawan with Gaurav Bhatnagar, Co-Founder, TBO Group & V.K Balaji, COO, TBO Holidays at the World Travel Awards

In early 2004, when Nijhawan Group, under Ankush’s able guidance was looking at diversification, he wanted to return to education for an MBA, a decision which his father vehemently opposed. “He said I alone can’t handle what you have built in 3 years. In fact, one of the deans at Temple University told him that if your son could do business in a market like India he doesn’t need to pursue an MBA. But I cautioned him to never blame me for not pursing post graduation.”

This was a turning point in his life and since then Ankush has never looked back. This was the time e-commerce platform had started stepping up its ante in the market, which went on to create a major disruption in consumer purchase behaviour. However, a feeling of restlessness had started creeping in for Ankush. “I wasn’t satisfied with the results compared to the efforts put it. During this time, a common friend introduced me to Gaurav who was formerly with Microsoft. He wanted to explore the travel space and I was considering venturing into technology since e-commerce was still at a nascent stage in India, and I felt that it would be the future. However, I was adamant that we maintain the Travel Boutique brand since it was an established name in the market. Therefore, we christened the company Travel Boutique Online, which is now popularly known as TBO.”

“Naspers came onboard as an investor in TBO and it was a major breakthrough for us. It not only gave us the confidence that we are on the right track, but also made me realise that we now need to make TBO a truly global brand. I want to reach 150 countries by 2019. Today, we offer call centre services in 6 different languages.”

With the emergence of Online Travel Agents in 2005, TBO seemed to be at the right place at the right time by offering global airline content on its platform to brick and mortar agents. With consumers slowly and gradually getting comfortable to the e-commerce space, the offline agents had started feeling the heat. This is when TBO came to their rescue to offer content in real time, reaching an agent base of 5,000 in 2012 across its network.

The growth journey and potential of TBO caught the attention of even a global giant like Naspers. “Naspers came onboard as an investor in TBO and it was a major breakthrough for us. It not only gave us the confidence that we are on the right track, but also made me realise that we now need to make TBO a truly global brand.” On a chance visit to Dubai, Ankush decided to undertake a recce of the region. He realised that the market was completely untapped for the B2B space. “Agents here were in for a surprise that they could check inventory in real-time and issue tickets through the TBO platform. I immediately made a phone call to Gaurav that we need to set foot print in the global market and start with the Middle East. We hired one person in a rented location in Dubai, and began our international journey.” Overseas expansion was a major struggle for Ankush, the market was new, and the dynamics were different. However, not one to bow down to the situation, he took the challenges head on, and the results are for all to see. Today, TBO enjoys its presence across 90 countries.

Another breakthrough that followed in 2013 was focus on hotel inventory. Realising that commissions from air travel were dwindling because of the growing consumer comfort with OTAs, TBO ventured into the hotel space. “In 2012, only 8% agents were buying hotels from TBOs. It was difficult to convince them to shift from air ticketing to hotels. Today 40% of the agents focus on hotels.”

Ankush with his Father & Chairman of Nijhawan Group, Sham Nijhawan (R) and Rahul Bhatia, Group MD, InterGlobe Enterprises

Ankush’s efforts have shown results and today Nijhawan Group has 45 offices across India and 26 global offices with a presence in LATAM, Middle East, Africa, Europe. China, Asia Pacific and Australia. “I want to reach 150 countries by 2019. Today, we offer call centre services in 6 different languages - Portuguese, Spanish, Cantonese, English, French and Arabic.” Nijhawan Group, under the leadership of Ankush has also ventured into e-commerce start up space, Hotels/Theme parks and Tourism board representation, retail, catering services, diversifying the group’s portfolio across various spheres. Each vertical today is growing individually and competing with the big names in the business while upholding principles like customer loyalty, transparency and complete adherence to law.

The journey for Nijhawan Group and Ankush wasn’t a smooth ride. Some personal sacrifices became a routine for Ankush. While he had to regularly travel for work across India and overseas, his wife, Priyanka was managing things on the home front. “I couldn’t get much time to spend with the kids, especially my daughter. I could hardly see her while growing up since I was spending long hours at work. I was away for many social events during my children’s formative years.” Even today, Ankush is travelling nearly 20 days a month to ensure all his business verticals remain relevant in the fast-changing world where technology is constantly evolving. “There is always someone better than you and this is the cycle of life. Therefore there is absolutely no scope for being complacent. I believe in work harder and play hard,” says Ankush. “I am aware that there is always someone making a better product, someone with much more zeal than I have today and it is worrisome. This is what keeps me on my toes every day.”
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