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Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 11 : 48 AM [IST]

The Trailblazer - Nalini Gupta

Disha Shah Ghosh

The phrase ‘A smile can change the world’ perfectly describes the story of Nalini Gupta. While there are no permanent friends or enemies, she believes a smile that creates a positive vibe is all it takes for one to think fearlessly. This thought has been the backbone of her leadership across various positions she has helmed in her career. Having dabbled across aviation and tour operating roles, she holds the distinction of bringing and making Costa Cruises to homeport in India. One meeting with her is enough to realise that Nalini is someone who still has miles to go before she calls it a day.

"I am fortunate to be in this industry where we have the opportunity to make a difference to someone’s life by creating memorable experiences,” says Nalini Gupta, having spent nearly four decades experimenting across verticals. For someone who started as a counter staff at Air India to making cruise travel in India a reality, the journey has been exciting and a learning curve, while her effervescent smile has been the only constant.

Talking to Nalini about her career, I realised that at the age of 64 she still continues to demonstrate the excitement and eagerness of a teenager to experiment. What better explains her transition from Abacus to South African Airways to Thomas Cook, having made an exit after making each entity reach unprecedented heights. The foundation stone of the confidence that Nalini exudes today was laid during her formative years. Recalling one incident, she tells me how an acquaintance once bumped into her outside a board meeting and remarked that she needs to be part of the conference room, and Nalini replied, “I will be there soon.”

If one analyses Nalini’s career graph, it is evident from that she is someone who is always looking for new challenges. Whether it is undertaking CRS training at Air India, to introducing this new booking system to agents across India at Abacus to making South African Airways change their plans of withdrawing from the Indian market and instead increasing their frequency, Nalini has turned around businesses with her never say never attitude. “We are all scared to accept change because it takes us out of our comfort zone. However, that is where we have the opportunity to grow.”

“At Air India I learnt it is all about pushing your boundaries to enhance the customer experience. When I moved to Abacus, I had the opportunity to educate agents about the change in the ticketing process. I started travelling across India and the people to people contact gave me a new high.”

While Nalini had put Abacus on a new pedestal, Rahul Bhatia was trying hard to make South African Airways hang on to the Indian market. This was the year 2000, when South Africa was the 38th most popular destination for Indians. Bhatia gave the mantle to Nalini, and a visit to South Africa made her realise the product is a sure shot success provided it is packaged well. Nalini started undertaking the process of positioning the country for Bollywood shoots and smart pricing only helped the airline rake in unprecedented numbers. Another benefit that worked in their favour was the ICC Cricket World Cup. “That was the time they had Kuoni as the official ticketing partner. I convinced the management to allow multiple agencies to sell tickets since India is a price sensitive market and more players would create healthy competition.” The result of this saw 12,000 Indians travelling to South Africa to witness the historic moments of the tournament.

The transition to Thomas Cook introduced her to the world of tour packaging, giving a holistic view packaging holidays. This was the time she went on a Costa ship to receive an award for Thomas Cook, which introduced her to the world of cruising and it seemed appealing to her.

By 2010, Nalini had moved out of Thomas Cook for a year-long sabbatical. “I set up Lotus Destinations and we started offering everything in the travel domain. I received a call from Costa it I would still like to develop the cruise market in India. We need to be fearless in our thinking and realise the value of relationship management,” she says. However, being the headstrong person that she is, Nalini wasn’t someone to accept anything at face value. She laid down three conditions before Costa – do away with the PSA model, support the operations of the India office and homeport in India. “I was very clear that I will take on the role only if these three conditions are met. There was no room for negotiation, and to my luck, Costa has adhered to all the conditions.”

Thus, Lotus Destinations became the GSA for Costa and Nalini a key stakeholder for the future of the cruise line in India. “The role came with new responsibilities and its own challenges. From working the various government departments, to meeting the regulatory framework and convincing customers about the cruise proposition, it gave me an adrenaline rush.” The historic moment for Nalini came in 2016, when Costa started home-porting its neoClassica from Mumbai. The product has been well received and Nalini is gearing up for the next seasons. Today she is busy talking to the government about developing infrastructure and easing taxation norms to create an environment conducive for international cruise lines to homeport in India.

“I see great future for cruise travel in India; the next five years are crucial and I want to be actively involved in all the activities to ensure the sector gets its due. Post that, I will look for something new, equally exciting and something that gives me a new high,” she signs off with a smile.

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