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‘We achieve success by foreseeing industry trends, addressing customer needs, and leveraging technology’

In 2024, SOTC Travel envisions transformative trends in spiritual tourism, hidden gems exploration, sports and event tourism, luxury, and sustainable travel, embodying resilience, growth, and a customer-centric vision as we celebrate our 75-year milestone, shaping the future of travel, says Vishal Suri, Managing Director, SOTC Travel, in an interaction with Prasenjit Chakraborty.

Q. How has SOTC Travel evolved over its 75-year journey, adapting to the changing landscape of the travel and tourism industry? What key milestones and achievements does SOTC Travel attribute to its successful 75-year legacy in the omnichannel travel sector?

We have a deep understanding of the Indian traveller, and this is evident in our regional approach: the launch of our language microsites, tailor-made product offerings, and regional marccomm.

To appeal to India’s powerful regional source markets, we have designed unique tours like SOTC Brahman Mandal and SOTC Gurjar Vishwadarshan – that offer the comfort of co-travellers from the same region along with regional language speaking, experienced SOTC Tour Managers. We have recently introduced of exclusive charter products to Bhutan from South India.

Our omnichannel model, integrating cutting-edge digital tools, contact centres and a pan-India retail network, reflects our dedication to providing choice and convenience.

Via unique concepts like our Holiday Bazaars, held across metros and key catchments across Tier 2-3 markets, we emphasize ease in access and the personal touch of our Holiday Experts. Embracing digitisation, our AI-enabled chatbot, apps, portal and QR-enabled Live Video Connect, are intended to redefine customer experience.

MICE is a key business segment for us, and we excel in managing corporate movements – from exclusive CXO meetings/events to mega incentive groups. Our ‘SOTC Connect,’ our new-age MICE app, reflects our commitment to seamless and tech-driven solutions.

Our Business Travel is one of our key segments and offers end-to-end, customisable solutions to a range of MNCs, India Corporates and SMEs, Banks, etc. We deploy global top-of-the line self-service booking tools, embedded with respective corporate travel policies, approval matrices and MIS/reports integrated to our centralized mid office system to ensure smooth workflows.

We also provide dedicated managing and consulting tools for customers to minimize expenses and maximize output during their travel.

Our outlook is Glocal – we maintain a global approach and act local. We have partnered with leading travel management companies and consortium around the globe that implement the best practices worldwide to ensure superior/exceptional customer experience on-ground.

Having successfully surpassed our pre-pandemic levels, our acquisition pipeline is equally robust.

From the rise of spiritual tourism post the Ram Mandir inauguration, to the exploration of hidden gems and offbeat destinations, we are poised to cater to evolving customer preferences. SOTC Travel’s success is rooted in anticipating industry trends, understanding the customer’s needs & wants and leveraging technology – towards an exceptional customer experience.

Q.In light of technological advancements, how has SOTC Travel leveraged its omnichannel approach to enhance the overall customer experience over the years?

While we established India’s Outbound Escorted Group Tours and have excelled in Customised Holidays, we have created an optimal blend by infusing technology.

We have adeptly leveraged our omnichannel approach to enhance the overall customer experience:

Our omnichannel model gives customers the flexibility to choose holidays from our website with over 1500 options, contacting call-centres for that important human touch/assistance, or visit nearby SOTC stores for in-person consultations with our holiday experts. Our innovative QR-enabled Live Video Connect platform seamlessly connects customers directly with holiday experts via a video call and chat, without having to download any added apps or software.

Recognising the diversity of our customer base, we have expanded our website accessibility by launching versions in four regional languages—Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Tamil. This initiative enhances our regional connectivity, providing customers the convenience of accessing content in their language of choice. The past year’s stellar performance, marked by a 76% consolidated growth in the leisure business and an 88% top-line growth in MICE, underscores our commitment to excellence.

Q.Can you share insights into the strategies and innovations that have allowed SOTC Travel to remain a prominent player in the travel industry for seven decades?

SOTC Travel has been a leader with a strong customer loyalty for over seven decades, due to a multi-pronged approach that is rooted in strategic innovation. We have customised our product-service portfolio basis our customer’s requirements, focusing on regional preferences and unique elements like regional cuisine and language-speaking tour managers, while we ensure a personalised and culturally resonant experience for our customers.

Our leisure segment caters to various traveller segments, including multi-generational families, Gen Z, millennials, young professionals, couples, honeymooners, DINKS, solo travellers, and seniors.

Strong travel intent and high disposable income, combined with the aspirational value of holidays emerging from Regional India has contributed to a noteworthy 35% of SOTC’s holiday business, thus making these markets key growth drivers for us. The launch of SOTC’s website in regional languages is intended to reach out to this rapidly growing market.

Pioneering escorted group tours and introducing unique offerings like SOTC Brahman Mandal for Maharashtra and SOTC Gurjar Vishwadarshan for Gujarat exemplify our dedication to catering to distinct regional preferences. Initiatives like a one-day road shows – Holiday Bazaars, allow us to engage with diverse communities directly. This regional focus aligns with our goal of accessibility and has proven instrumental in tapping into potential markets with high disposable income.

Our strong digital focus has resulted in a drop in the average age of our consumers by 10 years. To cater to the unique preferences of this younger and more enthusiastic segment who loves to explore and experience, we offer a diverse range- from our Gen Z products to co-curated holidays across destinations that can be customized as per their specific interests.

Given the high interest for Cruises, across segments, we have launched an extensive range of value, premium to uber luxury Cruise Holidays: from short cruise getaways/weekenders, river cruises, Polar cruises (Arctic/Antarctica), round-the-world cruises and more to target segments – across Leisure, Corporate, B-Leisure and MICE.

While we were the first to launch a dedicated Darshans/Spiritual Journeys portfolio that covered all the religious circuits of India, we saw an interesting shift in customer behaviour – Young India displayed high interest in exploring traditional pilgrimages but they also wanted to combine this with unique local experiences and outdoor adventure like white-water rafting and night trekking in Vaishno Devi, diving with PADI professionals in Rameswaram, bungee jumping in Rishikesh, etc. – this inspired us to create a range of holidays that catered to this demand.

Moreover, our continuous investment in technological advancements has kept us at the forefront. The omnichannel model, coupled with the AI-enabled chat bot combined with our regional focus have collectively fortified SOTC Travel as a prominent and trusted player in the travel industry for an illustrious seven decades.

To ensure we build a deeper connect with our consumers, we have deployed AI to analyse our customer conversations and enhance our products-services and processes. Another key initiative is our tech enabled end-to-end CXI program at each stage of the consumer journey – giving us deep insights into our customer experience.

Q.Considering the diverse travel preferences and trends, how does SOTC Travel plan to continue meeting the evolving needs of its customers in the years to come?

With the inauguration of the Ram Mandir creating heightened interest in spiritual tourism, coupled with a zeal for exploring hidden gems and the opening up of India via the UDAN scheme, we see strong potential in 2024! Our strategy will pivot around the twin pillars of product development/innovation and technology, while keeping the customer at the heart of what we do.

Cruise holidays, the convergence of sports and travel, and an ongoing penchant for luxury experiences will reinforce our commitment to providing diverse and personalised travel options. Emerging trends, including Astro Tourism and sustainable tourism ensure our teams are kept forward looking!

For instance, the introduction of our ‘Easy Book Easy Go’ portfolio caters to the spontaneous and fast-paced travel preferences of the modern explorer. As we navigate these dynamic trends, SOTC Travel is poised to redefine and elevate the travel experience for our customers in 2024 and beyond.

Q.What is your business expansion strategy, and what are the major areas of focus for the next two years?

As SOTC Travel enters a new phase of growth, we are embarking on an extensive expansion strategy aimed at strengthening our retail footprint. Currently, operating across 44 cities with 76 outlets, including both owned and franchise outlets; also an expansive partnership of over 800 preferred agent partners.

In 2023, we successfully launched 12 franchise outlets in tier 2 and 3 cities such as Ludhiana, Dehradun, Anand, and Meerut, setting the stage for our ambitious expansion plans. Over the next two years, our strategic focus will emphasise diversifying our product offerings, with a particular emphasis on meeting the preferences of the younger demographic and strengthening our position in spiritual tourism. At SOTC Travel, we are not only expanding geographically but also evolving with agility to meet the dynamic needs of India’s diversity of travellers, reiterating our reputation as pioneers in the travel industry.

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