After more than ten years in the travel agency business, Ashwini Sonthalia believes his company has achieved traction, scale, and is here for the long term.
Imagine planning a holiday and then the news of the airline you were flying with is declared insolvent or the website through which you bought your ticket go bust. Also, imagine being stranded in an airport because of some untoward incident. These issues won’t cause you any headache or stress if you have purchased your tickets through a reputable travel agent. This is what Ashwini and Abhishek Sonthalia, founders of Gaura Travels, believe where businesses like theirs is changing, morphing their roles from an agent to an advisor.
“We are like insurance policy because there are so many uncertain things when you are travelling. If you are booking your tickets through a trusted travel agent, the headache of rescheduling tickets is done completely free of charge based on the customer’s preferred date and time”, says Ashwini.
Explaining further, he states, ‘’Now every person can decide how much value they can put on their own peace of mind, especially if they travelling with family, old parents on wheelchairs or small children, by having an expert behind the scene working it all out for them at times of uncertainties. When everything is fine, an insurance policy may sound unnecessary but when things go wrong – that’s when you realise you wish you had it.’’
All of this has reshaped the travel agency industry and Gaura Travels is in sync with the times providing customers with a 24X7 service. That has remained one of its biggest USPs where 90 per cent of calls are answered within the first 60 seconds.
For Ashwini, who started Gaura Travels with his brother more than 10 years ago, having serviced more than 100,000 customers is no mean feat. ‘’We must be doing something right.’’
So, if you thought travel agents were obsolete in today’s time you could be mistaken if you go by the Sonthalia brothers’ business growth trajectory.
But first a look at how they built Gaura Travels into a full-fledged thriving enterprise. Ashwini reflects on the initial days when they looked at a start-up for themselves to put their skills to use to serve the community. The brothers, both graduates in Business Information Systems from RMIT, were sure about one thing: infusing theory into practice and applying technology in business.
They saw a gap in the market where traditional brick-and-mortar travel agencies were operating Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5 pm. When they set up shop in the CBD, it gave them a good traction where people started coming. Therefore, using visibility and good strategy, their next step was building customers and it came about slowly but surely and in huge numbers. That led to the setting up of a 24-hour operation with back offices in India in 2010. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today Gaura Travels is part of ATAS, a scheme of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTAS). Travel agencies that bear the ATAS symbol have met strict criteria in order to become nationally accredited. Their accreditation means they are the best in the industry; credible, well trained and a professional business.
Adding to the strength, the industry has also relied more and more upon the promise of convenience. The promise of convenience is also realised with hardworking agents who can build a large network of customers and deliver service that warrants repeat business. ‘’That is why we are focussing on the customer’s need 24 hours and saving them time, energy and money. We make sure the customer’s transportation links up properly, their hotels are centrally located and it is essentially a free service even if they want to reschedule their tickets,’’ says Ashwini.
In a competitive market, they also have to always source good deals with airlines and collaborate with them. ‘’Some airlines have their own thought process but we have to make them understand the customer needs and bring them a little towards the customer,’’ says Ashwini, adding, ‘’We are the bridge between the customer and the airlines.’’
In fact, Gaura Travels has been quite successful in that regard, says Ashwini, taking the example of Malaysian Airlines which has gone through a bit of a rough patch. The airline introduced extra luggage of 40 kg for customers from the Indian subcontinent – something that gained them a lot of traction.
While they sell all airline tickets, Ashwini says, ‘’Singapore Airline is a more premier airline with a more premier offering where the quality is more superior in terms of their headcounts, inflight service, entertainment and also the airport which allows smooth transition for all travellers. For that they do charge a bit more than others. And it is not a problem with customers who look for that quality and comfort.’’
With their professionalism that most see as long-term success, the Sonthalia brothers have along their journey won many awards. For seven years in a row (2013 to 2019), they have received the Victoria & Tasmania Top Producing Agent Award from Singapore Airlines, Outstanding Achievement Award Victoria & Tasmania 2018 from Malaysian Airlines, High Achiever (commendable sales performance) 2016 from Air India, to name a few.
Moving forward, there’s reason to be optimistic as Ashwini hints at encouraging trends. ‘’More and more people are flying. The cost of travel has gone down, say, 12 years ago a round trip cost about 1400-1500 AUD, now it has gone down by 50 per cent. Previously people used to travel once in two years, so there is change in consumer behaviour.’’
Another good thing is that many customers in Australia and the Indian sub-continent are venturing out to other destinations, not just India. Yet another noticeable change, observes Ashwini, is that 10 years ago people used to book months or a year in advance, now customers are more confident and are booking one or two months in advance.
‘’We are at very high level even now in terms of travels between Australia and India. Looking ahead, there should still be growth of up to 5 -6 per cent every year,’’ says Ashwini, adding, ‘’Australia as a destination has matured from what it was 20 years ago but, at the same time, having more and more Indian people in Australia is a precursor to more tourists coming to Australia.’’
Asked what their key to success is especially when communicating to clients on phone, Ashwini says, ‘’The main key here is to understand the customer needs because not every person has the same needs. A single student has a different need compared to somebody who is travelling with two kids without the father. We try to understand each customer’s need, it can get challenging at times because nowadays consumers also feel they know a lot, they will do their own research on internet but what applies to one particular traveller does not necessarily apply to the other. Giving them an option based on what is best suitable to their need is the key.’’
Gaura Travels has also started online booking. With excellence at working within systems and staying focused on execution and given the on-demand culture of the times, Ashwini and Abhishek have found ways to find success.
By Indira Laisram