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Manish Amin: The travel troubleshooter

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-06-2017 Livemint

Manish Amin always wanted to be a banker. But when he landed a job at the National Westminster Bank in London in 1985, he left within three weeks, deciding never to return to the industry.

“I was really excited to get my dream job. I was not even 20 then,” says Amin, now 51. “But for the first three weeks, all I had to do was stamp cheques. It was neither exciting nor challenging.”

Amin went on to work at a video library and online travel companies in London before moving to India in 2006 and co-founding the online travel agency Yatra.com, where he is the chief information officer, and in charge of development of new products.

We are meeting at Yatra’s Gurugram office—the agency’s name comes from the Hindi word for travel. The walls at the entrance are plastered with pictures of tourists, from Konark to Kentucky. Conference rooms are named after cities and countries. Apart from that, the Yatra office on the fifth floor of the Unitech Cyber Park building, which is occupied by roughly 550 employees, pretty much resembles a busy newsroom or a BPO office. There are designated cabins for the top brass but Amin likes to work outside his cabin. He likes the cacophony around the cubicles.

There is a certain informality in the way Amin interacts with his employees. His colleagues tell me that he is the biggest prankster in the office. There is a Silicon Valley approach to the way he dresses. For our meeting, he is dressed in a polo T-shirt, blue denims and a pair of brown slip-ons. Nothing stands out, really. That is, until he taps his TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45, a premium smartwatch.

Amin has always been attracted to gadgets. “When I was younger, I would take apart any gadget that I could get my hands on to see what was inside,” he says. He doesn’t do that any more, of course, but he reads up as much as he can on emerging technology, and buys the latest phones and watches. He lives in a connected home in Gurugram.

Amin oversees the in-house research and development (R&D) team, which, among other things, organizes a hackathon every quarter. “A lot of new things come out of the hackathons,” he says. The voice-search chatbot for the Yatra mobile app, for example, was born from such a hackathon.

When he moved to India after close to 30 years in London, the industry here was at a nascent stage. The start-up space was nowhere close to being a sunrise sector. The only way to grow was by leveraging the internet, and the advantage Amin and the team had was their domain knowledge.

“We were the first to launch with all the airlines,” says Amin. “Today, every online travel site has different kinds of filters. We were the first to introduce it. Basically, I was trying to replicate in India what I had learnt in Europe.”

Yatra was the first site to offer combo packs such as flights+hotels, says Amin. But there were few takers—in the first two years they had only six such bookings.

In 2006, India was still some years behind the West in terms of online travel bookings. Internet speeds were slow, customers were not as tech-savvy, there were few modes of online transaction, and customer behaviour overall was different. So ensuring customer satisfaction was the first objective, he explains.

Over the years, broadband speeds have improved. “With the advent of net banking, e-wallets and other apps, online payments have become a lot simpler,” says Amin.

The primary challenge was setting up the infrastructure, engaging customers and ensuring consumer satisfaction. Out of the customer base of 5.2 million today, about 75% are repeat customers, he adds.

Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

*****

Amin was born in Nadiad, Gujarat. He moved to the UK in 1978 when he was 12 with his father, a journalist. His mother, a Kenyan-Indian who held a British overseas passport, had moved there in 1972 and had secured the right to live there permanently.

“It was a huge change,” admits Amin. “Everyone spoke Gujarati here even if they knew English. School uniforms were different, we had to wear blazers in London. Food was completely different. At school lunches or dinners, most of the times I wouldn’t know more than half the dishes.”

But children adapt faster than adults. “After we moved to London in 1978, one of my cousins took me to my first football game and I have been a Gunners fan ever since,” he says. His sons are Arsenal fans too.

Amin went on to study business management at South Thames College, London, graduating in 1985. And that’s when he joined NatWest Bank. Around the same time, he took a trip to Tel Aviv with a travel agent friend. “I liked the idea of what he did so I thought of giving it a shot,” says Amin.

After the trip, Amin started working with the friend part-time to understand the nuances of the industry. In 1988, he joined his friend’s travel agency, Travel Eye. In 1990, he joined Flightbookers, where he was in charge of reservations as well as back-end IT operations.

Flightbookers went on to become the UK’s first online travel agency. It became so successful that in 1999 a part of it started trading separately as Ebookers.com; Amin became part of this team. In November that year, it was floated on Nasdaq. A year later, Ebookers bought Flightbookers. Ebookers was sold to Cendant Corp. in 2005 (it changed hands another couple of times and is now part of Expedia Inc.) and that is when Amin decided to venture out on his own.

The idea of moving to India and starting his own company was born over drinks at a London pub. But unlike many ideas discussed over drinks, this one made sense the morning after. For Amin knew the market, having set up a back office for Ebookers in Delhi in 2000, and having been a frequent visitor to India.

On 1 August 2006, Yatra.com started with three people—Amin, Dhruv Shringi and Sabina Chopra, all former Ebookers.com employees—and undisclosed investment from a clutch of investors such as Norwest Venture Partners, Reliance Capital and TV18. Today, Yatra.com has about 2,500 employees across geographies and the company’s market cap, as on 15 June, was $350 million (around Rs2,000 crore), according to the company’s records.

Before Yatra, Amin had no plans of moving back to India. But when he did, the only worry was whether his sons would be able to adjust. His wife Binita was born and raised in Ahmedabad, so it was a homecoming for her too. Sons Anish and Vishal were 10 and 8, respectively. “But after a few months, they settled in all right,” says Amin. They finished their schooling in Delhi, and are now studying in the UK.

*****

The global online travel market is estimated to reach $1,091 billion by 2022, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.1%, according to a January report by Allied Market Research. Asia-Pacific is expected to see the highest growth, with India becoming the fastest growing country in the region with a CAGR of 18.5%.

"Amin can’t speak Hindi very well. “I can read and write it fairly well. But when I speak, it is with a heavy accent,” he says. So he watches TV soaps to learn how the language is spoken. “Indians love their serials, especially the NRIs,” Amin says."-

And though online travel accounted for 61% of the Rs125 crore e-commerce industry in 2016, according to a 2016 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and IMRB International, India remains a largely untapped market, due mostly to the lack of infrastructure and poor internet connectivity in smaller cities. Amin admits that while Yatra gets most of its customers from the metros, it is the smaller cities that have been growing the fastest in the last 18 months.

The focus right now is on technological innovation. “Artificial Intelligence (AI) is key,” he says. “We have a chatbot that enables you to book via Facebook or Skype. You can do a voice search on the Yatra app on the mobile. We also have bots at the back-end of operations.

“The other focus is on customization. If you are travelling to London and looking for hotels, there is no point in giving you 3,000 options. I need to understand your needs and give you only those options (that are relevant),” he says.

The company has also launched a Yatra Mini app on Jio mobiles. It is available in 13 languages; Amin says they plan to increase this to about 20 languages, and this could help the company expand into smaller cities.

Internet speed and the speed at which search engines respond to queries will be the next game changer, says Amin. “If you search for Singapore on your mobile, for example, you are not going to wait 10-15 seconds for the results. By the time you type Singapore, the result should appear. At the moment we have got the response time down to 2 seconds, we are trying to get it down to below 1 second.”

We are about to wind up the meeting when the alarm in his watch beeps. There is a decision on goods and service tax (GST) coming up that will have an impact, among other things, on the travel and tourism sector. As Amin readies for the meeting with company executives, in a flash I see the man in charge taking over. Or was that another prank?

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