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‘India is at a cusp of another boom in online travel industry, this time it will be fueled by hotels’

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Hotels.com currently operates 85 Hotels.com sites around the world including 15 sites in 10 languages across Asia Pacific alone. Rajiv Malhotra, head of marketing, South East Asia, Hotels.com talks about the expectations from the India market in terms of exceptional growth in standalone hotel bookings made online via OTAs. By Sudipta Dev

In a market that is crowded with OTAs, what is the greatest competitive advantage of Hotels.com?

Rajiv MalhotraAs the name suggests, Hotels.com, focuses on providing the best and widest selection of hotels to our consumers. I feel it’s our focus and almost obsessive dedication to providing the best user experience for our customers is what sets us apart. This philosophy is reflected in the width of hotels, B&Bs and service apartments one can book on hotels.com, over 149,000 worldwide, our unique ‘Price match guarantee’ – i.e. if the customer can find the same deal we offer for less on a prepaid hotel, Hotels.com will pay the difference. Coupled with over three million reviews from users who have actually stayed in the hotels to ensure customers make an informed choice when booking. These and several other real and tangible benefits we offer to our users.

And now, adding to that list is our most innovative and yet simplest offering, The Welcome Rewards programme. It is one of the simplest and straightforward loyalty programmes in the industry where one can earn a free night for every ten nights collected through Hotels.com. The value of the free night stay is the average of the ten nights collected. Hotels.com allows customers to accumulate their ten nights across independent and chain hotels and to redeem their free night at more than 65,000 eligible hotels around the world. The eligible hotels are clearly marked on the website. We focus on only hotels category supported by excellent consumer benefits which have given us an edge with our consumers in a crowded market.

What has been your focus on the India market? Have you launched any initiatives/ programmes specifically for India?

India is an extremely important market for Hotels.com. At this stage, our focus is to provide our customers great value through special offerings through our widely popular 72 hour and seasonal promotions. On an average we offer at least two of these sales promotions every month for popular destinations such as Goa, Delhi, Dubai, etc. Through these sales customers can avail of up to 30-50 per cent discounts on hotel prices. In the last few months we have added a variety of Indian hotels and local payment options to the website. We plan to aggressively expand our inventory of domestic hotels and payment options in India in 2012.

Additionally, we are constantly striving to positively enhance user experience on Hotels.com by adding more hotel images, user reviews, etc. Such activities are high on priority since they help our customers in making more informed decisions. As mentioned earlier The Welcome Rewards Programme recently launched in India is a significant pro-customer innovation that will benefit corporate and leisure travellers alike.

How significant is the India market for you vis-à-vis other countries in APAC region?

Over the last few years India has fast evolved as a huge travel market; both inbound and outbound and an increasing number of Indians are purchasing travel products online. Widespread access to the internet, massive growth in online payment options, increase in disposable income among Indians, plus a growing interest in travel and the desire to experience new destinations are the key driving factors for this growth. The large market size with potential for exponential growth makes India a very important market for Hotels.com.

What kind of growth opportunities are you expecting here in the near future?

We are expecting a significant growth in online travel purchase; however we expect an exceptional growth in standalone hotel bookings made online via OTAs like us. The first boom in online travel industry in 2005-2006 was lead by domestic air travel, but with more people planning and booking their travel themselves, India is at a cusp of another boom in online travel industry. This time we feel it will be fueled by hotels. Mobile applications are also changing the way in which customers interact with brands. Since smart phones are becoming increasingly popular among Indians, we have launched free apps for iPhone, iPad and android phone users. We feel we mobile apps will become an important point of sale for us in the near future.

Any special initiatives for the corporate sector?

The Welcome Rewards programme has a perfect fit for the corporate sector. Through this programme, one can avail a free night for every ten nights booked on Hotels.com. So it is advantageous for frequent business travellers as the free night can also be shared as a corporate reward since the free night is transferable. Since the cost benefit is very real and measurable unlike point based loyalty programmes, I am sure the corporate sector will find our offerings even more attractive.

What has been your focus on innovation – in terms of services and technology implementations?

Service to our customers has been and will always be the core of our offerings. Our focus on technology is to ensure constant improvement in our service standards. Hence, we are developing applications for more mobile platforms. We have also added debit cards and net banking transfers to our bouquet of payment options in India for which we have received very positive feedback. Enhancements to contact centre operations and improvements in online booking process are a constant at Hotels.com. Our customers might see some very exciting product enhancements coming their way shortly. This is all I can reveal at the moment.

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