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When we become our own Worst Enemy

This time, I am going to write on something which will raise some eyebrows and get some reactions. I’d love to get some debate started on this because from healthy discussions arrive great solutions…

Rajeev Kohli, Joint Managing Director, Creative Travel

A few weeks ago a piece of news went viral within our industry – of the big group from a pan masala company and their alleged behaviour on a Royal Caribbean ship (I do say alleged as no one seems to be able to corroborate the story either way).

Go ahead and google ‘Royal Caribbean and pan masala group’. You will see all the coverage, both domestic and international. You will see statements like “Burlesque dancers and skimpily-dressed women”; “crates and crates of Indian food”; “proceeded to ‘take over’ the ship”; “cruise into a nightmare for other passengers” and a bit more.

I saw the Australian media interviewing the ‘aggrieved passengers’. Such a sob story! I am very open minded, but it is a fact that Australians can be a bit biased and dare I use the ‘R’ word. No doubt, 1300 Indian men will be overwhelming even for us here in India, but the reporting was very shallow and one sided. And like all good ‘masala stories’, the media takes bits and pieces and tosses them in the air for all to grab.

But let’s set aside the exaggerations and magnifications. The incident is actually very relevant in two areas – first, how Indians are perceived as travellers and second, how the Indian travel industry matches travellers and products.

It is a fact, that Indian travellers and the outbound Indian travel industry have developed a mixed reputation in overseas markets. In most major destinations, the top DMCs/inbound players do not wish to work with Indian agents. Of course, there are exceptions, but in my travels and years of interacting with fellow inbound professionals from across the world, this is the fact. When it gets to MICE groups, our reputation is even worse. I have experienced this myself in our outbound vertical where getting the finer DMCs to work with Indian companies is a struggle. I do tell my global colleagues that if you want to work with Indians, you need to adjust your ways and not expect us to change for you alone.

But the fact remains that as an outbound industry we have not done ourselves a favour in the way we send requests, the way we negotiate and the way we express professionalism. It saddens me to see us all branded like this. What frustrates me is to see our trade associations do nothing about reputation management. They are living on a different planet where it is all rainbows and roses.

The quality conscious traveller has largely bypassed the Indian agent and has gone direct to overseas suppliers and that is getting to be a stronger trend. What are we doing about instilling best practices? About training our industry in more professional ways to approach the global supplier base? Not much unfortunately.

The second point – do we offer and sell products that are appropriate to the lifestyle and life experiences of the traveller? Was the cruise an appropriate product for a group of this experience level? Would they have been better off elsewhere or in a more controlled environment to let their hair down? The host company was well within their rights to give their employees a good time. But were they properly cautioned on the do’s and don’ts of the trip? Were they told what they should expect? We are a country with a lot of money and a lot of discretionary spend on travel. That’s great. But we are also a population where the majority is not that well-travelled as yet and whose needs are still basic. The travel industry needs to be a bit more aware and match the right product to the client. Not rush to make a large sale. I remember moving a British group from a 4-star hotel in Delhi to a much better 5-star as an upgrade. We thought they would love the move. The feedback was they loved the hotel, but they found the beer to be too expensive and they did not enjoy it as much as they would have liked. It was a great learning experience for me. You cannot force a traveller to feel like a fish out of water. Being a good travel consultant is about finding the right fit both sides.

Back to the sordid story that went viral– Royal Caribbean is no small or immature company. They took the group well knowing what they were getting. They obviously and correctly saw the revenue to be made. Nothing wrong with that! I am sure that if Indian food was taken aboard, it was with the consent of the cruise line. (I don’t know how the six Australians saw crates and crates of Indian food go onboard. Which ship loads stuff in passengers view? B.S and biased). I am sure the cruise company did not expect 1300 stags to behave like saints. Doesn’t matter where you come from, men in groups of men behave the same. (Google ‘Australian men’s behaviour Bali’ and see how the shoe fits on the other foot). What does upset me is that the Cruise Company essentially threw the Indians under the bus. There is no statement from them (that I have seen) that defends their sales decision that states what permissions they allowed. All the reporting puts the blame on the Indians. And for this and this alone, I feel Royal Caribbean must be held accountable by the trade. Put them in cold storage for a season and see the respect come back. My personal opinion!

I am offended by the one sided and biased media reporting. I am equally saddened by the Indian trade reactions. And disappointed in how our countrymen behaved in a foreign land. No one has come out of this untarnished. Everyone needs to sit down and do some introspection.

Happy to get feedback and thoughts on this issue! As I said at the start, debate is healthy. rajeevkohlI@creative.travel