Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sleep Matters


It’s been an eternal debate if it makes sense to fly business class or first class while the seats in the Economy Class also take us to the same destination. The arguments in favour and against this topic have been featured in various magazines, articles and even International symposiums and Travel Seminars worldwide, some of which I have personally attended. 

I have had so many memorable trips within India and outside. The first stamping on my passport was a Swiss Visa when I joined BIAL in 2006. I was sent for a study tour and orientation of Zurich Airport towards Travel Retail which was also one of the shareholders of BIAL, India’s first private airport built on a PPP model. Between 2006 – 2009, I travelled 10 countries including China, speaking about Indian Aviation at Conferences in Singapore & Malaysia. My most memorable trip has been the one on Singapore Airlines in 2007 on First Class, up and down for one of those Travel Retail Conferences where I was representing Indian Aviation and presented the masterplan for BIAL. Since then, I have taken hundreds of flights and especially between 2009 – 2014, I would travel 3 days a week, over 40 times a year and would live out of my Samsonite. Almost.


Ever since becoming an Entrepreneur in 2014, I started embracing Train Travel for two reasons; obviously it saves a lot of money (and associated pangs such as taxi fares, exorbitant coffee & food costs, etc). But most importantly, I started valuing my health and time. My retail venture Smiling Baby had its first Franchise store in Coimbatore, some 500 kms south west of Chennai; a few of my clients in my consulting business “Miles2Go Advisory Services” were located across various parts of Tamil Nadu such as Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Trichy, Salem, etc. And of course, on and off trips to Bangalore as well, mostly on work. I still travel by a flight when required – but my travel plans are clear; all journeys under 500 kms (typically overnight) would be by rail and all travel upwards of 500 kms would be on a flight. Been at it for a few years now and trust me, it’s worked so well.

Now that my preferred mode is chosen, I have experimented with the options and succeeded too; For all trips on business by Air, I have started opting for the first row or middle rows for an additional fee, thanks to my height at 6’2”. And I prefer seat “D” than any other; here’s why. When I am seated on Seat D, I get elbow space which is unhindered, so I can type on my MacBook – such as this article which I have written while flying Delhi to Mumbai one late evening; No other seat allows flawless movement of right elbow than this seat. Also, an extended legroom means I get more comfort while on the flight as well as when I land – which is paramount to having an efficient workday as well as to get some good sleep in the night. As much as I bemoan the atrocious additional charges of carriers, I still think God has been kind to me to take up these small mercies – after all, it’s me who benefits more than anyone else using these preferred seats once I land. The complimentary meal along with the additional cost means I get more time (mostly on ground before departure) so I wrap up as much as I can, including calls or responding to messages and short reply-emails.


Similarly, I avoid all flights that land after 9pm – most Indian airports have International movements in the nights and the ATC would give preference for landing & parking (near the Terminal Building) to them than the Domestic ones. So, when a domestic flight gets a remote parking bay – one which is far off, it takes double the time or more to even arrive at the Baggage area and then the subsequent processes of baggage retrieval, boarding a taxi, etc. While on Trains, I have become a big fan of 1st A/c with just 4 berths; one there is that much less noise level; two, there are no side berths which again impact my sleep and the productivity next day. This, again is based on experiences travelling with 8 persons in a single bay (3rd A/c), or getting a raw deal of a side berth even after paying a 2nd a/c fare. Oh, so my car drives on work or pleasure – that’s for another post. 


For me, the journey is always as important as the destination. If the journey is not a happy one, the destination will not be charming, no matter where it is. Life is similar too, And I have Miles to Go…

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Coffee Matters (Noun & Verb)


My former Boss at BIAL, Mr. Stephan Widrig, the then Chief Commercial Officer blocked his calendar and sent me a meeting request with the Title - “Coffee with Shriram”. I was stunned and confused at the same time. I was awaiting to have my annual performance review around that time with him and instead he sends me this. Most Indian employees (excuse my bias, please) are used to sitting nervously in front of their bosses during such sessions, with sweat falling profusely and continuously for the entire duration, what with the Boss is going to gag the employee with their non-performance of metrics and expectations. But this session turned out to be different. 

Stephan had done his homework (as always) and had just a single page with pencil notes on it. He invited me warmly to his cabin and we had a 45 minute discussion on what I have contributed to that particular FY as well as the 2 years I had spent with the company which was involved in setting up the first private Greenfield Airport in India. I was more critical about my performance than him, frankly. But he calmed me down often and suggested never to be so difficult on myself. The review went well and I came out with flying colours (as cliched as it sounds) and a hefty increment + bonus, but most importantly I walked out with so much satisfaction of working for such a person!


A recent study by John Bargh of Yale University suggests that a Coffee Meeting with the Boss can do wonders and this article is the reason for my outpour of my fondest professional memories.The study suggests that the “coffee meeting” can also work wonders when one is pitching new projects to Clients, raising an Investment or even discussing with Suppliers and Business Partners.

“What we found was that there was a significant difference between the two groups, such that participants who held the hot coffee cup saw person A as being more generous, more sociable.”

It’s common to see Starbucks and CCD outlets across India (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) filled with people engaged in discussions - as we reckon from the Food Retail Industry, cafes are the most preferred third choice of location for most of us after Home and Workplace. I am told Pubs are a great place to pitch Angel Investors by Startups in the West - and we have seen and heard enough stories how many Unicorns who raised their first round of funding over beer. Back in India, alcohol is still taboo - at least in most business occasions (well, Delhi and Mumbai could still be exceptions). Even some of the largest Indian corporations and business houses do not hold official Dinners with alcohol, thanks to an inherent cultural mindset. So cafes are the “go-to” places.

I recall when I was a student 2.5 decades back, the cafe culture was still setting in. Chennai had “Hot Breads” even before Cafe Coffee Day came up and there were similar such smaller joints where young couples would turn up for a “coffee date”. Even a conservative city like Kolkata had it’s brush with “Coffee Pai”, a speciality cafe with wonderful desserts and coffee to go with run by my friend Naveen back in the millennium year. Over the years, the cafe and coffee culture has outgrown with every important road across the top 30 cities in India doting a regional, national or International coffee shops. Such is the power of Coffee.


On the same note, a number of Tea joints have also sprung up in India over the past decade, with some having raised millions of US Dollars in Investment. My favourite in Chennai is “Chai Kings” which serves a wide variety of speciality Tea and have upgraded their outlets with a swanky indoor, with the recent one opened at Ramanujam Tech Park in Chennai. However, the value proposition for Coffee over Tea (Price being a differentiator) is way too high and hence Coffee chains can afford to charge much higher than Traditional Indian Tea. 

As the Indian spring begins this January, do plan a coffee meeting soon with someone important in your career and life - from an Ex-Colleague to your current Boss, long lost friends or your spouse. And remember to go for a Warm Coffee than a cold one. You will feel the difference, trust me. And write to me, if it did make a difference. Cheers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Notes of a Frequent flyer



The biggest technology revolution Indian’s have encountered in the past 5 decades is the advent of the internet for daily use. From ordering Vegetables & Grocery, booking Travel tickets for Air, Train, Bus and Taxi rides on Ola & Uber and not to mention the flirtatious relationship we enjoy with Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal and others – India is the only country in the world which has the highest percentage of “Cash on Delivery” model – a method we have invented where the delivery boy collects cash after delivering the parcel from an E-Commerce company… be it mobile phones or an acrylic accessory which hides the back (and sometimes even the front of the Rs. 50,000 (about $700) worthy iPhone XR) or a simple Pizza that is delivered from the neighbourhood Pizza Hut. 

And this is where the first nightmare begins for the frequent Indian Traveler like me. Even as a harried (and hurried) passenger books his/her cab through a cab-hailing App such as the Wall St. funded Uber or the Indian discovery (and Japanese funded) Ola say around 4 am, the traveler realises she is low on Digital Money for paying the cabbie. So, she adds up a sizeable amount in to their wallet from a bank account or credit card and the transactions fails at the first instance. Why did it fail? While we have the highest number of mobile connections in the World, the number of towers is quite disproportionate to the usage. Isn’t there something called Broadband? Oh yes, we do, in fact India’s broadband rates are among the lowest in the world. Recently, our Honourable Prime Minister quipped at a Conference in Japan that India’s internet rates are lower than a cup of Coffee. Well, if he says so. But the internet is patchy most of the times and the promise of 100mbps speed by the Operator is applicable only when a single device is used – but a typical Indian household would have two mobile connections for the gent and the lady each, one each for their parents & kids, a couple of other devices such as iPads, Alexa and a Smart Tv and last but not the least, the live-in maid and the household’s car driver also are allowed to use the home Wifi because of the unlimited usage options offered by the Telecom providers.


And finally, the traveler completes her wallet transaction only to find that the cab prices have surged meanwhile due to peak demand - well, the Top 7 Airports in India including at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi (in that order) which contribute to over 70% of India’s total air traffic have their peak capacity between 5am – 8am. So, finally she accepts a surged fare and curses how the Cab Companies funded by the Japanese, Chinese and American Investors have spoiled the market with freebies during off-peak hours and apply surge pricing which take away the incentives of using the App. The Cabbies in India, especially those who have joined the likes of Ola and Uber (and also food-hailing Apps such as Zomato, Swiggy & Uber Eats) have a new-found love for GPS – especially when it comes to delivering food or showing up a Taxi at the client’s place. India’s GPS is, well not so great obviously because 8 out of 10 times, these App users end up at the nearby street and call the user and sometimes even insist that the Customers come over there – either to board the cab or to collect their beloved Rotis and Pizzas. 

While the call happens between the Traveler and the Cabbie, one must be very cautious about the mood of the driver – so depending on their convenience, the user must agree to pay by wallet or cash. So, typically from around the 20th of the month, the cabbies reject trips which have a wallet payment since they need working capital and the Cab companies (despite funded in Billions of dollars) do not settle their payments on time. So, when a traveler says she is going to pay by Wallet, there is a high chance that the trip gets cancelled only to get allotted to another driver. By a stroke of luck, one could get the next cab arriving in 3 mins or 10 mins. Again, the cabbie who’s nearby would most probably prefer a cash payment and if the traveler refuses, the process repeats. This is a pattern, in fact. With most flights not allowing Free Cancellation or postponement, the traveler usually prefers not to cancel the next cab, because time is more precious than money. So, she finally settles for a cab with the payment option preferred by the Cabbie and heads to one of the Architectural wonders and marvels of the country – the multi-billion dollar funded “City Airport”.


It has always kept me wondering but hell yeah, why do almost all Airports in India except at Bangalore have only 3-4 entry gates when the influx of passengers during the morning and evening peaks are an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 spread over 3-4 hours? CISF – the National Agency entrusted with the protection of Airports among other prestigious Infrastructure projects are always in a situation where the supply is lower than demand. So, the waiting queue to simply enter the Airport Terminal could take between 5-12 mins on an average, depending on how quick the CISF guard is willing to skim through the paper (or digital ticket) and match it with the 5 acceptable identity Proof documents. Now, most of these identity docs for us in the late 30s, 40s and 50s who form the frequent traveler base, were perhaps made about a decade or two earlier, so the hardcopy doesn’t match the image with the  real one, despite the L’oreals and Gillette grooming accessories which Indians are embracing like no other. So, there is a 50% chance that the CISF guard takes a third look and compares the two images giving competition to the advanced AI techniques being practiced in many other developed countries. He gives a stern and final nod and allows the passenger to get inside the terminal. Oh, btw visitors are not allowed inside Terminal buildings in India. What started as a threat perception after 9/11 and 2008 London attacks has become a convenience excuse, thanks to the crumbling infrastructure in the public areas of the Terminal. So works well for the Airport Operator and the CISF indeed. 


All the four Private Airports have an excellent check-in process with kiosks that help travellers to skip the queue. However, most Frequent Traveler check-in before arriving to the Airport, which means the baggage Drop Queues are more crowded than those which have pax who haven’t checked-in. What an irony this is! Another 15 minutes later, the pax heads to the Infamous Indian Security Check. A decade back less than 8% of all air pax were women, but not the case today. The split is at least 80:20 today especially with more women travelling on work and leisure. Although the Frisking Queue for women is just one, perhaps two. Men have to wait endlessly and finally get their “trays” where they unload their offering from their laptop bags, backpacks and other fancy bags. It’s interesting to note what all a man carries - from multiple chargers to power banks, iPad, laptops (some carry coveted MacBooks as well), two mobile phones on an average and some even carry reams of papers (somewhat work related, although I wonder who keeps paper records anymore). The best part is how Men stand at the Security Frisking area - with hands raised and legs spread. It could be gory to hilarious to a security threat to the guards themselves with some pax standing as though they would pounce on the guards! Meanwhile, there is another senior guard who’s carefully skimming the Tv screens of the X-ray machines. 4 out of 10 bags (random average, but yeah) are identified for a total display of all the internal compartments of the bags even as the pax who is already late is sulking to get to the gate. 



Once at the Gate, a few pax try to board a flight which is for a different destination and realise it only when the staff at the Boarding Gate send them back saying they are still boarding pax for the previous flight. Many Indian Airports still have bus gates, mostly more of them than aerobridges, purely due to infrastructure costs as well as availability of remote parking bays. So, the pax now gets to a level below and waits to board the bus and finally reaches the aircraft. Once inside the craft, there is a wrestle for multiple rights; first comes the right to stowage - who gets to keep more and how close to where they are seated. Then comes the eternal right for arm space. Seasoned travelers like me always, almost always prefer an aisle row and seat number “C” so I get one arm space for granted and also I get to do some elbow space, such as writing articles like these. Last comes the right to alight - who gets out of the craft faster as though this will ensure who will get out of the airport itself. Because the bus ride to the terminal building is a sort of sight-seeing to showcase the marvellous infrastructure that the Government or the Private Operators have invested. While waiting for the baggage, one would wonder what was the topic the unloading guys must be discussing today - from Trump’s intentions on curbing sanctions to the latest celebrity gossip and more which eventually decides how soon (or late) your bag would arrive. After spending over 200-300 mins or more at two Airports, the passenger finally leaves the Terminal Building back to civilisation which looks very different altogether. 

On the way back to a catch a flight home, the frequent flyer heads to the Lounge and flashers his Mastercard or a Privilege Pass to get seated in a cushioned leather sofa and catch up on the latest cricket score. Some of them order a drink only to be forewarned by the waiter that they need to pay for this while the food is complimentary. After gulping one or two depending on how soon or later their flight would depart, the passenger continues to enjoy the hospitality while somewhere thanking the guy who took his application form for a Credit Card many moons back, so he gets this privilege. Those who aren’t blessed with such an offering loiter along the endless pathways which have numerous shopping and dining opportunities. From the latest Hidesign leather bags to Designer Neck Ties, from local delicacies like Sambar Vada to customised Pastas and Sushis, one could get almost everything inside an Airport that a typical restaurant serves in the top cities of India. It’s so heartening to see Travel Retail has come of age so much at Indian Airports over the years that many passengers prefer to shop here than in the city stores, thanks to deals on books and electronics as well as the personal space and staff attention they receive.


Having said that, most Airport Retail Stores, in my humble opinion aren’t investing even 25% interest or effort to cash in on the impending opportunities. Talk about CRM or customisation, Data Science or Business Intelligence, there is so much more to do. The staff are busy fiddling their mobile phones most of the times and even when the Customers (pax, in this case) show interest on products, they react very minimally. Of course there are a few exclusions and some of the staff do get interested in a dialogue with customers but frankly thats mutual. I have personally shopped quite a lot at the Airport stores. To show them that by building meaningful conversations with customers, one can actually “encourage customers to buy” than merely trying to “sell” a product or force them to “buy”. At Restaurants, food courts and Kiosks, the staff are more functional than vending machines with eye contacts hardly present or pitching to up-sell a thing or two. 


Even as the Frequent Flyer is on her / his way back home, the same process as in the morning repeats until finally one has taken the taxi back home. TSome of us start catching up sleep in the taxi and when we hit the sack, it’s close to midnight - most of us have been taught in our early days of professional employments to travel “first flight out, last flight in” and thus utilise the working day the most. Habits stay on.