Showing posts with label rail travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rail travel. Show all posts

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Rail Retail – The next big thing?

Among the few exciting assignments that I have worked all my life, one of the most interesting ones was setting up commercial opportunities at the first greenfield private airport in India at Bangalore in 2006. I was among the first few to join BIAL, the company which was helmed by Zurich Airport along with L&T and Siemens as Private Partners and the Union Government of India & Government of Karnataka providing the necessary statutory support. I was solely responsible for conceptualising, designing, leasing and later managing the Retail areas at the Airport which included Duty Free Retailing in the International Departures & Arrivals, Domestic Retail in all other areas, F&B outlets including Cafes, Restaurants, Pubs and ForEx outlets keeping in mind the convenience of passengers as well as increasing the non-Aero revenues for the airport company. What was then (in 2006) – Travel Retail, a national industry of Rs. 300 Crores pa is now over Rs. 3,000 Crores, thanks to upgraded Airport Terminals at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi over the past decade. 


I have been an avid traveller all my life and after flying two times a week, forty times a year for a decade in work, I took to rail travel over the past half-decade ever since I turned an Entrepreneur due my business interests largely being achievable by train and more so saving travel time (during night) as well lower cost of travel and transportation, save the cost of F&B at Airports. I just got in to yet another Shatabdi trip and I ain’t surprised I know by platform number already and a clear plan of what to munch when I arrive at Bangalore as well, at the Adigas outlet where the train would drop me. Similarly, the F&B outlets at various stations are familiar to regular passengers like me and those who plan their travel around food & snacks (your’s truly included) know how early to reach the station for the last grub or drink before boarding. 


Shatabdi has been a revolutionary product (sounds like a software product from Infosys or ICICI, hic!) from Indian Railways and with faster drive time as well as complimentary meal on board. What used to be an exciting array of food items before is now a simple breakfast and a simpler meal with a beverage or two in between. The not so great thing is that there is no possibility for passengers to purchase food items even if they wish to do so. Sounds familiar to the scenario a decade and half back when low cost carriers like Air Deccan started off leaving passengers stranded ob=n board with no possibility of even buying water or snacks. Last week, I was traveling in the much touted and recently inaugurated Tejas Express from Chennai to Madurai which was inaugurated by none other than the man of the moment, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi.The train covers a distance of over 450 kms in 6.5 hours compared to other trains which take 90 mins more than this. With traffic on rails (yeah, more trains you see) having grown manifold over the years, it’s an awesome feat by Indian Railways that they have managed to cover this distance in the said duration. While the train has several exciting features such as an access controlled door, CCTv cameras and personalised entertainment, the F&B scenario is the same as a Shatabdi. 


The Railways could help themselves by offering “Travel Retail” on board akin to the Airlines which not only opens up an array of incremental income to the agency but also provide passengers a break from monotony in travelling seated all day (or evening). Way back in 2010 when I was responsible for setting up new cafes for Café Coffee Day, India’s largest coffee chain with over 1,600 outlets today, I charted a plan to set-up a mini-café on board Rajdhani and Shatabdi Trains. The proposal was to have a portion of the pantry car culled in to a café – a café on the move with outstanding visuals even as the train cruises at 90-110 kms between cities. The proposal was rejected by the then Head of IRCTC, the agency which was and is responsible for the commercialisation of the Railway network for reasons best known to him. Even as I was walking up to my train this morning, I saw this tuck shop selling Railway merchandise and once again I am intrigued by the immense possibilities and opportunities that beckon in Travel Retail at Railways. With the elections ahead, I don’t see any new initiatives until June 2019 but am hoping the new Ministry would take this up more seriously. For the love of travelling. 


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, March 20, 2018

Travel is an Incredible Opportunity

I have been travelling regularly on work for over a decade now. As a kid, my travel (mostly by bus & train) for outstation trips was limited to 2-3 times a year. My first business travel was in 2002 when I was called for an Interview by Shoppers Stop in Mumbai for the role of a Supervisor for their Chennai Store. I negotiated hard with the HR guy to get me a flight ticket although it was out of bounds by their policy. I flew Air India – a noon flight onward and a 2am flight for return since that was the lowest fare. Then I started flying across South India to expand the business of Benetton in 2005 with monthly visits to Delhi to our HO. The first visa on my passport was in 2006 and well, it was for Switzerland where I went to learn Travel Retail which I was implementing at Bangalore International Airport (BIAL). I flew to Singapore First Class onward and Business Class return for the first time, to speak at a conference on Indian Aviation in 2008 with my tickets being sponsored by the Organisers.  Travelled to 10 countries across Asia and Europe during my stint at BIAL. My domestic travel peaked during my stints at Café Coffee Day in 2009 where I set-up 140 cafes pan-India and thereafter at Royal Enfield Motorcycles in 2012 where I set-up 160 Dealerships across India.


Those days, I literally used to live out of a suitcase, travelling 3-4 days a week, more than 40 weeks a year. It was a lot of fun although tiring. But a sense of accomplishment looking at my professional achievements down the years. I have met many people at Airports – from childhood classmates to celebrities to politicians to academicians to Industrialists and a long list of personalities. I even travelled with a person of the third gender from Hyderabad to Bangalore once and trust me, it was some experience I would say.

Since 2014 my travel reduced to almost 10-15 days a year when I chose to become an Entrepreneur and started my offline Retail venture Smiling Baby in Chennai. I restarted my travel since 2017 when I began focusing on my Consulting Assignments. Interestingly, I have travelled over 45 weeks during the past 52 weeks, mostly by train since I prefer taking an overnight journey for distances less than 500 kms.


I have always travelled in a/c coaches this past year and mostly in the 2nd A/c Coaches since the bills are paid by my clients. I have always wondered why & how some people manage to fly Business or First Class and have done a lot of searches on this topic online. Empirical data suggests that those who fly in higher classes are more productive upon arrival in their destination cities. They get to sit comfortably, sleep on a flat bed, read a lot, get less distracted while working due to fewer passengers and hence are refreshed by the time they arrive in the next station. Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi is a classic example – we have seen him fresh as an Apple just the day upon arrival even after trans-Atlantic flights!


I travelled on 1st a/c last night from Chennai to Madurai and this was so comfortable. Even in 2nd A/c, sometimes I get side upper or lower berths and I have seen my productivity nose-dive the next day. But the 1st a/c coaches are so comfortable. The berth is wider, fewer people, lesser banter and more comfortable a/c with a bigger pillow and nicer rugs. Trust me, the day after such comfortable travel is not just a more productive day but also a happier day, which boosts morale and work efficiencies. I travelled in 3rd A/c a week back and had a upper berth onward and lower berth up on return and it was not even just uncomfortable but very frustrating. The next two days were a nightmare.


This is not to demean the millions of people who travel in non-a/c coaches or other means of public transport. Travelling comfortably works best for me to increase my productivity and I believe, to each his own. Her own. Whichever mode, travel is a great opportunity to learn new things, meet new people and understand life better during the journeys.