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

10 June, 2022

My travel travails and why I love them


After a long while, I travelled all through the week and in one of the most favourite parts of the country – Northern India. Though the summer was a killer, I enjoyed every moment being there – doing what I love the most in life – observing consumer behaviour at high streets and malls, interacting with our customers, staff, franchise partners, mall owners and the entire ecosystem. Some great food all along – wholesome North Indian stuff was a bonus. 

View of the New Delhi railway station

This is my 25th year in Retail and I’ve been travelling almost 45 weeks a year, 3 days a week for over 15 years now, mostly on work. Though it’s mostly just one Boss to be accountable to, managing a fairly young & a cross-functional team and being a part of a mature, mid-sized organisation is quite a challenge. Here are some quick learning that I have acquired over the years. While all of them may not be doabe by everyone, am sure some of this could be useful to a few discerning ones;

The itinerary

This is the most important part of the journey. I have always believed that the journey is as important (and exciting) as the destination, its quite important that one plans their journey time-table, including the choice of flights / trains / local accommodation. A poorly planned itinerary is the beginning of chaos to come during the trip. 

A shirt holder that I make the best use of

The right luggage

While there is no secret to packing the right quantity and quality of luggage, let me tell you it always is a science and an art. A fairly planned set of clothes – 2:1 ratio of shirts to trousers usually does the work, whether casual or formals. Extra sets of inners always helps, just in case of an emergency. 

Meeting schedules

This is one area where things can go awry – due to a client or a business partner not turning up in time or the most common reason in India for getting late to meetings – bad / congested roads + traffic snarls enroute the meeting place. It really helps adding a 15-30 min cushion ahead of the next meeting including the travel time. If you end up early (to the meeting), there are anyway enough emails and messages on WhatsApp to respond to.

When in the North, do like the locals!

Food / Drinks – the lure

Any business trip is incomplete without a fair dose of local cuisine. After all, what’s the point in sweating out so much if you don't eat well during the journey. But then, I can tell you out of experience, it always, almost always helps to avoid over-eating during business trips, especially if you like loaded stuff or spicy outings. Alcohol, while is an extension of our night life and leisure, may put you out of the best that one can appear, especially in front of the most important people you’re set out to meet the next day. Abstinence during the business trip is among the best though a bit of indulgence is not a bad idea.

Emails & Calls

One thing to keep in mind is when we travel, there could be chances that we miss reading & replying critical emails as well as end up skipping regular review calls / VCs. One trick that has always worked for me is to keep clearing emails while on the move, that is from one meeting to another. That way, the email box always remains light and we are looped in most of the time. While its important to reschedule regular review calls or VCs during the trip, it also helps to have it first thing in the morning, right after breakfast, in the same hotel room, to ensure privacy and quietness which one may not get while on travel. 

Sleep & Rest

This is most important part of the entire journey and the least focused one. Most of us get very groggy (or smashed) when we wake up the next morning because of our “other priorities”. As I said before, it does help to avoid a heady dose of food / alcohol which can put your resting time out of zone. But there is a trick which I have been learning over time. Even when not travelling, I am conditioning my body to sleep for 6 hours – call it yoga or what you will. But a good 6-hour sleep during the night will go a long way in having a very productive day.

Lastly, make time for yourself. For making calls to the family and close friends, laughing off silly jokes and forwards, reading stuff you like, taking photos and writing or posting on social media, doing fun things and to just stay still to see the sunrise and breathe well during the business trip. All work and no play make Jack & Jill dull. So go there and make the best of a business trip next time.


03 January, 2021

Thank you 2020. Hello 2021.

More than anything else, I once again learned to unlearn a lot of things in the year that passed by that was 2020. I learned, yet again, that Change is the only constant and over time, we realise that “Change” in any form is good. Honestly, when I look back 365 days behind as the train was chugging in to the Mysore Railway Junction on the morning of 3rd Jan. 2020 around 7.30am, little did I realise that I would come this far. I was on my way to take up the new assignment at Kushal Nagar as Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Levista Coffee, where the parent company SLN Coffee Pvt. Ltd. is head quartered. As always when I take up a new assignment, I went with an open mind, so I can learn as much as I could and decided to take up the new role, one day at a time. Within a few days, I had settled down in the Company’s Guest House in Bangalore and spent a good amount of time trying to understand the various aspects of our business, Industry, colleagues, external & internal stakeholders. 



I would avidly look forward to returning to Chennai where my family lived. And it was quiet emotional for me to leave on a Sunday night often even as the kids would get in to all gloom for not being able to see me in person for 2 weeks or so. Until one day, everything turned topsy-turvy and life took a 180-degree turn. U Turn, if I could say so. From mutually missing each other, at one stage it felt like an over-dose (not really!) that we spent 150 days precisely under one roof, thanks to continued lockdowns. In the first 2 weeks of the first Lockdown, life came to a standstill, literally and figuratively. None of us had much to do other than watch News channels in multiple languages to get different perspectives. By mid-April, there was some action slowly on the work front but still we were all locked up at home with limited chances of stepping out, even to shop necessities. 



A chance visit to a local retail store and my Father seemed to have picked up the dreaded Coronavirus which eventually moved on to my Mother. Little did he realise and when he visited our home one fine morning to deliver vegetables, we panicked and rushed my parents for tests which proved positive. Meanwhile, my daughter picked the infection from him, her sister from her and my wife from them. I tested “Negative” being O+ve (or for some strange reason) and was blessed to take care of the family for the next four weeks until things settled down albeit very slowly. However, it was in May ’20 that Levista achieved a historic highest monthly sale followed by another historic Sales milestone in June. And I was here, in my bed as I write this article, seven months ago when all members of the family were fighting an unknown infection. 




The fact that we as humans were so vulnerable and life is too short was a shot in the arm for me from those days and I vowed to be ever so grateful and thankful to the Creator and Mother Nature for bestowing whatever we have today. From sighing that I had lost crores of rupees on my StartUps over 5 years since 2014, to being happy that my Parents came back home in flesh and blood from the hospital after treatment and that my wife recovered though slower than anticipated was the last nail in my box of worries. From that day onwards, I have been the happiest if all members of my family woke up the next morning and lived a basic, normal life. 



My second XUV500 AT was 2 years old when I joined Levista. This was my sixth vehicle in 15 years after self-driving over 2,75,000 kms all by myself across India on work & leisure, I was contemplating an upgrade to a more posh German beast in the coming months. That’s when I had to call a mechanic to jump start the engine of my beloved XUV whose battery went dead due to no usage for weeks together! How things change… From planning to buy a new car, I decided to sell the XUV so I can save on the EMI since I had almost NIL travel during those 6 months. I ventured out from home on the 151st Day on 10 Aug. 2020 to Bangalore well equipped with E-Pass for an Up and down Travel and have driven 13,600 kms till date on my beast ever since. The entire discussions of Levista’s partnership on Bigg Boss Tamil Season 4 feat. Padmashree Kamal Hassan was decided and finalised during one of those long drives between Bangalore & Chennai. Every 40-50 mins, I would stop at a Toll Booth and make calls, internal and external to seek views. What a drive this has been – I mean the ones to Bangalore / Chennai as well as life overall. And many such discussions while the Office driver was behind the wheel including Zoom Calls with my iPad perched behind the seat. 




In the middle of Nov. ’20, our team completed the total Turnover of FY 19-20 and that was a moment to celebrate with fellow soldiers even as they ventured out carefully everyday those 8 months fighting an unknown enemy that Covid-19 is. A big round of applause and hearty thanks to their family members for allowing their beloved to go out and conquer the world. As is the case of MS Dhoni, I realised that all the noise in the stadium (read: my surroundings who kept cheering and booing me!) was insignificant as long as I don’t take it too much to my heart. As Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, don’t get very upset when something unfortunate happens and don’t get too ecstatic when something very cheerful happens. Easy to say for you, Dear Lord as you are the Creator and we are mere mortals. 



Listening 15 mins daily about the epic Mahabharatha narrated by a noted and eminent scholar Velukkudi Shri. Krishnan helped me immensely for the past 225 days. In his daily bulletin, he would move the story as written by Guru Shri Veda Vyasa and narrated by Sage Vaishampayana to King Janamejaya. It was so timely that there would be gems every few days which had a direct impact on my daily life, personal and professional, that it was surreal to hear those advices.



Even as I ended the Calendar Year professionally with a first ever Virtual Media Launch on 28th Dec. ’20, with our new flavours of coffee and the much awaited mass market variant - Levista Supreme Instant coffee, it seemed to be a memorable, meaningful and a successful year that I completed, much to the chagrin of my detractors, happiness and joy of my well-wishers and with the constant love and encouragement of my immediate family and a few close friends. Without the unstinted support of my Management and my colleagues at work, this journey wouldn’t have been this smooth – even if I wish to call it so. It certainly has been the fastest, toughest and perhaps the most fulfilling professional journey I have had in the past 24 years in Consumer Retail. 



I started the year (lockdown) with virtual classes for MBA students whom I was teaching offline until Mar. ’20. Over time, this virtual address became a way of life with me having spoken at over a dozen Webinars as well as my 4th consecutive year at BIL Trichy teaching the Retailing Elective for the second year students. While I didn’t miss my walk through during the lectures – my laptop screen would be off and I'd keep walking in my room as I gave the lectures using my bluetooth earphones, I really missed my campus stay at the guest houses, the morning walks within the sprawling BHEL dwelling in Trichy, the food feasts and of course the much awaited train travel. And yesterday, I addressed over 100+ MBA students of XLRI Jamshedpur, a session which I must have presented at the campus in the third week of Mar. ’20 to the previous batch.



Of all things, I learned to appreciate life as it is; from what we have to seeing what others didn’t have and to compare ourselves to be blessed than them. We cannot change the system, the nature and destiny. But we, as humans are blessed with the knack of converting adversities in to opportunities. That’s a choice we all wake up with. For Ex., I sensed an opportunity that the Out of Home Coffee Consumption and Workplace Coffee consumption could be coupled with incremental household consumption, add to it the WFH woes and the initial days of adjusting to the new normal. After 8-9 months, it sounds boring to hear or to utter the phrase “The New Normal”. It is, rather “normal” and it shall be so all along now. 

While I didn’t have time, rather didn’t make time to learn a professional course or start gaming on one of my i-devices, "i-learnt-cooking" was perhaps the proudest moment for my me and more for my Mom rather, who still is unable to come to terms that I could take so much interest in this “art” which she has been an expert at that I have shown no interest for the past 30 years! Other than exploring life from different perspectives, it’s been a yet another adventurous year for me. So, thank you 2020. I am clear about my destination by 2030. But until then, I shall enjoy the journey every day. As I always say, the Journey is as important as the Destination. #Miles2Go 



05 September, 2020

Let’s rebuild the Economy – Ourselves

After a self imposed exile at home in the garb of WFH for over 150 days, I finally stepped out of home and moved to Bangalore last month to join my “real office”. I also travelled to Kushal Nagar in Coorg where our company’s Headquarters and Plant are located for a review with my Management. All through my two weeks at Bangalore, I was pleasantly surprised and motivated how we are ourselves building back lost time, money and economy. For instance, we had full attendance at office and also ensured all of us wear face masks while seated. Every alternate chair in the Meeting room is left empty (so fewer persons and therefore the meetings end early too!). Usage of hand sanitisers, and most importantly washing hands frequently is encouraged to ensure this is rather a “habit formation” in the long run. Cleanliness is Godliness, someone said long ago and remains relevant all along. 



I travelled across two major parts of Tamil Nadu last week, to Coimbatore and Madurai to meet my team members, Distributors as well as for market visits. Same protocol, another precinct. Nothing changed. The hotels have accepted the new norm, so have Guests. Food is served outside the room as per WHO protocol and the guest must take it inside their rooms themselves. Buffet is off the menu and breakfast is served in the room. Works for all of us plus the added advantage of “NIL wastage” at the buffet counter. Limited and minimal contacts with other people around works to everyone’s favour after all. 



This week, my wife and I decided to travel by road to visit a few of our favourite temples to seek the blessings of our beloved gods. We departed on Tuesday morning even as the TN Govt. opened up the doors of all religious places in the state. We were not just surprised but also impressed with the steps taken by the Government and the penultimate cooperation by devotees. We witnessed this first hand not just at one but across some of the oldest and perhaps, otherwise most populous temples. For Ex., the Srirangam temple, the world’s largest temple complex witnesses at least 30,000 visitors on a regular day. However, now is a different story with less than 1% of that number of visitors being allowed everyday. Still, the devotees maintained strict social distancing and followed norms, while at the entry inside, temperature check has been made mandatory. Well, that’s not accurate, quip many. But then, do we have a choice of shutting down everything for some more time to come? 



We travelled around 1,100 kms over 5 days and stopped by at least a dozen restaurants. Almost everywhere, customers and patrons seem to be following self-discipline which is the key to combat this virus which apparently is here to stay for some more time to come. 



What was pleasant to see was that even in the smallest of Tier 3 villages, locals understand the reason to wear a mask and the reasoning not to touch others, walk in groups or sneeze in public. The awareness created all along by the Media and the Governments is impressive although there is a surge in unruly motoring skills in city roads as well as on Highways – especially 3-4 persons on a 2-Wheeler and most of them not wearing Helmets which goes unchecked by the authorities. Well, we gain a few brownies and lose some ourselves. Sad part of humankind.


Ultimately, to bring India back to it’s foot is the duty for each of her citizens and beyond a point, I believe the Government can do very little beyond disbursing loans and doling out subsidies. While the Central and State Governments are doing their best despite so much negativity around, I personally believe it is up to each one of us to pick up the broken, leftover pieces and push the economy upwards. If not anything, this is just another form of patriotism and duty to the nation. Needless to say, we need to ensure safety precautions for ourselves as well as to our surroundings. And for me, I filled up Diesel full tank today even as I entered my home garage, ready for the next drive. I pledge to do my bit. I have Miles to go, after all.

11 May, 2020

Covid Vacations

The weekend that went by, we were on vacation. Virtually though, from the confines and comfort of our homes. Wifey opened the home Laptop and on the giant screen, took us through photos of various vacays that we spent as late as until December 2019. This was was the most adventurous as my younger daughter fell off a Pony she was riding atop Nainital viewpoint with no guide beside her even I was trying to apply brakes on my horse without much luck. That she escaped unhurt was nothing short of a miracle. In a previous one at Longhewala, we saw the War-trucks on grand display when India defeated our friendly neighbour as they attempted a midnight attack on our Forces in vain. We undertake 2 long and 2-3 short vacations annually and these are, in my own view a way of giving back to the society. We book Flights / Trains / Cabs providing revenue opportunities for the carriers. We stay at Hotel chains or at Club Mahindra Resorts for free (well, it’s time-share) but end up spending a fortune on food and snacks. But then, Mahindra Holidays manages over 50 resorts and employs 1,000s.


We avoided taking our kids abroad ever since they were born and their maiden trip was only last year to Singapore. Perhaps, this one would remain etched in their minds for their lifetime. Not because it was a “phoren trip” but because of the professionalism and hospitality displayed by the countrymen; the impeccable cleanliness and hygiene standards across the city; the discipline of cab drivers who maintain eye view of the tyres of the vehicle ahead at traffic signals; and of course the Retail Therapy at Malls, Restaurants and Theme Parks. We are getting there (in India) in many areas, but still have a long way to go. The Covid crisis is an opportunity for Domestic Tourism, something that I have been echoing from the time this started. Here’s how.


I foresee (am no Nostradamus, remember!) a huge dip in International Travel on leisure, save for artists in Cinema and arts; Not just in India but globally. This means, savings garnered by avoiding International travel that could be spent elsewhere. Secondly, this is the opportunity for India and Indians to grow Domestic Tourism. To help rebuild a nation, to build our own ecosystem which is so fragile and dependent on Government subsidies almost all the time for everything.


As a family, we have travelled to all borders of India – Longhewala, Nathula and Rameswaram. With limited savings and crores blown on my Entrepreneurial escapades over the past 5 years, all I can offer my kids is a view of things – inside out and from their own lens. I personally believe that this is among the precious gifts I could give them – to see things themselves and appreciate the rich beauty and culture of India. One such adventure was at Tanjore last Summer where we went to the Palace. My daughter had imagined some kind of a Barbie-like Castle. But we had to pay ₹10/- to enter the “complex” not to even find a decent restroom with stinky museum like rooms. This is managed by ASI, sadly. And the general public give scant respect to the monument, even otherwise.


This is not an exception. I can list many. But that’s not the solution. The riches and the Haves are shunning domestic tourism and boarding planes abroad. Nothing that I should comment upon, it’s their prerogative, their money and wish. But, if we don’t take care our own Tourism opportunities, then who else will? I saw Foreigners were going ga-ga during the 8am foggy morning walk at The Taj last December. But down the road were dirty footpath and unhygienic neighbourhoods for all the brouhaha about the city administration. This coating by the Government is not going to help. It’s with us, the citizens to support Domestic Tourism.


Remember, your few thousands of Vacation money will feed hundreds of families for a long time with Travel and Tourism being a long term Industry. I have nothing against PM Cares or CM Funds, but this money is direct benefit to the economy. And one can see results ourselves without complaining in the future that the previous governments looted the public. It’s action time.

Pledge your resources to support and revive Indian Tourism. Am sure We the tourists would benefit the most in times to come, after all. Let me know if you’d like more information about Gurudongmar Lake or Dhanushkodi. Happy to share details.

03 January, 2020

Inflight Retailing - Retail 2020 (Article #7)

Air Asia, the low cost airline which pioneered the concept in South East Asia two decades back has been in the news for the few days for other reasons. The company has pioneered, much to the surprise of both the Aviation and the Retail Industry, an F&B concept by the name “Santan” which apparently has a wide range of menu curated from ASEAN countries. From Vietnamese chicken rice to Thai Noodles to the most favoured local Malay food, it features many an item which is a Local delicacy. And then comes the surprise. Hold. Santan has opened its first outlet at a premium shopping Mall in Kuala Lumpur and Tony Fernandes, the maverick CEO and Founder of Air Asia aspires to open 100 such outlets in the region. While executives of the Two related industries are sharing extreme feedback – from calling Santan a bizarre experiment to one that’s refreshing and pioneering, the jury is yet to be out.


Cut to 2005. Capt. Gopinath, an Indian Pilot who had retired from the indian Air Force aspired to set up a low-cost airline minus the frills and launched a test flight from Bangalore to Bellary followed by a national presence before ultimately selling off the business to Kingfisher Airlines. During the early days of Air Deccan, the airline ran several innovative promotions to catch the fancy of public and stood true to it’s Brand Byline – Now every Indian can fly, by offering inaugural promo tickets at ₹1 per ticket plus local and statutory aviation taxes. Was a great way of Marketing but here came the surprise – in the early days, there was no seat allocation for passengers who would run toget their preferred seats, from windows to aisles and to avoid the rear facing ones adjacent to the Crew.and to make add-on revenues, Air Deccan “sold” water much to the chagrin of the flyers and general public. Indian Aviation has come a long way forward since then. 

Retailing products on the flight, rather during the Flight, popularly known globally as “Inflight Retailing” in India is in it’s infancy in India currently. While one gets to savour a wide range of RTE (Ready to Eat) Food items from Biriyanis to Bhel Puri, Dal Chawal to Poha & Upma, these are not really innovations from the airlines themselves. Café Coffee Day created an innovative ready to mix coffee powder which only required Hot Water and introduced it in the skies in 2010. Although the coffee was not a hit, it has given birth to an innovative way of tea-making in similar lines. 


Airlines out up a catalogue of products, from key chains to power banks, Bluetooth earphones to toys. But I hardly see flyers buying them for the range is so boring and nothing that’s not available on ground. Not sure of the Commercial Management Team at airlines across India do not sense this opportunity which is over USD 2 Billion worldwide or are they simply focussing on the traditional aeronautical revenue coupled with faster and improved performance on ground, for that’s where a Plane should spend the least of its time. 

Once upon a time, Retail Brands would issue Gift Vouchers to Airline passengers while Jet Privilege allowed to earn and burn bonus points at select Retail Outlets.  Not anymore. Loyalty is dead, after all and Membership is in. I am waiting for the day when Netflix and Amazon Prime would provide a one-month trial for select passengers. Mall Chains and premium Department Store chains like Shoppers Stop would, for a small fee offer a coveted Membership that entails members to avail special offers including home pick-up, personal stylist and so on. Revv and Miles in a tie-up with Airlines would offer vehicles for self-drive at Airports so users can be more efficient all day as well as leisure tourists can avail sedans and SUVs for their tourist destination. In my opinion, inflight product and services retail is in the anvil and is bound to explode in a very big way in times to come. 


Would Air Asia launch Santan in India or would Indigo launch a café? I think that’s a too far-fetched idea at the moment. Retail, and modern retail is a different ballgame altogether. Long term Retail F&B companies are still tweaking their business models in India after being in service for 2 decades. I would rather hope we see more innovations in the inflight catalogue. Like Rajinikanth-branded aircrafts which was launched by Air Asia ahead of 2017 release tamil film Kabali. 

02 January, 2020

Highway Retailing – Retail 2020 (Article #6)

I have just completed a 10-day vacation across North India. Being an avid traveler, my travel plans are usually frozen at least 2 months in advance, which includes booking of rooms, air / rail transportation as well as ground transportation including the last mile to the Hotel or Resort where we would stay. However. one thing which has always been unplanned, or rather difficult to plan is the place to eat / take a break during such trips, especially while travelling by road. On our last leg today, we drove from Jaipur to Delhi, a distance of 270 Kms which took us around 4.5 hours non-stop. Due to intense Fog in this part of India, we wanted to reach as close as possible to Gurgaon before we took a break. Thanks to constant protests across country on some pretext (currently the NRC) or the other, we decided we wouldn’t stop midway and filled our “tanks” at Jaipur during breakfast. Sadly, the weather played spoil sport and my flight was delayed by over 2.5 hours, thanks to the Fog.


To give a perspective, there are an estimated 40,000+ Fuel Stations across India. Of these, at least 90% of them are branded by PSUs including Indian Oil Corporation which has close to 40% of the outlets, followed by Bharath Petroleum, around 30% and Hindustan Petroleum, around 25%. Lastly, there are the privately-owned OMCs - Oil Marketing Companies such as Reliance, Shell and Essar which are less than 5% in number and growing faster than the PSU OMCs. During my stint at Café Coffee Day in 2009, I signed up two exclusive contracts with Shell and Essar which were riding high on the deregulation of fuel prices which meant that the OMCs could fix the price for Petrol and Diesel. Although they have maintained their prices on par with the PSUs, there are benefits they cater to the consumers beyond filling high quality fuel. For Ex., all Shell Outlets have clean rest rooms separately for Men and Women. Some of them even provide services such as Vehicle Wash and minor repairs. The erstwhile Reliance Fuel Outlets had separate Food Courts from the Fuel Station including independent ingress & egress which was extensively put to use by the company through company managed as well as Franchised / outsourced F&B operations in the name and style of A1 Plazas. 

However, the majority of Fuel stations managed by the Dealers of the 3 PSUs do not even have basic amenities such as clean rest rooms which has been a regular qualm of most highway warriors like me. There are exceptions such as the Yamuna Express highway which connects Delhi to Agra with an Eight-lane highway which has three Toll Plazas and each of them have a neighbouring resting area including large food courts housing International and regional F&B outlets. 


Café Coffee Day remains the Number One F&B brand in India which has the most number of highway Outlets as compared to any other business house in organised F&B Retail. But this trend at CCD started many years back, beginning with the coveted Bangalore – Mysore State Highway followed by many such Highways across India. Many other regional brands such as Haldirams in North India, Sukh Sagar in the West and A2B (Adyar Ananda Bhavan) and Adigas in the South have cracked the regional markets but none at a large pan-India scale. Perhaps, Indian businesses can take a leaf out of International operators in the US & Europe who have built Billion Dollar businesses around this model. 

Personal driving as well as Cab hailing for long distances have become affordable now, thanks to lower cost of owning 4-wheelers as well as many tourist locations across India. Highway Retailing is in it’s infancy in India now and much more needs to be done in times to come. 

14 March, 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. 


17 February, 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…

15 January, 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.

27 November, 2018

Coming soon - 60,000 Retail Centres in India…

The Central Government announced on Sunday that it is planning to issue application forms for 60,000 Fuel stations across the Country to be operated through Dealers using the trade name of the Three Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. There are already 62,000 (and counting) fuel stations across India which retail Petrol, Diesel and allied products while a bunch of them also retail CNG for commercial vehicles. About 10% of these stations are operated by private players such as Shell, Essar, etc. It is a remarkable feat that the world’s highest fuel retail station is in India at the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir in the Himalayas which is a favourite among auto-enthusiasts. 



As in the past, prospective applicants need to apply online and pay an Ernest deposit to the OMCs which would be followed by a lucky draw. And those who win would be awarded the contracts and assistance provided by the respective agencies in setting up the outlets while those who didn’t qualify would be refunded their deposits. While this generous move by the BJP Government is seen as a positive measure since no such new contracts have been issued in the past four years, critics have dubbed this as a meaningless move with spiralling fuel costs and dwindling vehicle sales over the past two quarters this financial year and a mere public-pleasing stunt ahead of the upcoming National Elections in May 2019. So, the verdict is split. 

It costs a whopping Rs. 1.5 – Rs. 2 Crore to set up a Fuel Station spread over 5,000 sq. ft in the name and style of the OMCs while the cost is more than double for private players like Shell who have stricter norms towards the setting up of the outlets. The biggest challenge for setting up a Fuel Station has been land acquisition, especially on National & State Highways which have seen a 10-fold increase in vehicle traffic over the past decade, thanks to better roads, lower cost of acquiring personal vehicles and a generally heightened mood for vacations and road trips. 


Being an avid traveller and a terrific lover of road trips myself, starting with my beloved Hyundai Santro in 2005 till the new age Mahindra XUV500 (I upgraded to an Automatic from the previous Manual this March), I have personally seen how the entire ecosystem has evolved over the past 15 years or so. In fact, I plan my trips now, whether short or long depending on the wayside amenities that I could use, from rest rooms to coffee shops, meals to speciality snacks and of course the need for service centres, local vehicle mechanics and Authorised Service Centres, etc. The need for such pitstops vary when I travel solo or with family and of course based on the number of hours we travel at a stretch. 

My pet peeve on highway travel has been the lack of good quality toilets (well, good is a relative term, so!) and clean and hygienic food outlets which have somewhat been fulfilled at least across Tamil Nadu Highways which I frequent the most by road. While only a handful International and National Retailers such as Café Coffee Day, KFC, Mc Donalds and A2B have scratched the surface of the opportunity of Highway Travel Retail, there seems to be an enormous opportunity that lays ahead of us. I see these upcoming 60,000 new Fuel stations (many say only 1/3rd of all locations proposed actually turn up in reality) as nothing other than Retail Centres, where apart from filling Fuel, one can have various other retail offering from food outlets like cafes to speciality restaurants, shops selling snacks, fruits and condiments for the journey ahead and of course, wayside motels for a quick overnight stay for tired drivers and their families. 


Reliance Retail with their Fuel stations did come up with some of these models way back in 2006-07 but the whole effort slowly dwindled due to decentralisation of Fuel prices and today, they remain large parcels of land ready for an explosive growth. These fuel stations (and Retail Centres) could be beneficial not only for travellers but also for the nearby towns and villages, generating sustainable employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. 
I am writing this sitting in the back seat of a Bolero travelling on work and just stopped at a highway shack where I had a glass of Coffee. I see a new Retail Centre coming up closely (when I close my eyes).

A Firefly finally takes off

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