A rocky climb for travel: AMA with Ajith Gopalakrishnan

Few industries have seen as much tumult during the COVID-19 pandemic as the travel industry has. In this interview with Pulse, CTO Ajith Gopalakrishnan of Backroads details the uncertain destination ahead for travel tech companies.

What’s happening right now in the travel industry post-COVID19 shutdowns?

The travel industry, by its nature, is the most impacted and immediately impacted. Right now, we’ve got fewer travel happening. What that means for us is we’ve had to cancel a lot of our trips. This is peak season for us at this point and, come April, we’ve usually got trips happening all over Europe, the US and Asia.

We anticipate not doing anything till the end of July at best. That’s giving a very optimistic view of things getting back to normal. Backroads is in a unique position in that our travel is a little unique. It’s at an active level and we’ve had guests or customers who’ve been with us for a long time. So a lot of them are looking forward to coming back. Having said that, given the current circumstance and environment, its hard to predict how travel will respond post COVID-19.

Is a crisis situation like this, where there’s a pause in revenue, an opportunity to undertake other projects like with infrastructure?

What we’re doing now is, looking at all options to reduce unnecessary expenses. So anything that we think of in terms of projects that can wait, we’ve postponed them.

We are considering upgrades that we might not have done before, like upgrading our website, bringing in new infrastructure, solutions like moving our server footprint to the cloud. Few things that we’ve kind of talked about as projects if we’ve always wanted to do, we decided to do them in larger bulk because we don’t have as much of a customer impact as we would have had earlier.

What were travel companies investing in prior to this crisis?

A lot of companies are looking at big data. Investing in understanding customer behavior, taking information of the kind of places that a customer would have visited from a website. We’ve decided we’ll never sell our data, and we try our level best to get information on customer behavior from our own forty plus years of customer interaction. But we’re still trying to go through this thought process of figuring out whether there is a benefit for us in reaching out to vendors to collect useful customer information that can help our guest with better service.

We’ve got about 50,000 guests that travel with us every year, on average, from a pool of about 200,000 plus guests that have traveled with us before. About 20–30,000 guests get added to the pool every year. We’re very careful about how we present ourselves when it comes to customer data or customer information. But travel companies are doing exactly that. If you search for a trip, they know that you’ve already started that particular search. And they collect that information either through your browser or from search engines or other places you might have visited. Then they’re trying to compare the trend with how other people are behaving.

What are the most important considerations when wading into Big Data?

Your ability to process them, both in terms of volume and speed. There is so much data that a corporation can access, but your ability to usefully consume is another matter.

For us it would be customer privacy. For us there is a huge trust base that exists between us and our customers. Backroads being a company that’s been around for a long time, we’ve got people who’ve traveled with us for literally 40 years. So for us the privacy of our guest information is critical.

A topic on our forum that has come up is over the stimulus money that is aimed at businesses facing layoffs. Has Backroads applied for assistance?

At this point it’s a little premature because the bills have just started coming out. We have got on our legal experts going through that exercise to understand what parts of those can be used and where the Backroads would benefit from it. We’re looking to find out if there are opportunities where the affected employees of this can take benefit from it all.

Where to for the travel industry after COVID-19?

My gut tells me that it’s gonna be a tough year. We’re going to start getting into the winter months three or four months from now. So travel becomes a little bit more questionable. September would be the time when people are going to really start traveling again.

The other part of the whole equation that that we haven’t fully thought through the appetite of people willing to have travelers. Italy is an example. Countries that have been severely affected by this, for them to now suddenly open up again and have large volumes of guests come back in from different parts of the world, I think that will take some time too. The willingness for countries to accept travelers again is going to take a little bit more time to pick up again.