It’s a fact that most people who think of travelling to India don’t know much about it.
They only know what they have heard about – which I understand is a ridiculous statement to make, but hear me out. People have heard of certain destinations and some monuments and these are what they ask for when they are enquiring about a holiday to the country. What they haven’t heard of, necessarily, is India’s possibilities as an adventure destination, trekking, horse riding, white water rafting, or its off-beat boutique destinations where you truly discover the heart of the country, it’s culinary diversity or it’s art and crafts, the list goes on.
India is portrayed as monuments, not adventure, cities rather than countryside, standard sightseeing and shopping rather than true heartfelt experiences; imagine how many more tourists could be attracted if the real message was put out there effectively. It is not thought of as a family destination, but in fact it is excellent for this, with a booming population and the massively increasing spend and mobility of the middle classes, family travel is increasing massively. I appreciate that the nerves of the inbound tourist prevent them from thinking of India when planning a family holiday, but those who have braved it have found it immensely rewarding, my own nephews and niece aged 10, 15, 18 and 20 still rate it 10 years on as the best holiday they ever had.
In the last 20 years, since I started selling holidays to India, the market has become increasingly competitive, with more and more companies claiming to be bespoke but in reality are just selling the same old circuits, the done-to-death Golden Triangle or the standard trawl around Kerala, and when this is all the imagination that can be mustered, what other than price, can they compete on? Price wars benefit nobody, cheap does not mean experiential and with lacklustre services and hotels resulting in a very mediocre holiday experience, how can repeat business hope to be generated.
I’ve had two interesting discussions of late. One started with DMC’s telling me that if clients didn’t get what was on the itinerary they complained. I fully agree with this, but the point they were all missing, was what they should put on the itinerary and the problem is, 95% of companies put the same sightseeing on every tour they sell. My counter argument was that if, instead of standard sightseeing, new experiences were offered and these became the ones that were put on the itinerary, then these would be what clients would want to do.
The second was with a veteran of the industry, well, an agent who has been around as long as me and who asked, “How can we be truly be tailor-made when all clients ask for is the Golden Triangle and insist on that, you just sell them a set package?” I disagreed, vehemently. For starters, you need to truly know your destination and once you do, you have to bother to ask the two very simple questions that very few agents actually ask their clients; “Why? And What?”
Invariably when clients start planning a trip to India with agents, they list a set of destinations they would like to visit, invariably these are the destinations they have heard of, I blame a lack of awareness at large about India and it’s diversity, but it is what it is. The next step is that many agents simply agree to that list and offer a selection of hotels and standard sightseeing programs. What gets missed is the question, why followed by the question, what?
When I was still selling holidays, I was relentless, never accepting a list of destinations as a reason to visit.
‘Okay, you want to ‘do India’ you want to visit the Golden Triangle but my question is, why? Why do you want to go to India?’ They’d initially say that they want to see the Taj Mahal, but I would probe further, ‘But why India, what appeals to you about it?’ Then, if they were still stumbling around wracking their brains and wondering why they did actually want to go, I persisted with further prompting, ‘What are your interests, hobbies, is it food, photography, the great outdoors, do you like wildlife, where did you go on holiday last year, what would you do if you were to go away next weekend?’ Then the cogs would start turning. “Well, yes, my wife loves Indian food!” or “My son is an amateur photographer” or “My daughter is training to be a vet” or, “We love architecture/horse riding/walking/fashion”; this is when you can truly start creating a truly tailor-made holiday. Armed with this personal information, you can plan excursions and activities, even within the Golden Triangle that will make it unique to that client and, in addition to the sights, give them the insights into the country that they will appreciate. This is tailor-making and through giving clients a truly enhanced experience that appeals to their sensibilities, repeat business will ensue. It can’t not, once people have been once, 9/10 they will want to visit again and again.
I will give just two examples of when asking “Why?” And ‘What are your interests?” has, in the past, enabled me to transform a standard package into a truly tailored tour.
The first, let’s call them Mr & Mrs Smith for the sake of argument, was a request for a visit to Shimla purely for the toy train ride, Agra (of course) and then a journey around Rajasthan, they were not sure why, they just wanted to see the sights. After a good chat for at least an hour (I never said it wasn’t time consuming) it transpired that Mr Smith was into horse racing, actually had 6 of his own horses, which got me thinking, why not spend a day at the races in Calcutta? I could pull a few strings, get him to meet some of the owners and trainers and have a proper show around. It could have been a bus man’s holiday but he was delighted. His wife was into art, and so we threw in Lunch with Bomti, a local resident, socialist and art dealer, as well as a couple of art galleries. Calcutta in itself is fascinating so it’s not too hard to impress. Of course then the toy train ride then became the one to Darjeeling and time spent there which they loved, a few days at Glenburn and then followed Rajasthan and Agra. Was it the most logical routing? No, of course not, but this didn’t bother them one iota because they were actually doing a trip that was uniquely tailored around them, their preferences, their likes and dislikes, rather than a standard circuit. And yes, I did add Rohet so that he could learn a little about Marwari horses too. It all gave them additional kudos at their next dinner party, oh, you just did XYZ, well we met so and so and went to…
The second, Mr & Mrs Jones, contacted me to say they had just 8 days and would like to see the Golden Triangle. In the course of our conversations it transpired that they were actually heading to Nepal to trek up to Everest Base Camp. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that they were quite active. Mr Jones was an anthropologist, Mrs Jones an amateur photographer, they both quite liked wildlife. I asked them if they were really bothered about the Taj Mahal (as I would) and they didn’t seem overly enamoured. It was then decided that I would send them two options, one a Delhi, Agra, Jaipur tour with added extras, a half day trek in Jaipur, a photo tour of Old Delhi, that kind of thing and a couple of nights in between, Ranthambhore or more ideally Ramathra, and then one itinerary where my imagination could get involved. This was a Jodhpur (see the fort but then head off to a private camp in the middle of the Thar Desert and visit the more remote villages and tribes that one rarely gets to see), Kumbalgarh with the trek through the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, a romantic step well dinner and of course the Ranakpur Temples. Then onto Jawai for the chance to see the Rabari tribals as well as a couple of obliging leopards and ending with trekking from there to Udaipur, visiting the City Palace, experiencing a walking tour of the old city, a cookery demo at their hotel and a half day trek into the surrounding hills. They were sold on option 2, all of a sudden they didn’t care about the Taj, they had been given an option that appealed to their senses and sensibilities and booked it by return mail. They then went on to recommend us to a several other couples.
This is what the question, ‘Why?’ can do. So many people are sold a standard Golden Triangle deal that is mediocre because that is what they think they want. “Why and What?” help to establish what they actually do want. If that involves the Taj Mahal, then so be it, but beyond that, you can develop a creative program that is actually tailored and this, not only introduces a whole new India they never had imagined existed, as well as brings about repeat business. Now that has got to be worth asking. That one little question, “Why?”