Four summers ago, in June 2009, a young Bangalore-based couple decided to turn their favourite hobby into a business idea. And, travel portal Thrillophilia was launched.
For Abhishek Daga and Chitra Gurnani Daga, this was perhaps the biggest adventure they had set upon. With no background in business or financial support, the two mustered all their savings, took a loan from their families - together Rs 6 lakh - and hired two more people to start building a website that offered curated travel experiences across the country. Hyderabad Angels would invest $200,000 in September 2013 in the company but till then, Thrillophilia's own journey was marked by ups and downs, trials and errors.
Creating travel experiences
JOURNEY SO FAR
Started in June 2009 as travel portal that curated outdoor activities
Turnover Rs 6-7 crore
In the next five years, aims to increase turnover to Rs 100 crore
Hyderabad Angels invested $200,000 in September 2013
Plans to increase its team from 27 members to 34 in a few months
The Dagas' passion for travelling into undiscovered terrains of the country made them realise a niche business opportunity - curating outdoor travel experiences. With the $22-billion online travel sector growing, by sector estimates, at a compound annual rate of 20 per cent, their idea was to not be only another online travel agency, selling cut-and-dry packages.
Instead, they set out to travel in a different direction, to research and design travel experiences with the help of established players and local vendors. "Building vendor relationships was tough, when you go and tell them you are building the biggest adventure portal. It was tough to convince them since we were new to the field. I was not asking for anything from them, I was only giving them additional business. No one says no to that," said Chitra.
The travel portal has positioned itself as a premium service provider, catering mainly to the corporate sector and then to leisure travellers. Soon, the budding entrepreneurs realised it was difficult to sustain a business selling India as an adventure destination, since the adequate infrastructure was not available. And, being a new entrant, getting customers for a niche travel space was not easy. "There was a period that there was no lead for 60 days and the operation cost was huge. Every single day, we were draining money," said Chitra.
Thrillophilia quickly changed gears. First, it expanded its domain from pure 'adventure tourism'. Second, it got aggressively into the corporate market. "Companies were planning team outings and looking for outdoor experiences. That is what struck us. We realised that rather than investing in search engine optimisation and waiting for months to get some leads, we needed to use the corporate market as a cash cow," she added.
The company has grown to have a little over 500 company clients in the past three years. These include Google, Mercedes-Benz, Accenture, Volvo, Wipro, Infosys, ITC, HDFC Bank, Indian Oil, Yahoo, Dell, Bajaj, Mahindra and FedEx. Thrillophilia has managed to curate 400 activity-based tours and 1,000 offbeat travel experiences on its portal, with the help of about 450 regional service providers.
Scaling up a notch
About 60 per cent of its business comes from its corporate clientele. The margins there are better, too. The company makes money by charging a commission directly from the customer. However, the travel portal has not lost sight of its consumer business (B2C) because that is where the scale lies. "That is where we started and then diluted and went into the corporate segment. The long-term vision is to be the activity portal of India, like a Bookmyshow. Today, you don't have an activity portal. You don't want a total tour but you want to experience a place. So, where do you search?" asks Chitra.
To tap this market, Thrillophilia plans to set up offices in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. In three years, the company feels it has a better understanding of the segment, third only to air and hotel bookings, and has adapted to what the customer demands. "The Indian market is not so apt for hardcore adventure only. People want to experience outdoors like a plantation walk or a canoe ride as against a three-day trek. In that sense, we tweaked our product," said Chitra.
The company is also building up its team, which has grown to 27 people and is hiring seven more by March. Why has it not grown in the consumer space? "We didn't have enough time to keep waiting because we didn't have sufficient investment. We have executed more than 900 programmes; 99.8 per cent are happy customers. The B2C business has helped us build our brand," she replied.
A Hyderabad Angels spokesperson said the market trend was changing from regular sight-seeing travel to activity-based and experiential tours. So, the Thrillophilia idea to curate such offbeat experiences for its travellers has a lot of potential. "We are very impressed with what they are doing. With the traction they have achieved and the sound customer support processes in place, we are invested in them financially and strategically," said Vinutha Rallapalli, spokesperson, Hyderabad Angels.
Having secured the first round of its funding, the company will be expanding into metro cities. The company has so far collaborated with big and small players, maintaining it is not an on-ground operator but an activity curator. "For the space Thrillophilia is operating in, the partnerships it enters into will be crucial for its credibility and quality. But it has to strengthen its on-ground presence in the long run, which will require capital and quality manpower," said a senior executive of a travel portal.
The biggest limiting factor for the company is cash, Chitra said. While the corporate business has kept the profits coming, if the company wants to scale up, it has to build its consumer side of the business, experts say. Since the segment is largely unorganised, with no dedicated company curating travel experiences, Thrillophilia has an early-mover advantage. "The good news is people would like to make bookings through a branded agency than an indigenous local vendor. But to ensure that somewhere far way the travel activity is delivered and quality maintained is a big challenge," said a senior travel company executive who did not wish to be named. Perhaps if Thrillophilia can manage that, it can soon achieve its goal of becoming a Rs 100-crore-turnover company from a Rs 6-7-crore one now.
EXPERT TAKE: Hari Nair
The underlying market is beginning to take shape. People are looking at the leisure space and considering activity a part of it. It is a still a small space. The Thrillophilia model is to take an activity which it thinks will create interest and get it done by someone local, where their vendor relationships come into play. They take the responsibility of delivering it to you.
I think this model will work. The biggest challenge, however, is delivery. They have to maintain quality and safety standards. The key here is trust. A lot of people are getting into this business. Some are more specialised than others, like mountains-oriented or restricted to local areas.
What Thrillophilia is doing is an endeavour to create a new market space. This is what makes it an attractive business proposition. For the next three to four years, this will be a modest business. But companies like Thrillophilia would have an advantage when this segment becomes mainstream. Their focus now should be on strengthening the foundation. This will have implications on their ability to scale up faster. In the process, they might also have to educate vendors about the standards of safety and quality which will reap benefits for the travel sector as a whole.
Hari Nair, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, HolidayIQ.com