Flight Expert, OTA, And The Future Of Travel: An Interview With Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem, CEO, Flight Expert

Flight Expert, OTA, And The Future Of Travel: An Interview With Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem, CEO, Flight Expert

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Since launching Flight Expert in mid-2017, Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem has successfully positioned the company as a leading OTA in the country, from what began as a modest operation of a three people team. Flight Expert has now a team of over 25 people and it has a widespread brand awareness in the market. While Mr. Salman started with a team of fresh lieutenants, over the past months he has assembled a team of creative first-timers and experienced industry insiders which has meaningfully helped Flight Expert position itself as a destination OTA for a growing number of people.

Travel is a $7 trillion dollar industry globally. In Bangladesh, it has been seeing a steady growth over the past couple of years, an increasing number of Bangladeshis are now traveling overseas (formal outbound travel expenses was $436.4 million in FY16) and the industry is just getting started, in every meaning of the word. Put that together with OTA, the future of OTA business can only go one direction and that’s exponential growth.

Recently, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sits down with, Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem, Founder and CEO, Flight Expert, one of the young and dynamic travel-tech CEOs in the country to find out more about and understand Flight Expert and to pick his brain about Flight Expert’s journey, the state of its business today, long-term strategy and ambition and future plans, future of OTA and travel-tech in Bangladesh and his lessons from his journey as a young entrepreneur and CEO and contemplates what future may bring for the travel-tech industry in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. First of, please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing today.

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

I completed my SSC from Willes Little Flower School and my HSC from Dhaka Commerce College. I scored a good grade and was, as a result, offered a scholarship to Saint Mary’s University in Canada where I studied accounting. I was not an instant love. I loved accounting so much that, when I graduated, I also completed CPA Level-1.

Family-wise, we are 3 brothers and I’m the eldest. My father is a successful businessman, leading the ‘Makkah Group’, a group of companies based in Dhaka, having operations in Air Ticket Selling, Translation Centre, Medical Centre, manpower clearance, hajj and umrah, money exchange and a few other businesses.

He started his journey 24 years ago in a very humble way and has built a huge business empire from scratch. He is also involved in a host of social activities including Lions Club. He was elected as secretary general of Hajj Association of Bangladesh (HAB) for 3 terms in a row and served as a Council Chairperson at Lions Club International

Back in 2012, Internet-enabled services was not a mainstream service in Bangladesh. But in Canada, I came to see a different scenario. Internet was almost the default mode of doing things. People were booking everything through the internet and it was an eye-opening experience for me.

Fast forward 2015, my father and I had a conversation about his declining ticket selling business. I suggested him to go online and develop something like makemytrip.com in Bangladesh. Throughout 2015, he worked on going online with his e-ticket service. That was actually the beginning of my journey into the world of OTA business, although I did not know that at that moment.

In 2016 January, I was having a Skype conversation with my parents and in that time I told them that I had passed CPA level-1 and I received an invitation letter from a renowned CA firm in Canada to join them. I had almost decided to join there. My father listened to me and then asked me to return to Bangladesh almost immediately. The next thing he sent me a ticket as well. And that was it.

After three months, in April 2016, I returned to Bangladesh and joined as the Managing Director of Makkah Group. My first job as the MD was to facilitate the digitalization of the business and launch our online operations.

Luckily, our group of companies already had 5 IATAs in its bag and this made many things easier for us. I had all the resources to start my task. I looked up Agoda.com and some other booking sites and their operations. I reached out to and consulted with the TBO group’s Business Development Manager, Mr. Amit Kumar Tiwari. TBOGroup is a huge company and their company Travelboutiqueonline.com alone handles about 7.5 lakhs of segments (Stoppage) of flight whereas the whole Bangladesh handles a little more than 2.5 lakhs of segments (Stoppage). So, I contacted them for a collaboration and get the API.

They took interest and after reviewing our profile and companies, Mr.Amit suggested us to go for being a GSA (General Sales Agent) of there Holiday wing company TBOHOLIDAYS. Mr. Sadat Hossain, our COO now and Mr. Abdul Goni Mehedi, our CTO now, were with me, in fact, we have been friends for a long time, and I shared the idea with them and asked them to join me and the agreed. That’s how our journey began.

In that time, I also talked with Mr. Gaurav Bhatnagar, the Co-founder, and MD of TBO about the GSA. Finally, we got the GSA in July and when we were almost ready to go, we came across another challenge. We came to know that having a GSA was difficult but sending remittance to outside Bangladesh was even more difficult. We worked the banks, Bangladesh Bank, Finance Ministry and even the Civil Aviation to get the necessary permission. People were suspicious and skeptical because we were telling them that we would send remittance to foreign countries from Bangladesh. Finally, we managed to get the necessary permissions. Acquiring the GSA was an exhausting process and it took us nearly 8 months to wrap it up. My father supported me throughout this process.

A new life started for me with Flight Expert. OTA was not a mainstream thing yet in Bangladesh. After much preparation, on 1st March 2017, we launched Flight Expert through a launch in BICC.

Right after the launch, we had some very good joint campaigns with The City Bank and American Express that helped us to create a good buzz in the market and generate an immediate good traction. We also jointly worked to launch special offers in collaboration with VISA Global and VISA-enabled Banks through the help of SSLCommerz and Standard Chartered Bank which helped us to build awareness and credibility among a certain segment of the market who use credit cards and digital payment.

Our goal from the very beginning was to enable people to get travel related services conveniently from anywhere through using the power of technology be it online flight booking or hotel booking.

People come to the traditional travel agencies like our own ‘Makkah Group’ to get an affordable rate for tickets and all. Now when you speak to a travel agent for rates, it is a bit time consuming and people don’t like to spend time on that.

Moreover, you can check many flights to one destination at a time and flight rates also vary time to time. It gets decreased with time if the seats are not filled up. The agencies need to watch out for those. In many ways, it is inconvenient for the travel agent to keep track of all the changes and provide instantaneous service to a customer often making it time-consuming, inconvenient and costly for a customer.

My initial plan was to build a platform to help people plan their tours and travels by providing them information as well by building an aggregator platform where you can find real-time information and make an optimal decision.

I was not looking to build an OTA business from the day one because I was not sure about whether people would use an online platform for flights and hotels booking, which has proved to be extremely wrong over the course of last one year. However, after much thought, we went for the OTA business and started with offering flights and hotel booking services online.

We started our operation in March with a team of 7 people in a very humble manner. Over the last one year, we have grown significantly as a business as well as a team and we are a team of 25 people today and growing.

Initially, we had to struggle a lot. We are working with almost all the renowned airlines and other partners in the space the likes of Etihad, Qatar and they certainly do not talk in thousands, they talk in millions. We had made arrangement for advance payments and all that. OTA is a pretty expensive business. While it looks like a mere online business from the outside, it is not. It is complex and investment heavy at the same time.

There are over 650 airlines in the world and a large number of hotels as well. Technically, it is also a challenging affair to put the infrastructure to work and manage it seamlessly so that our customers have a great experience. We had to change our server several times. When we started in March 2017, we used to receive around 500 to 600 emails and after close to a year, in December 2017, our monthly email volume went up to 15,000.

While this transition is a challenge for us, we are very excited to see the growth and we hope to see an even more accelerated growth this year.

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Our goal from the very beginning was to enable people to get travel related services conveniently from anywhere through using the power of technology be it online flight booking or hotel booking.

Future Startup

What went into building the initial operations of Flight Expert? How did you put together the team, connections, and funding etc?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

The major problem for any OTA is to get the IATA certifications. It would cost around $50,000 to get an IATA and it is quite a complex process. We did not need that investment as we already had 5 IATAs with our company.

Sometimes, airlines do not give ticketing authorities to new IATA because they are not certain about its payment and punctuation. I was again fortunate to have ‘Makkah Group’, who is doing this for over 20 years and never missed the Airlines payment due date. So we were lucky from the day one.

We started small. As I mentioned earlier, I asked two of my friends to join and they agreed. That’s how everything started. Initially, we were a small team, of 07, people.

You can book flights in over 500+ of Airlines and 2.5 Lakhs hotels through our platform across the world. Our hotel booking comes through our deal with TBO Holiday for the hotels abroad.

Future Startup

Please give us an overview of Flight expert, in terms of services you are offering, size of your operation, and your business and team.

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

As I mentioned earlier, currently, we are a team of 25 people and growing. We are a mostly young team. The advantage that we enjoy is that we are all new to this industry and we are learning things by doing and most importantly since we are all new, we don’t have any preconceptions with certain ideas or certain concepts and we are open to trying new things and learning. We are questioning old ways of doing things and forging a new path. This has helped a lot.

My idea was to start with freshers and new blood. 80% of our employees here are new-entrants to the corporate world. To complement that we have our Chief Commercial Officer, Mr. Saeed, who is veteran of this industry, who joined us in August last year and has helped take our business to the next level. He has an extensive experience of working in this industry for a long time which has helped us to build some very important connections in the industry and grow our business.

I think in order to build a business you need dedication, patience, and honesty. In online honestly is even more important because it is a relatively new medium and there were incidents that took place before that caused distrust in people in the online business. The things have improved a lot over the past years, despite it remains a salient factor for our industry.

As I mentioned earlier, we started small and initially, our ambition was small as well. In fact, our goal for the first month was to sell about 50 tickets and to our surprise, we sold over 300 tickets that first month.

You can book flights in over 500+ of Airlines and 2.5 Lakhs hotels through our platform across the world. Our hotel booking comes through our deal with TBO Holiday for the hotels abroad.

Other than flight booking, we also offer tours and travel packages and related services. We are also working on a platform where our customers will be able to customize their travel plans and packages and see dynamic prices. This, we hope, will allow our customers to have great freedom in choosing where they want to go instead us making the decision for them. The system will give you real-time pricing and availability.

Over the past months, we have built a great technology platform and our system is almost fully automated that require minimal manual work to serve one more customer on our part. The system is highly sophisticated and connects hundreds of suppliers to one platform thus making lives of our customers super simple.

We don’t offer hotel booking in Bangladesh yet because it is still challenging to integrate our local hotels into our platform because of the lack of technology/software stack on the hotels part. Most of our hotels still operate in the traditional way which is challenging for us to integrate into our platform. On the other hand, the number of 5-star hotels in Bangladesh is relatively slim.

There are a lot of people who want to go to a 3-star hotel and they are our customers as well. I already mentioned the challenges that we face when it comes to working with these hotels. We tried to work with many of these hotels back in May/June last year but it did not work out and we came to realize that it would take significant investments on the hotels part to make this work which I think would take a few more years to happen.

There are two models in this business. One is B2C where we deal with the customers directly for flight tickets and hotel bookings and tour and travel packages. We have been offering these services to our customers from the day. We have also launched a B2B business where we work with the other offline agencies who do the selling for us which we believe will allow us to serve more people in both ways.

2018 is a big year for us. We have an ambitious growth plan for this year. We have been working on our mobile app for a while now and we plan to launch it next month. We are also planning to launch our dedicated platform for the agents for travel agencies through which travel agencies will be able to book through us at a reduced price. We believe it will make the work of travel agencies a lot easier and at the same allow us to acquire more customers. This is essentially a move to project ourselves as a platform in the long-run.

We work as a family at Flight Expert. The entire team works extra hour almost every day. Our office time ends at 7 pm, however, almost all of us stay at the office till 8-9 pm every day. For me, I go back to home and often start work again. I do my thinking job at night.

Future Startup

What is your business model? So far I know, OTAs usually follow one of two models – merchant model and agency model and some go hybrid. In merchant model, hotels usually sell rooms in bulk to OTAs which OTAs then sell to their customers through their platform, this offers greater control over profit but requires upfront investment. On the other hand, merchant model is where you allow hotels to list their property on your site and you get a commission for property sold through your platform. There is the hybrid model which is basically a mix of both models. I mean, you have this collaboration with Airlines, Hotels, and Others and when I book through your website, am I booking directly a room in a hotel or is it like that you have booked the hotel room in some form and now selling it through your platform.

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

One thing for us is that our revenue model is commission-based and we don’t buy anything upfront, in almost no instance. In Bangladesh, we are not allowed to pre-book anything also.

We are the GSA of TBO in Bangladesh who deal with hotel booking for us and we play a role of sales agent. The entire process is done through TBO API which is integrated into our system and it does the work.

Hotel booking is a quite intricate process. Usually, there are few suppliers for a particular hotel who basically control the deals. For example, there can be 3 to 4 people as suppliers from, say, hotel X in Dhaka. Now, Expedia and others will contact these suppliers and take up their inventory and put them on their website with competitive pricing. The entire process is technologically connected. This is the system of aggregating the hotels.

For example, TBO is an aggregator of hotels. They provide hotel booking service in over 198 countries at over 300 thousand hotels. Their aggregation is probably enabled by about a 1000 suppliers who directly deal with the hotels. This is basically how aggregation works.

Now, when we get deals, it varies in pricing and as an aggregator, we show lowest price option to our customers. As I mentioned, we mostly depend on the commission for both our Airlines and Hotels.

Flight Expert launch event | Photo by Flight Expert

Flight Expert launch event | Photo by Flight Expert

Future Startup

How big is your operation, I mean, how are you doing business-wise?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

If I give you the number, we do about 100 flight booking and about 20 hotels per day on an average. We do it in two models, in one model we do everything for our customers and they make the payments to us.

In another model, we simply do the booking, customers make the payments after staying at the hotel. Our average basket size, as you can understand, is pretty big. In both instances, we earn from the commission. We have been experiencing an excellent growth over past few months.

Our business has grown as a result of this emotional attachment with our users and dedication from our team. Building business is all about building lasting relationships, your numbers will come and go but when you build relationships based on trust, it sustains. That has been another significant progress for us.

Future Startup

You have started in 2016, how much has the company evolved – what was your operation look like in 2016 and what it is now and what are the major differences?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

We have grown significantly as a team. When we started we were only seven people, today we are a team of 25. We did not have much structure and system, over the past couple of months we have managed to put together a system in the organization that allows us to work better and collaborates more efficiently.

If we compare March to December 2017, our growth was over 300% for IATA. With the growth, our reputation and reliability in the industry have also grown significantly. We are now having a better relationship with many of our partners.

The most important change, however, is that we have developed a capacity to better serve our customers. This business is not easy, as I mentioned earlier, and it is not just about numbers.

In many ways, we are enabling people sometimes to fulfill their dreams and ambitions and sometimes assisting our users to deal with an emergency. In many instances, we have helped our users to book a flight in a 03 hours time and so on.

Our business has grown as a result of this emotional attachment with our users and dedication from our team. Building business is all about building lasting relationships, your numbers will come and go but when you build relationships based on trust, it sustains. That has been another significant progress for us.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Flight Expert now?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

This is not a unique challenge for us, per se. However, it is a challenge still. As I told you earlier, this is an investment-hungry business and finance is a consistent challenge for us, largely because you get to put a lot of money in different places.

We have been growing pretty fast over the past couple of months and with growth comes more growth pressure and at times, financing the growth is a challenge for us.

Another challenge is payment. SSLCommerz has been doing a tremendous job in this space for a long time. In fact, they have been a great help to us throughout our journey. However, digital payment still is not a mainstream thing in Bangladesh. People don’t feel comfortable making payment digitally in advance.

My perception is that people are not using cards for making payments online. The situation is improving but I think we have a long way to go in the space.

Finally, it is hard to attract good talents in this space. Young people don’t aspire to work in a travel agency which makes it challenging for us to hire and retain good people. And if you don’t have a great team, you don’t have a great business. However, we are expecting that this scenario will change over the years as more and more OTAs come into this space and build better business and brand.

Future Startup

Since you are an OTA, payments are likely to happen online, what percentage of your payment happen digitally? How does your digital payment process work?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

At this moment, we are having almost 90% of our B2C transactions through digital payment. We encourage people to pay digitally through different initiatives and even when people come to our office for payment we give them a laptop and encourage them to pay online.

If you look around our office, unlike other traditional travel agencies, we do not have a customer desk or a counter and we have a small sitting arrangement which is basically formality so that if by chance anyone comes.

As told you earlier, from the day one, of our journey, we have been working with our payment partners including SSL to encourage our users to make payment online. In fact, we launched digital payment specific campaigns as well.

We have recently signed an agreement with VISA Global with a view to encouraging people to make their Umrah related payments through cards. We launched a joint promotional campaign for ‘Umrah’ and people will get around 7% off until the end of April if they make payment using their VISA cards.

When it comes to Umrah, as we have seen before, almost all the transactions take place through cash payment or bank deposit. Our objective is to encourage people to make payment digitally using their VISA instrument.

From the day, we have integrated all the payments method into our platform so that people can make payment from anywhere. Through SSLCommerz payment gateway which we have integrated, people can pay through almost all digital payment options. We also offer payment through email or WhatsApp where we send a payment link, enabled by SSL, and our users can simply click and make the payment. The link works as a digital invoice.

We have also integrated other payment options including bank payment, internet banking payment, and others. Our ambition is to make the entire process as simple as possible for our users and we believe if digital payment becomes more widespread and a mainstream thing, the entire experience will become even more convenient for our users.

Many people think that a BDT 50,000 press ad could bring them tons of business the next week, but in reality, it does not happen that way. You have to stay in line for many days before yielding a result. Growth is not about marketing. It is rather a mix of communication, strategy, customer service and great execution of your plans and strategy.

Flight Expert launch | Photo by Flight Expert

Flight Expert launch | Photo by Flight Expert

Future Startup

How have you attracted users and grown over the past years? What is a couple of things that you have done to grow?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

Initial growth usually comes from, what they call, doing things that don’t scale. From the day one, we have worked hard to build a brand awareness in the market, we have invested in making our name known in the market, that’s one part.

At the same time, we have a great product. Our total system is dynamic. It takes less than 5 seconds for anyone to issue a ticket once they fill up the forms and make the payment. This superior product experience has also been key to our growth.

The other part has been, we work really hard to make our customers happy and make their experience with us best experience possible. We have offered a really good product, great service, make it really simple as well as reliable for our customers and we did all of these, and still do, for every single customer, one by one. That does not scale but it has helped us to grow.

And most importantly, a lot of patience. It really takes time to make things work.

Many people think that a BDT 50,000 press ad could bring them tons of business the next week, but in reality, it does not happen that way. You have to stay in line for many days before yielding a result. Growth is not about marketing. It is rather a mix of communication, strategy, customer service and great execution of your plans and strategy.

Over the past months, we have not only grown in terms of sales and other material metrics, we have also managed to build a relatively good brand awareness in the market. We have a growing base of users who use our website every month and we have a great retention rate. People use our website for various purposes including to explore different packages and prices. Our preliminary target was to help people find out about different intricacies of traveling, travel agencies and destinations. Maybe a year later, that explorer will be my customer.

In short, superior product, teamwork, dedication, and word-of-mouth – these things have helped us to grow in the early days and these things continue to be our key strengths.

Future Startup

How do you reach out to customers? Please tell us about marketing communication efforts?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

We are focusing mainly on digital marketing i.e. Facebook, Adwords and a couple of other channels. Along with that, we are also exploring a limited print media promotion with 3 to 4 Ads per month.

Digital remains to be one of the most effective and efficient marketing tools for us compared to other mediums. And we are trying to take advantage of it.

Then and again, we do print media because many of our target audience still trust print media and pay more serious attention to an ad when it is in print media.

Having said that, we do obsess over numbers. We track our every investment and see our conversion from different outlets and go accordingly.

I say that my real target customers are still in school meaning our business today is a small fraction of business that we will have over the next couple of years. I do understand that this is going to take. And we are here for the long run.

Future Startup

What is the state of overall OTA business in Bangladesh? How big is the market? What are the challenges? What do see down the line 4-5 years?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

I would say that OTA is a nascent sector in Bangladesh and we are just getting started. We just had our OTA related policy recently. In many countries, OTAs control over 80% of entire travel and hotel booking related business.

While the sector is at the pretty early stage, I do hope that it will grow over the next couple of years. The business for the traditional travel agency is going to diminish, but I don’t see that traditional travel agencies would become obsolete. Currently, there are over 4000 travel agencies in Bangladesh and there would be businesses for traditional travel agencies.

It is hard to know the numbers in Bangladesh, however, the market is pretty big and the opportunity is virtually huge. According to an unofficial estimate, the whole OTA market should be something north of 20 crores in a matter of 2 years. I say that my real target customers are still in school meaning our business today is a small fraction of business that we will have over the next couple of years. I do understand that this is going to take. And we are here for the long run.

That’s why for the next couple of years, our ambition is to build our foundation, improve our product further, build our capacity so that when things really get serious we can serve our customers better than anyone. Since we are a digital platform, it is feasible for us to scale internationally once we have a solid business in Bangladesh. I also think that a lot of international players in the space will come to Bangladesh in the next couple years which will make the market even more interesting.

Future Startup

Please tell us about the culture at Flight Expert, how do people work and collaborate?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

Let me give you an overview of our organizational structure. We have 4 departments: business development, Operations, IT and then accounts. Each department has their respected Head of Departments (HoD) who are responsible for the works and activities of their department.

Previously, when we were small, everyone used to do everything apart from their main responsibilities. Over the time, we have tried to make things more structured and now, our departments are formal and we have separated the tasks and activities.

As said, we are a young team and we love to explore new ways of doing things and question things to find a better solution to every problem. Teamwork is one of the core values, we work as a team. We maintain a rather horizontal structure and it is an open culture.

We value everyone in our team from office help to CXOs. We believe and practice that in order to build a great organization we need all of these people to perform at their best and they can only perform when there is a conducive environment to do so.

We respect each other irrespective of position. Respect is built into our DNA and is a core value at FE and it informs our decision and how we operate as a company.

Our is a complex business pertaining many different variables in every decision and our every decision and small error impacts our customers which is why we are very meticulous about customer service. We also offer good training to our people so that they can handle the pressure properly.

The most important leverage apart from the network is the knowledge about the industry. Travel is one of the largest industries in the world and it is complex with a lot of intricacies in it, we have been able to get an understanding of these intricacies because we are a part of Makkah Group.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

I prefer to empower people and give them autonomy. Micro-management is not my way of doing the things. At FE, our department heads run the show in their respective department and I give them enough freedom so that they can make decisions and perform at their best.

Future Startup

Building a business is hard. It is a journey of relentless ups and downs. Do you feel down sometimes? How do you deal with challenges that come with building a business?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

When we started Flight Expert, we had to go through a long list of hurdles starting from authorization to digital payment integration to taking permission for sending remittance outside the country. It was a long slog of difficult days. No banks were confident to do the online transaction of more than 20 to 50 thousands taka. We had worked hard through good and bad days and overcome those challenges.

SSLCommerz helped us in building collaborations with a few banks and then when we started operation and they came to see our work and transaction volume they agreed to scale up the transaction limits each time. This is just a tiny instance of the level uncertainty and difficulties we had to endure in the early days. There are many more such examples.

In the first few weeks, we spent a hefty budget online to attract users and we end up having 3 bookings in total. There was a time when we were not sure whether this would work or not. And then after almost 10 days of our launch, things started to pick up and we started to receive a good number of bookings. I think this is the reality for most entrepreneurs. You need to swallow difficult things almost daily basis.

Working late hours is a common thing. I sleep only four and a half hours per day. During the office hours, I try to work on the operations of the business and discuss the challenges and planning with the chiefs and HoDs. Once I get back to home, I get to do the thinking job because during the day it is often difficult to find time to do that.

When I feel really challenged, I talk to my people and contemplate on why we are doing this and it helps me to regain my energy and refocus.

I believe that funding alone can’t make a startup, rather your idea, passion, and dedication, these are the things that carry you through during these difficult days of building a business because no matter how much money you have, you will have to endure the natural challenges of building a business. Money can solve certain problems, but it can’t build a business for you.

At Flight Expert, our priority now is to grow sustainably. We are eyeing for daily growth, doing things better than yesterday and do that consistently for a long time. For the OTA business, I would say that do not try to get each and every inventory you can get your hands on.

Focus on smaller steps and complete it first, then move on to the next bigger step and do not try to over-step because if you fall down or lose the capacity, your total business image goes down with you. One step at a time.

On the product side, we are working on a few new features. As I mentioned, we are about to launch a dynamic tour package designing platform for our customers where they will be able to design their tour plans including destinations to hotels and everything and see tentative budget instantly.

Future Startup

You are a sister concern of Makkah Group which is also a travel service provider with almost 24 years experience in the market, does that connection help you in your OTA business? What are the leverages you get from there?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

The first leverage is that I got introduced to the entire market in Bangladesh for flight and travel agency and with the international market as well. Makkah Group serves a different category of people who prefer offline service and we mostly complement their strength.

The most important leverage apart from the network is the knowledge about the industry. Travel is one of the largest industries in the world and it is complex with a lot of intricacies in it, we have been able to get an understanding of these intricacies because we are a part of Makkah Group.

It has also helped us to gain trust. This is also partly because we have maintained a seamless experience for our customers and worked hard to ensure that we keep every commitment that we make to our customers. As a result, we have been able to build a relationship of trust with our customers. We even saw some people that have given us advance payment and told us that he might book a flight tomorrow. This is not very uncommon as well for us.

We feel lucky that we could gain that much trust in the market. We try to become as transparent and honest with our customers that they feel safe with us in doing business.

Future Startup

What do you think about the competition in the market – one aspect is, of course, the number of local OTAs is growing and another perspective is international players and Airbnb, which in recent years has become a real competitor to hotels, may start operation in Bangladesh?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

I would say that Expedia, Agoda or any other foreign player for that matter are not coming to Bangladesh any time soon. There are several challenges here 1) international remittance from Bangladesh 2) the market 3) digital ecosystem in Bangladesh. I don’t think it makes operational sense for many big companies to start operating in Bangladesh.

Similarly, OTA is a relatively nascent sector in Bangladesh. There is Travel Booking BD, Go Zayaan, Biman Holidays, Haltrip and they are doing great in this space. There are some really good people who are shaping the OTA business in Bangladesh. I don’t think we are at a stage where we can compete with each other, rather this is a stage where we need to collaborate and grow and build awareness in the market.

Having said that, competition never kills a business. It is mostly complacency that kills a business.

We have been working hard to build a relationship of trust with our local customers and segments, we are investing in building a superior product, and ensure superior service to our customers and we are constantly finding ways to offer best possible offers to our customers. We are mostly concerned about whether we can execute on these areas rather than worrying about potential competition. I think worrying about competition does not help, it is the action that does.

At the same time, We understand this market better than anyone. We have been in this business for over 23 years now and we have exclusive customer insight that allows us to make better decisions. I don’t think anyone can have this leverage if they simply want it.

Do not be rigid in your strategy. In business and life, things often change and you need to adjust according to the demand of the market and time. That’s why when you become inflexible in your way of doing things, it does more harm than good. Be flexible and be open to new experience and learning and way of doing things.

Future Startup

What are your future plans?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

On the product side, we are working on a few new features. As I mentioned, we are about to launch a dynamic tour package designing platform for our customers where they will be able to design their tour plans including destinations to hotels and everything and see tentative budget instantly.

The ambition is to give more freedom to our users when they are planning a honeymoon or a special trip and enabling them to simply do that. We don’t want to dictate your dream trip plans, you plan it and we simply help you to make it happen.

We have also been working to offer special Airfare rate to our customers. Mr. Saeed, our CCO, has been working with the Airlines for a while now and we are hoping that we can come up with some good deals in the next 6 months.

Another big project is our mobile application. We are working on it and plan to launch it mid this year. Our main focus is to enhance the customer experience not just before purchasing the tickets but also after sales as well. Improving customer experience is a consistent matter of discussion at Flight Expert. We are regularly looking for new ways to serve our customers better.

We also plan to go for venture funding to expand our business. We see a huge opportunity in this space in the next couple of years and we will need investment to fuel that growth. At the same time, being a digital platform we do see solid opportunity in other similar markets in the future.

Future Startup

Apart from the commission, many OTAs also earn from advertisements. Are you exploring anything around advertising?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

We are not, at this point in time. We do see Expedia and many other large OTAs do this kind of thing. Their advantage is that they have been in this business for many years and they have a huge user base, it would take a long time for us to get there.

We are not eyeing this option yet. We may explore it in the future.

In order to build a business, you need three things, as I mentioned earlier, dedication, patience, and honesty. If you are dedicated to what you are doing, if you can endure struggles, and be patient at the face of challenges and if you are honest in your dealings, I think it should help you to grow.

Future Startup

How does your commission work? Is there any uniform commission that you get from hotels and the airlines?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

It is a standard commission just like everyone else. For Airlines, we receive variable commission structure depending on sales and for hotels, it varies depending on several factors, still, it is a standard rate.

Future Startup

What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far? What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem

In order to build a business, you need three things, as I mentioned earlier, dedication, patience, and honesty. If you are dedicated to what you are doing, if you can endure struggles, and be patient at the face of challenges and if you are honest in your dealings, I think it should help you to grow.

Do not be rigid in your strategy. In business and life, things often change and you need to adjust according to the demand of the market and time. That’s why when you become inflexible in your way of doing things, it does more harm than good. Be flexible and be open to new experience and learning and way of doing things.

Work hard and build lasting relationships with people, even if they are your competitors. Take, for example, my friendship with Mr. Kashef Rahman of Travel Booking BD Ltd. We did not know each other but we became very good friends once we got to know each other from the same industry and together we are now trying to build awareness in the industry.

There is no point in dwelling on your past mistakes, learn from your mistake and move forward.

One more time, this story is made possible in part by our friends at SSLCOMMERZ, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. SSLCOMMERZ is the country’s largest and most reliable payment digital payment facilitator with over 2000 partners. Team SSLCOMMERZ works hard every day to enable your business online. Make payment simple for your customers, today. Learn more here.



Notes:

1. Interview and edited by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Mohammad Tashnim, thank you Rahatil Ashekan for reviewing the interview.

2. Further reading on the travel industry in Bangladesh here.

3. Photo credit: Flight Expert

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