Flight Expert’s Growing B2B Business And The Business of Travel in Bangladesh: An Interview With Saeed Ahmed, CCO, Flight Expert

Flight Expert’s Growing B2B Business And The Business of Travel in Bangladesh: An Interview With Saeed Ahmed, CCO, Flight Expert

Saeed Ahmed is the Chief Commercial Officer at Flight Expert, a leading OTA in Bangladesh, where he runs its B2B business. Prior to joining Flight Expert, he worked at MGH Group, Malaysia Airlines, and Amadeus.

In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about: his journey to what he is doing today, his work at Flight Expert, Flight Expert’s B2B products and business, the art of sales, what are the challenges for OTA business in Dhaka, Flight Expert’s B2B ambition, his management philosophy, and so much more.

Enjoy the conversation.

Future Startup

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us. Please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing now.

Saeed Ahmed

I was born in Dhaka. To be accurate, inside the cantonment area, my father used to work with the Bangladesh Air Force. I grew up seeing helicopters, fighter planes and people working these fields.

My father had a dream that I would join the Air Force or the military, but my mother did not like. But I always wanted to do something with planes. After his retirement, my father, who was an aircraft electrical engineer, joined Biman Bangladesh Airlines where he served more than a decade. This gave me the opportunity to see another aspect of the airline business. That solidified my wish to do something with airline further.

By the time I graduated, I was quite determined to get into a profession involving planes and traveling. There were many options and one of those was working at travel industry.

At that time, there was less opportunity to pursue education on tourism like there is now. There was only one diploma course offered by the Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation’s National Hotel & Tourism Training Institute (NHTTI). In 1998, they used to offer 7 different courses and out of those, 6 were related to hotel management and only one was related to travel – the TATO, Travel Agency and Tour Operation. It was 18-week course and I enrolled in it.

Immediately after I finished, I joined a travel agency where I worked for 6 months. My mother wanted me to complete my Master Degree, so before joining the TA, I promised her that I would leave the job once my result comes out and do my degree which I did. I left the job and I enrolled for my Masters.

After my Master’s results, I naturally started looking for jobs and thankfully I got one right away. I joined MGH Group in their Airlines business. They had a growing aviation business. They had 4 GSAs at that time – South African Airlines, Garuda Indonesian, Air Mauritius and Egypt Air. All of them were offline in Bangladesh. They were looking for a reservation personnel. I applied and got selected. My goal was to learn as much as possible. I was very sincere from the day one.

After 3 months, my supervisor forced me to work in the sales department, even though I didn’t want to. After long conversations, he made me see the future of a career in sales and customer service. In 2002, I finally started going out for sales, which was the beginning of my journey towards where I am now. I started visiting travel agencies, selling our airline tickets.

In 2008, MGH got the GSA of Air Arabia. That was when they moved me from offline to the online airline as a Sales Manager for Air Arabia Dhaka. That was the first low-cost airline in Bangladesh and it was a new product. In Bangladesh, low-cost airlines were not the norm. Hence it was an exciting experience for me. I had airport duty initially, apart from operations and I was doing sales calls. We started that by selling 3 flights only. Then we moved on to 5 in the next month and so on.

After a while, I was transferred to Chittagong for managing Air Arabia business in Chittagong where they launched flights to and from Chittagong. Again it proved to be exciting because it was an entirely new market for me. I worked hard and learned a lot while developing the market. I worked there until 2013.

At the end of 2013, MGH got to represent Biman Bangladesh Airlines in Myanmar. Biman was planning to start flights there and they appointed MGH as their local partner and I was sent to start the operation in Myanmar. But neither MGH nor Biman had any ready-setup related to aviation there. I was a one-man show there. I had to go through a lot of challenges while I was there. I had to set up everything from scratch. Within 3 months, we had established everything and we were flying in no time.

After a year, I left MGH and joined Malaysian Airlines as their GSA manager. After that, I got an opportunity at Amadeus, a European company that provides solutions to the Travel Agency, Airline as well as to the OTA also. I joined there as a Business Development Manager.

As I mentioned, Amadeus provides services to OTAs. While working at Amadeus, I met Mr. Salman while he was starting the OTA business. I was working closely with Mr. Salman from Amadeus as it was the first project of its kind in Bangladesh. We had developed a good understanding from the beginning.

When he finally launched Flight Expert, he invited me to join Flight Expert. After much thought, I decided to join. That’s how my journey begins with Flight Expert

When I decided to move to Flight Expert, many people questioned my decision. Because Amadeus was such a big company and Flight Expert was just started and that too in a category which was entirely new in Bangladesh. That too in the travel agency category.

But I do not consider Flight Expert a travel agency. It is the same business, but it’s a different way of doing it. This is the first fully functional online travel agency in Bangladesh. I was keen to know the technology and how it works. Maybe I wouldn’t understand half as much as others would, but I still have my interest on how the back-end works and how the processes work.

I see a huge potential of OTA business in Bangladesh. I’m extremely excited to be a part of this company which is the pioneer of OTA in Bangladesh.

 

We have been giving hotel booking through TBO Holiday to our B2b partners. We have beta launched Flight Expert agent through which we are now allowing our agency partners to book flight tickets through our platform and get a commission for business they bring.

Future Startup

If you look back to your 18 years of journey in the travel industry, what are some of the biggest changes you see in the industry?

Saeed Ahmed

It’s 2018 and there are at least 15 universities that offer graduation courses on travel and tourism. They have full-fledged departments. But when I started my career, there were no such things.

Back in 1999, we had to issue tickets and all writings manually. One little mistake would render the whole document void. The customers had to be personally trained on how to handle the tickets and the documents. Even though the automated GDS system had already been launched back then, it was available at very limited agencies.

At that time there were no experienced people to handle technology. We used to go books and fare sheets to look for the prices. It was completely manually.

And now 17 years later, digitalization has brought over a huge change in our industry. In the blink of an eye now, the ticket is issued. We can find everything we need to do right at home and online. The search is now very informative and the people know it themselves what is needed to be done.

In our time, we had only one institution that offered travel and tourism-related education. In our batch, 42 students had enrolled in the courses at NHTTI. Including me, only 3 has remained in this industry. The rest have moved to other industries. On that time educated graduates didn’t want to join travel agencies and travel industry. The image was not so prestigious so to say.

Since I had a passion towards airlines, the industry was exciting for me. The traveling and the free tickets made it all worth it.

Now it’s changed. Flight Expert was started by a fresh graduate who studied abroad, who was actually interested in the travel agency business. Similarly, now we see a lot of graduates from renowned universities starting their career in this trade. The perception of people regarding travel agencies has changed due to its integration with technology.

In this industry, you have to know the globe; the countries, the cities, the attractions and the history. Back then, we had to scour a huge number of magazines, Newspapers, and maps to learn about a particular place. Now since Google has become so advanced, it’s a whole lot easier to learn the globe.

Again since I had a passion for it, I took it upon myself to learn and this learning is still with me. Now the people coming in have that same interest probably. The advantage is that they can learn much faster and easier than me. Back then people were unable to write proper emails or had to ask around to know certain knowledge that they needed. Hence it’s good for this industry because it has educated people now and things are much better.

Our service and thinking have improved so much. We have become more technological and the industry has gone through a drastic change.

Future Startup

Please tell us about your work as Chief Commercial Officer at Flight Expert. How do you approach your work?

Saeed Ahmed

I look after sales and business development for B2B business. We have some products. We are representing TBO Holidays in Bangladesh, with the B2B business module through working with agencies. We now have Flight Exper Agent as well which is our B2B business for ticketing. That’s one business I look after.

Our B2C business is mostly online. We are doing it through digital media and other relevant channels.

For B2B products, we require a person to go and meet our potential clients and talk about the product to that particular business. I’m heading that department.

I have around 11 people in the commercial department. They are responsible for B2B sales. They make cold calls and go out and meet our potential clients.

Apart from my personal sales efforts, my role is also to groom the fresh graduates and equip them to get their job done. To groom them according to the industry and teach them the sales techniques and business trends.

I enjoy my work. I have been in this industry since the beginning of my career. I understand how it works. But OTA is a relatively new concept in Bangladesh and Flight Expert is the first Bangladeshi OTA. I’m really very excited about our work here.

flight expert agent web screenshot on 2018-05-10-17_18_22 use

flight expert agent web screenshot on 2018-05-10-17_18_22 use

Future Startup

For B2B, your main customers are the travel agencies. What are the products for them?

Saeed Ahmed

We have been giving hotel booking through TBO Holiday to our B2b partners. We have beta launched Flight Expert agent through which we are now allowing our agency partners to book flight tickets through our platform and get a commission for business they bring.

There is almost 4000 Government registered travel agencies in Bangladesh. About 25% of them have the ability to issue a ticket on their own. This is called IATA. The rest don’t have ticketing facility at their offices. We have our own ticketing solutions for those non- IATA agencies. They don’t need to register for any other technologies; we will be providing them with login passwords and serving our service to them.

We have a separate website for our B2B business partners which is flightexpertagents.com which is separate from our B2C portal.

Usually, when an agency issues a ticket they get a commission. That remains the business model for us as well. When agents book ticket using our platform they get a commission from us. There are two options, they can mention an expected commission at which they would do the business. And then the platform also recommend commission. They can choose either one. And we approve based on feasibility on our end. This makes lives of agencies super simple. They don’t need anything. They simply bring customers and we do the rest for them.

Travel as a market has grown manifold. An increasing number of Bangladeshis are traveling these days. Both the inbound and outbound travels have seen a significant leap in the past few years. As we can see from the socio-economic changes, we will see even stronger growth in the coming days.

Future Startup

How big is your B2B business now?

Saeed Ahmed

We have started air ticketing last month under the name Flight Expert Agent. Our partners who are taking our TBO Holidays service, we are focusing on onboarding those travel agencies initially. They are already proven customers for us. I know their strengths and their abilities. We are giving the first stage of this product to them, who are already registered to another portal with us.

Since they are already our customer for hotel booking, we are now offering them to take our flight booking product as well. We have around 150 to 200 customers for our ticketing service. This is an independent product and is not connected with TBO Holidays product.

Future Startup

How do reach out to your client base, of course, we are talking about your B2B business?

Saeed Ahmed

B2B is a high involvement business. We are mostly doing direct sales. I personally go and meet our customers. Our sales team is also there to serve our clients in any need.

For contact, we have ATAB – which is basically an association of all the travel agencies in Bangladesh. They have a directory that lists everyone in this industry which is helping us to get the names.

So, it is mostly cold calling and direct sales at this point in time.

Future Startup

Since you have a substantial experience in sales, what does it take to be a good salesperson?

Saeed Ahmed

Each and every person that can understand and communicate does sales every day. All of us are salesmen. We are selling every day.

People probably don’t realize that they are doing it. But every day we are selling one thing or other. Our relationships are mostly sales relationship. In every interaction, we are selling ourselves to the person. Since this happens beyond our conscious reality, we don’t often recognize.

Which means all of us have some kind of sales skills and salesmanship. When you work in a commercial setting, you come to realize this more consciously. If you can simply tap into your natural salesmanship and hone it to a new level, the entire task should become easier.

However, here are a couple of things that I believe are important to succeed at a sales job.

Firstly, honesty to the self and the organization you are working for. Secondly, loyalty to your organization and owning your product or service. When you own your product, it gets easier to sell it to other people. Thirdly, you have to have patience. Sales is a challenging job. Rejections are the norm. You have to pass through many hurdles and so much time before you actually succeed. So having patience and a sense of optimism in the face of rejection is critical to your success. And finally, dedication.

If a salesman possesses all 4 of these qualities, they will definitely succeed.

Future Startup

In your B2B space, what are the challenges for Flight Expert?

Saeed Ahmed

This is an industry that has been run by people who are very traditionalist. Young people with proper technology orientation are entering the market. But the number is pretty slim. Which makes education and adaptation, the main challenges for us.

The technological adaptation is the hardest for many of our partners. This where most our efforts are going. Having said that, people are willing to learn and try a new approach to doing things. We understand that there will be a significant challenge to making this a common thing, but we are seeing a good response from the market.

Growing our digital B2B business is my next priority. We already have a strong B2B business. It has grown pretty fast over the past few years. Now, educating the industry on digital integration and how to run the business on a digital platform and helping our partners to understand and take advantage of digitalization is a major goal for us.

Future Startup

There are a couple of OTAs coming into the business and there are other existing operations in the market as well. What do you think about competition?

Saeed Ahmed

After joining Flight Expert, every 15 days I would receive a call from many industry friends who are interested to establish an OTA. Hence, competition entering the market has been an up-close experience for me. As Flight Expert is the first OTA in Bangladesh, they wanted to have ideas. Even airline companies had contacted me to know how it all functions. I like the fact that we are providing information of some value to grow the OTA industry in Bangladesh.

We are very open about sharing the idea behind Flight Expert. Agencies that are just starting out are contacting me, willing me to advise them on how to move forward and what are the challenges. We try to support.

The market, particularly OTA, is pretty nascent. The priority for us now is developing the market. Once the market is there, then we talk about competition. Since we are an early stage market, for us building awareness is a priority and having more players in the market help in growing awareness. Then the players who offer the best product and the services will be leading the market.

Future Startup

How is your B2B side doing in terms of business growth and revenue?

Saeed Ahmed

If I compare it to August last year to now, the business has grown almost 300%. Every month we are adding some value. Our overall business has been seeing a steady growth.

I joined as the 17th employee of Flight Expert. In the last 7 months that I have been here, our team has increased to 30 people. Almost doubled since the day I joined. That’s because our business has been growing.

Future Startup

What’s your overall take on the industry in Bangladesh?

Saeed Ahmed

The business has grown a lot. If you think about our domestic travel, there are 4 airlines, including our national carrier, who is operating domestically. As per market information, the last 6 years, our domestic travel has increased more than 500%.

When I started my career in this industry, there were 9 or 11 airlines who used operate internationally with only one flight to and from Dhaka. The number has increased to 24 now. The frequency of flights has grown too.

Travel as a market has grown manifold. An increasing number of Bangladeshis are traveling these days. Both the inbound and outbound travels have seen a significant leap in the past few years. As we can see from the socio-economic changes, we will see even stronger growth in the coming days.

Globally, travel is a huge industry. My take on our local market is that we are becoming a robust market ourselves.

The only regret that we have regarding our market is about our national carrier which Biman Bangladesh Airline. There are great national carriers starting from Singapore Airlines to Qatar to Emirates which are doing wonderful business. Not only they dominate their own hub, but also they are doing excellent business globally. If our national carrier had been strong enough we could have control a large sunk of these businesses.

I believe in mentorship and giving people necessary support and conducive environment to grow. Scaring a fresh graduate into an industry will not help you achieve anything. He/she has to speak and be comfortable enough to raise a question in order to succeed. Training is a key part of how I operate. Today these 12 people that we have might run their own OTAs in the years to come.

Future Startup

What’s your plan for the B2B business going forward?

Saeed Ahmed

Growing our digital B2B business is my next priority. We already have a strong B2B business. It has grown pretty fast over the past few years. Now, educating the industry on digital integration and how to run the business on a digital platform and helping our partners to understand and take advantage of digitalization is a major goal for us.

At the same time, we are doing business which means we have to earn a profit in order to sustain and serve our customers. To that end, we have some goals to achieve. We do invest in technology and try for ensure a better experience to our customers – and we need a return on our investment as well so that we can continue serving our customers.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy? 

Saeed Ahmed

Personally, I don’t believe in bureaucracy. At a certain point, it needs to be there but we are very much friendly to our colleagues. We are very much open as an organization and interact with each other without any barriers.

Respect is another component I take seriously while dealing with people. Regardless of position, we address everyone with necessary respect.

I believe in mentorship and giving people necessary support and conducive environment to grow. Scaring a fresh graduate into an industry will not help you achieve anything. He/she has to speak and be comfortable enough to raise a question in order to succeed. Training is a key part of how I operate. Today these 12 people that we have might run their own OTAs in the years to come.

Firstly, honesty to the self and the organization you are working for. Secondly, loyalty to your organization and owning your product or service. When you own your product, it gets easier to sell it to other people. Thirdly, you have to have patience. Sales is a challenging job. Rejections are the norm. You have to pass through many hurdles and so much time before you actually succeed. So having patience and a sense of optimism in the face of rejection is critical to your success. And finally, dedication.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Shabiba Benta Habib

Related reading

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

We Recommend

Type to Search

See all results
Shares
No Subscription? You are Missing Out!

No Subscription? You are Missing Out!

Join the tech and business leaders of Bangladesh who rely on Future Startup’s original reporting and in-depth analysis on business and tech industry of the country. 

Please Confirm Your Email Address By Clicking The Link We Sent To Your Inbox.