On NOVOAIR And The Business Of Air Travel In Bangladesh: An Interview with Mesbahul Islam, Head of Sales And Marketing, NOVOAIR

On NOVOAIR And The Business Of Air Travel In Bangladesh: An Interview with Mesbahul Islam, Head of Sales And Marketing, NOVOAIR

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NOVOAIR was established in October 2007 as an aviation service provider in Bangladesh with a vision of “Excellence in Aviation’’ and the motto “ART of Aviation’’. The company launched its commercial operation on 9 Jan 2013 with Embraer 145 jet aircraft. Later the Embraer fleet was replaced with ATR 72-500 turboprop aircraft. The airline currently operates to all domestic destinations in Bangladesh with one International destination to Kolkata. In July 2013, NOVOAIR launched Smiles, the frequent-flyer program of the airline. Smiles is the first frequent-flyer program for domestic flights in Bangladesh’s aviation history. Since its inception, NOVOAIR has proved to be an innovative airline. Over the past years, it has experienced steady growth and aims higher in the coming years. Travel is one of the fastest growing sectors in Bangladesh. A growing number of Bangladeshis now travel regularly. If growing middle class and booming economy is anything to indicate, the travel industry can go only one way: up. This offers immense opportunities for companies like NOVOAIR.

In this immensely interesting interview, we sit down with NOVOAIR Head of Sales and Marketing Mesbahul Islam to learn more about NOVOAIR, how Novoair operates, how people work at NOVOAIR, how sales and marketing work at NOVOAIR, the state of air travel business in Bangladesh, the future of air travel business in Bangladesh, we discuss how Mr. Islam operates and approaches his work, his management philosophy and much more. We hope you will enjoy the interview as much as we did.

Future Startup

Could you please tell us about yourself and your journey to what you are doing today?

Mesbahul Islam

I was born and brought up in Dhaka. I started my formal education at Nazrul Shikkhaloy, a school located in Moghbazar area. I did my HSC from Tejgaon College and my pass course graduation from Notre Dame College. I then went to Jagannath University to do a masters in Political Science. I also did an MBA from Northern University later. That’s about my academic background. Apart from formal education, I did a couple of diplomas and courses on a range of subjects including a few foreign languages from institutions like Dhaka University Language Institute.

I started my career in 1991 at a small travel agency called Aerolina Travels Ltd as a Sales Executive. After working for three years there, I joined Kuwait Airways as a Sales Representative where I worked for two years. I then worked at Emirates GSA as an Executive and later as a Senior Sales Executive. I worked at Emirates for eleven years. Then I joined Cathay Pacific Airways GSA where I worked for four and a half years and when I left I was Deputy General Manager there. I joined Cathay as a Unit Manager and later promoted to Deputy General Manager.

I joined Qatar Airways as there Sales Manager in Bangladesh. With them, I spent two and a half years. I left Qatar Airways and joined a startup I should say, a new venture by an already established company called Al Fahad Air Ticketing and Medical Tourism. They were planning to get some airline GSA and I join there as a CEO. I was there for eight months only. Then I joined Sheltech group. Speedy Int’l Ltd, a concern of Sheltech Group, has been appointed as the general sales agent (GSA) of UAE-based budget carrier Rotana Jet for Bangladesh and I joined there as a Deputy General Manager and Head of Sales. I worked there for a little more than two years before joining NOVOAIR. I joined NOVOAIR as Head of Sales and Marketing on 16th April 2017. It has been about two years now. It has been a wonderful journey so far. That’s my career so far.

If you ask me about my personal life, I’m happily married and a father of two beautiful children. That’s me.

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Flight Expert, being the most prominent Online Travel Agency (OTA) in Bangladesh, is making life easier for every traveler around the globe. From booking domestic and international flights to reserving hotel rooms for your trip, Flight Expert have it all in one place, within the reach of your fingertips.

We Provide:

  • Flight Booking
  • Hotel Reservation

Enjoy:

  • Instant booking
  • Book Now Pay Later
  • Pay with EMI

Support:

  • Get 365 Days dedicated Customer Support

Contact us:

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Future Startup

You started your career at a travel agency, was that a deliberate decision that you wanted to build your career in this sector?

Mesbahul

I started working full time right after my bachelors. It was more on the side of studying – I was studying and also working on the side. I was working full time and pursuing my masters in the evening shift. It was not a deliberate decision and was not something that I put a lot of thought into. It was something that came to my way and I took it up. More of a serendipitous thing.

My father was an airline professional. He was with Bangladesh Biman for a long time. He suggested, since I was considering to start my career early, that I may consider joining a travel agency. The intention probably was that if I get some experience working at an agency it would eventually help me to move up in the ladder in the travel industry. That is how it started.

Future Startup

What kind of a person you were growing up?

Mesbahul

I was an introvert throughout my childhood and even in my youth. I’m probably a different person today. People say that I am an easy and friendly type.

Future Startup

Could you please tell about your work at Novoair as the Head of Sales and Marketing?

Mesbahul

Sales and marketing is certainly one of the most important departments in any airlines. The work we do, which involves ensuring that customers are using our services and are happy with our services, is something that is indispensable for us as a business. So, in a way, we deal with one of the most important and sensitive aspects of the business.

It is a challenging job. Sales has a day to day component to it. You have to do things on a daily basis and meet certain targets on a daily basis. Similarly, it has the excitements and thrill of doing something worth doing. I enjoy my work tremendously. This is something again I learned from experience that you have to enjoy your work if you are to succeed at it. I need to enjoy my work otherwise I won’t succeed.

Being the head of sales and marketing, there is a day to day aspect to my job which I need to look after and ensure that happening at an optimal level. We are a small team at the marketing and sales department and we work as a team. I believe in decentralization and delegation. I delegate works to my people and give them enough authority so that they could perform their job better.

Future Startup

How big is your team at the sales and marketing department?

Mesbahul

We have a thirteen-person team who are based in Dhaka. They directly collaborate with me on a day to day basis. Then we have a call center and ticket offices that also is the responsibility of my department. We have managers and supervisors who basically look after the operations of the call centers and ticket offices.

We have teams and offices outside Dhaka including Chittagong, Sylhet, Rangpur, Syedpur, Khulna, Jessore, Cox’s Bazar, Barisal, Rajshahi, and all over Bangladesh. These are small teams. We have an office in Calcutta where we have a small outsourcing team. I get daily updates on all of these teams. I interact with them on a daily basis. I delegated responsibilities to my marketing and sales managers and they take care of the managerial issues.

There are so many things and priorities to attend to on a daily basis. Essentially, I have to prioritize if I want to be effective. I put a good amount of thoughts into setting my daily priorities and then pick accordingly.

Everyone in the team knows what they need to do, what is their job, KPIs and all that. They simply work based on their KPIs. I certainly monitor and review. I monitor closely on a daily basis for which I have got a rather manual process. That’s how I operate and collaborate with my team.

Future Startup

Could you give us an insight into your daily priorities and to-dos? What are the things that keep you busy on a day to day basis?

Mesbahul

I have two teams and two segments of the business that I and my team is responsible for: sales and marketing. These are two different things.

In sales, we have reservation and ticketing unit and then there is sales promotion. These are the daily job. On the other hand, marketing is not really a daily job. It is basically a higher level job such as designing the strategy and then following it through campaign and execution.

We have an annual strategy and plan for both the sales and marketing communications and the team is advised to plan and execute accordingly. In most instances, I allow the team to make the decisions and steer the ship unless they fail and need my support. However, I maintain regular monitoring and get involved where needed.

Sales is more of a daily job. There is a call center, sales and reservation side of ticketing. We ensure that the call center is functioning properly and that the queries from the customers are properly attended. The proper functioning of ticket and sales offices is a priority as well. Ensuring that all the systems are working properly to ensure that our ticketing and sales operate smoothly, we look after that on a daily basis. I check with the sales team and other responsible offices everyday morning to ensure everything is running smoothly.

My top priority is revenue optimization. All my work is designed in a way to achieve that goal. I try to plan ahead for the next seven days flight. This is very important because everything that we do reflects on the passengers we help to travel on per flight basis. I look at the load percentage every flight basis and daily basis, look at the revenue trend, group movement, passenger movement, and everything.

I directly monitor these things. I look at the booking trend, the revenue trend, the upliftment trend and everything related to that on a constant basis. The systems are always on. I get to see the dynamics and the graph of the load factor as well as the revenue in real time. Many of our decisions are tied with how we are doing on a daily and weekly basis.

Future Startup

In terms of marketing and communication, what are some of the channels you are using regularly?

Mesbahul

This is the age of digital, so digital remains a key piece in our communication efforts. We are very active on Facebook and other digital mediums. We host and sponsor events where we believe our customers go, to keep ourselves active in the market, to keep the brand near our customers. Event-based promotion is a big part of our marketing communications. We routinely launch different offers on different occasions and festivals.

That said, when we partner with companies, we never compromise with the quality and integrity of the partners. It is important for us where we associate ourselves.

Future Startup

What percentage of your budget goes to digital channels?

Mesbahul

Digital has seen healthy growth over the years. If you are asking for a number, it is about 20% of our communication budget.

Future Startup

What are other things you do for communication?

Mesbahul

We don’t do TV ads often. That’s something that we do very infrequently. Reason being we actually don’t need TV. We do print ads when there is a proper reason for that. We go for sponsorships. Digital is a big part of our communication strategy as I mentioned earlier. We organize different events. We sponsor events and sports events. We spend a huge amount on souvenirs and gift items. That’s basically some of the things that we do.

Future Startup

How does marketing work in the airline industry? How does that differ from other industries?

Mesbahul

Communication is an important component in our line of business. Our product is distinct from telcos or any consumer products. It is a complex operation as well. We are a daily necessity for many people. On the price point, we fall on the spectrum of medium to high-end and there is a security component to it. We enable people to get from one place to another faster.

We need to keep the market informed and aware of our activities and operations. Most importantly, we need to inform the market about our safety culture and how we operate as an organization and how we are different from others. Although airline transportation is far safer than any other form of transportation, safety has become an important issue in air travel in recent years.

Due to various unfortunate events, many people are sort of getting discouraged from choosing air travel. As an industry, we need to keep our customers and market aware that we are a safety conscious and safety compliant airline.

At NOVOAIR, our priority is safety first. Then come the service and product and everything else. This is one area we always try to keep the market, keep the agencies, keep the customers informed that we are very much safety conscious.

At the same time, we are doing new things all the time. We are constantly coming up with new products, bringing changes in products, and service, for example, we have introduced a mobile application recently and launched web-based online checking. Our customers need to know these things. That’s where the role of marketing comes in.

Future Startup

Could you please give us an overview of Novoair such as products and services you offer as well as how you operate as a company and the culture at Novoair?

Mesbahul

We have a very friendly culture within the organization. Operationally, our Managing Director who looks after the overall operation and Directors oversee different departments. Then there are people like me heading to different departments.

Our operation is pretty decentralized. We have HODs like me who look after the operation of different departments and ensure the smooth running of the organization. Management team only gets involved when there is a need for that. We keep them updated through weekly meetings. There is not much bureaucracy. We are a very much flat organization and we make decisions pretty quickly.

We are a relatively small airline. We mostly operate in Bangladesh. We have one operation outside Bangladesh which is in Calcutta. We operate two daily flights to Calcutta. We operate multiple flights in almost all routes in Bangladesh. We fly to Chittagong, Cox’s Bazar, Sylhet, Sayedpur, Jessore, Rajshahi and Barisal every day. Our product is simple – we sell tickets both one way as well round trip.

We also sell packages and combination of hotel packages for two destinations – Cox’s Bazar and Calcutta. We are basically a passenger airline. Hardly we work on cargo.

Future Startup

What else do you offer for passengers?

Mesbahul

We have introduced our mobile app recently, our users can now book flights on the go. We have web checking facilities as well as users can buy tickets through our website. We work hard to ensure a seamless experience for our customers by enabling all touchpoints where they could reach out to us.

We are the first domestic airline in Bangladesh. Service innovation has been a priority for us from the inception. We have launched our co-branded prepaid card with Eastern Bank Limited to improve the experience of our users.

We frequently introduce campaigns and offers such as we recently did a campaign with Grameenphone where GP star members could get a 10% discount on ticket price. We routinely offer packages and benefits for our regular customers. We run campaigns with banks and credit card companies. We are always looking for ways to improve the experience of our customers as well give them better deals when traveling with us through various offers and collaborations. We are a full-service airline.

Future Startup

How many flights do you serve now?

Mesbahul

Presently we operate 24 round trip flights daily. Out of that two flights to Calcutta, our only international route, five flights to Chittagong, five flights to Cox’s Bazar, fours flight to Saidpur, four flights to Jessore, two flights to Sylhet, one flight to Rajshahi, and one flight to Barisal – we have basically seven flights to Barisal weekly.

Future Startup

How big is your team at Novoair?

Mesbahul

About 700 people work at Novoair.

Future Startup

How are you different from other airlines?

Mesbahul

We are a full-service airline. We may be a very small airline but we offer everything as the legacy carriers do. We give a meal, we have VIP type services for our passengers, we have emergency service from the departure gate to the aircraft gate and so on. We have a luxury bus service for passengers.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Novoair?

Mesbahul

There are some regulatory and policy related challenges. As a private domestic carrier, the support we are supposed to get from the government, we don’t get that always. For example, fuel price. We pay a higher price for fuel. That is a big time discrepancy we face. Contrary to that, our ticket price is very affordable compared to international airlines. But we pay a higher price for fuel and other things. That is a big challenge for not only us but also other players in the sector as well.

Future Startup

Why is that?

Mesbahul

That’s the policy. Apart from that, other charges such as parking, overflying, aeronautical and non-aeronautical charges are very high. These charges should be flexible and come down to a more comprehensive range for the local airlines.

Future Startup

What does it take to succeed in airline trade?

Mesbahul

Well, first of all, you should have a proper schedule that will help you build confidence in the market. Schedule maintenance is very important because you need to earn the confidence of the passengers. You should have a comprehensive product line that addresses the needs of the market. Safety, customer service – these are critical components.

Your people should be friendly, helpful when it comes to serving passengers and agents. The mantra is very simple. You design your products comprehensively which should be simultaneously reasonable in terms of price and also meet the needs of your passengers and agents.

Future Startup

What do you think about the overall airline industry? If you look at the indicators: an increasing number of Bangladeshis are traveling. Tourism has grown both within and outside the country? The middle class has grown. These encouraging signs but there are challenges as well. What are the challenges for the industry and major opportunities?

Mesbahul

Definitely, opportunities are there. The Bangladesh market is growing very fast. Even 10 years back we could not even think of an airline operating domestically will be successful. Now, you see the number of passengers has grown significantly. For people, time is money. They don’t bother spending three, four, five thousand taka to buy domestics tickets and travel within half an hour or maximum by one hour from one corner to another corner of the country instead of taking the bus with 15 hundred or 2000 taka, and blocked for the whole day in the street.

The scenario has changed. It is changing fast and the future is bright. We have seen a surge in terms of passengers numbers. You can see that the middle class in Bangladesh now have the ability to purchase. People are traveling more and more – both locally and internationally.

Unless there is something abnormal political situation or natural disasters, these trends will definitely grow in the future. That opportunity is there and it will grow. It means the aviation industry in Bangladesh has a bright future.

But we could grow further and faster. All parties like the government, national carriers, private operators, airport authorities, civil authorities in Bangladesh, tourism board, tourism corporation – they should all work together to take this momentum forward. Everyone should have a comprehensive plan and execute that so that this momentum continues and sustain.

Future Startup

How do you see the growth of the airline industry?

Mesbahul

Monthly growth you can’t calculate that way, it depends on the season. But year-over-year growth of air travel is very encouraging. If you talk about growth compared to 2015 and 2018, it’s more than a hundred percent.

Future Startup

How do you see the overall tourism industry? There are complains about destinations within the country that many destinations, for example, Cox’s Bazar, lack of facilities for tourists and travelers. How do you see the developments in this space?

Mesbahul

I agree in the sense that we have many beautiful tourists destinations in the country but most of these places lack in facilities for the tourists. If we could improve on the tourists’ facilities, it would have changed the face of the entire sector. Take Cox’s Bazar as an example. There are limitations of the infrastructure of course. Although air traffic has increased significantly to and from Cox’s Bazar over the last few years, it remains a challenging route. The airport is still very small and inadequate in terms of facilities. Though there is a master plan for the airport development still today the airport infrastructure is poor. It is not equipped to manage half of the passengers that travel through the route during the peak season. The airport is not also equipped to operate after 5 o’clock, so it closes by 5 pm in the evening which limits the business hour. You can’t operate any flight in the afternoon. That’s another major challenge of operating in Cox’s Bazar. The biggest limitation with the airports. There are many more areas where if we could improve our overall tourism industry would dramatically change.

Future Startup

You have all these digital touch points, what percentage of your customers come through digital channels?

Mesbahul

Digital is doing today not more than 20%. I am talking about tickets issued from the online mechanism.

Future Startup

Are you doing anything in particular to grow that number?

Mesbahul

Yes, we are running campaigns encouraging online purchase. We are giving a 10% discount on mobile and online purchase.

Future Startup

What are the goals for Novoair for 2019?

Mesbahul

In 2019, we want to be the safest airline in the country. We will do everything to achieve that goal.

Future Startup

How do you operate as an individual? What does a typical day of you look like?

Mesbahul

I take every day as a brand new day with new possibilities. I tend to forget what happened, what negative things happened yesterday. I take every day as a new day. I believe that is nothing is impossible. So, don’t get frustrated, don’t get demoralized fretting over what happened yesterday.

I subscribe to the idea that you should start every day new. The new day will bring everything new and everything fresh. That’s the philosophy that drives me every day morning and that is how I move forward with my day.

Future Startup

How do you operate on a daily basis and stay productive? Do you maintain anything like a notebook or stuff where you make todo list and so on?

Mesbahul

Oh, yes.

Future Startup

How do you do that?

Mesbahul

I have my personal notebook. I keep that updated every day with what I need to do on a daily basis. That is my everyday partner.

Future Startup

You started your career in 1991, it has been almost 28 years, a long journey. What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned?

Mesbahul

Life is beautiful. Don’t get bored. Don’t get frustrated. Don’t feel you aged. Try to be young mentally as much as possible. Last but not least, if you are honest, if you are sincere your days will come, that’s for sure.

Future Startup

Do you feel down? Sometimes a little bit when things are not working as a planner and so on?

Mesbahul

That feeling would come to every human being.

Future Startup

How do you deal with that?

Mesbahul

As I said, I believe that nothing is impossible. That when things get tough, it is not the end of the story. There is an end to everything. If you take proper actions, there should be light at the end of it, there should be some development. That is how I look at it and manage myself. I seldom give in to despair or a challenge. I’m a very optimistic person.

Future Startup

But then and again, when, say, for instance, something happens today and you feel a little down and you still remember that okay, things will get better. Tomorrow will be another day. But still, you feel down at least momentarily for a certain period of time. What are the things you do in that period of time? Do you kind of try to forget it or many people meditate?

Mesbahul

It happens. We all are human beings. As I said, I try to forget and overlook it. Second, I pray to almighty for courage so that I could face the situation.

Future Startup

What advice do you want to give people who are starting out?

Mesbahul

Be honest to yourself and all others honestly will spring from that. In many ways, our inability to tell the truth to ourselves is at the root of many of our problems. If you are going through tough times, be honest with yourself that you are going through a difficult period and then sit down and design interventions and then take actions to improve your life. The important step is to accept the fact that you’re in trouble. The rest depends on your honest with the self.

Future Startup

Any prediction for the airline industry for 2019?

Mesbahul

This trade will grow farther both in the domestic and international market. Business will grow as well as the number of passengers will grow significantly. I can see at least a 20% growth in the domestic market.

Future Startup

How do you see the international players coming to Bangladesh? We have seen the launch of a couple of Indian airlines in Dhaka and so on. A growing number of international players are showing interest in the Bangladesh market, what’s your take on that?

Mesbahul

That shows that the economy is growing and that the market is growing and that the opportunity is there. More foreign companies, foreign airlines are coming to Bangladesh means these are investments and they are investing in Bangladesh because they find Bangladesh an attractive market in terms of business, in terms of passenger number, and so on. I take these developments as very positive developments for us.

Future Startup

But how does that affect your business from a competition perspective?

Mesbahul

Well, competition will always be there. That we always welcome. When a new entrant enters the market we don’t necessarily take it negatively. We take it sportingly. Because when a new entrant comes into the market, they come with new products and new strategies. It pushes the market forward.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Mesbahul

In terms of personal philosophy, I would ask him to maintain a high standard of integrity. If you are a man of high moral standard, regardless of how much you achieve in life, one thing is guaranteed that you would sleep well.

Second, be serious about learning. Be curious. Learn and update yourself on a continuous basis on what’s happening around you.

Together With Flight Expert

A Message From Flight Expert!

Flight Expert, being the most prominent Online Travel Agency (OTA) in Bangladesh, is making life easier for every traveler around the globe. From booking domestic and international flights to reserving hotel rooms for your trip, Flight Expert has it all in one place, within the reach of your fingertips.

We Provide:

  • Flight Booking
  • Hotel Reservation

Enjoy:

  • Instant booking
  • Book Now Pay Later
  • Pay with EMI

Support:

  • Get 365 Days dedicated Customer Support

Contact us:

Flight Expert – all about your journey!

Please visit us here!

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Ayrin Saleha Ria.

The interview was taken in October 2018. 

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