Flight Expert is one of the earliest online travel agencies in the country. Started as a small operation of seven people, the company has seen an excellent growth over the past few years and is now a leader in the OTA space. Flight Expert helps travelers with everything from flights and hotel bookings to planning tours and has built a reputation in the market for excellent customer service and the use of technology for solving travel problems.
In an interview with Future Startup, published in 2019, Mr. Salman Bin Rashid Shah Sayeem shared the founding story of Flight Expert. This is the inspiring birth story of Flight Expert, which again confirms our hypothesis that most births are nonlinear and seldom follow a structured well-planned path. Happy making 🙂
Back in 2012, Internet-enabled services was not a mainstream thing in Bangladesh. In Canada, however, I came to see a different scenario. I was in Canada for higher studies and it was a life-altering experience. The Internet was almost the default mode of doing things - from booking flights to buying anything and everything.
Fast forward 2015, my father and I had a conversation about his declining ticketing business. I suggested him to go online and develop something like makemytrip.com in Bangladesh. He took it and 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 the time.
In 2016 January, I was having a Skype conversation with my parents. I told them that I had passed CPA level-1 and received an invitation letter from a renowned CA firm in Canada to join them. I told them that I had decided to join. My father listened to me and then asked me to return to Bangladesh almost immediately. The next thing he sent me a ticket and that was it. After three months, on April 2016, I returned to Bangladesh and joined Makkah Group as the Managing Director.
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 which made many things easier for us. I had all the resources to start my task.
I studied 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 group 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). I contacted them for collaboration and get an 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 called TBO HOLIDAYS. Mr. Sadat Hossain, our COO now and Mr. Abdul Goni Mehedi, our CTO now, were with me at the time. In fact, we have been friends for a long time. I shared the idea with them and asked them to join me and they agreed. That’s how our journey began.
I also talked with Mr. Gaurav Bhatnagar, the Co-founder, and MD of TBO about the GSA. Finally, we got the GSA in July. 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, the 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.
After much preparation, on March 01, 2017, we launched Flight Expert through a launch event in BICC.
Right after the launch, we had some good joint campaigns with The City Bank and American Express that helped us to create a good buzz in the market and generate immediate good traction. We 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 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.
My initial plan was to build a platform to help people plan their tours and travels by providing them information - building an aggregator platform where you can find real-time information and make an optimal decision about your travel.
I was not looking to build an OTA business at first because I was not sure about whether people would use an online platform for flights and hotels booking. I was dead wrong because it has been proven that people do use OTA. Despite my not so hopeful outlook, after much thought, we went for the OTA business and started offering flights and hotel booking services online.
We started our operation in March with a team of 7 people in a humble manner. Over the last year, we have grown significantly as a business as well as a team.
The major problem for any OTA is to get the IATA certifications. It would cost around $50,000 to get an IATA and 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 fortunate to have ‘Makkah Group’ that has been doing this for over 20 years and never missed an airline payment due date. So we were lucky from 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.