Sadia Haque is the Co-founder and CEO of ShareTrip. ShareTrip is one of the earliest and most important players in Bangladesh's travel industry. Starting as an offline travel services company, ShareTrip has gone through several metamorphoses over the past years and transformed itself into the leading OTA in the country, while also helping transform the entire travel scene in Bangladesh.
ShareTrip turned three last month. On the eve, Future Startup’s Ruhul Kader sit down with ShareTrip Co-founder and CEO Sadia Haque to discuss the evolution of ShareTrip, the state of its business and operation today, and the ambition of the company going forward, and the future of travel and travel services industry in Bangladesh. The conversation offers rare insights into one of the fastest growing and most important travel-tech companies in the country and a penetrating glimpse into the future of travel in Bangladesh. Enjoy!
Ruhul Kader: What are you busy with these days?
Sadia Haque: We are doing a long list of exciting things at ShareTrip that keep me occupied. Back in 2019, when ShareTrip started, we were a predominantly B2C company. Coming from the offline world, we successfully established ShareTrip in the market as a front runner. Then COVID happened and all industries, including tourism, took a major hit.
We planned to explore the B2C market first. We were not thinking about domestic travel and the B2B market. We wanted to secure our position in B2C first. COVID forced us to rethink our strategies. That was when we came to see a huge potential in the B2B offline travel agency market.
Offline travel agencies were struggling due to the pandemic and the lockdown. We’ve always been a tech-first company with a strong technology team, one of our biggest advantages over other OTAs and non-OTAs. When we saw the market reality, we decided to get into B2B travel.
The lockdown started in March 2020. We launched our full-fledged B2B platform in August of the same year. The product took off right out of the gate. Between August 2020 and mid-2021, we onboarded 3500+ offline travel agencies on our B2B platform. From our experience in B2C, we knew how the market. We received an excellent response from offline travel agencies. They were happy to convert from offline to online.
However, we were not sure whether these agencies would stay with us after the lockdown. We didn’t expect the growth to continue after the pandemic. But we’ve been lucky. Even after the pandemic, we continue to experience steady growth in our B2B business. Today, we have almost 7000 agents on our B2B platform.
Launching the B2B business was a major and successful step for us. It not only complements our B2C business but also strengthens our demand aggregation power allowing us to leverage the market power to get better inventory and pricing on both ends of our business.
The pandemic affected everyone negatively. Airlines struggled because demand was not there. They couldn’t leverage their distribution channels. We helped airlines to generate sales through our platform. In fact, we quickly became one of the top three sales channels for airlines in those days.
Outbound travel was completely shut off during the pandemic lockdown. It was a difficult time for travel companies everywhere. We didn’t have a domestic travel business before the pandemic. We’re working on some initiatives but did not have a full-fledged run. When outbound travel got nixed, we thought of doing something for domestic travelers. So we built our hotel inventory management platform ST Rooms for domestic hotels. We launched both of our B2B platforms in the second half of 2020.
If you look at domestic hotels, technology adaption is not common. Many of the inns and hotels don’t even have Facebook pages. After launching the ST Rooms, we started reaching out to the hotels, onboarding hotels from 1-star to 5-star. We provided them with training manuals, video tutorials, and other support. Our sales team trained them both online and offline. Then we started showcasing domestic hotels on our B2C platform. It didn’t take long to get the attention of our users who started to check domestic hotels on our platform. We could sense that there is a need but are not sure whether people want to book a room through an online platform. Particularly when it comes to local hotel booking. We are trying to change this mindset.
There is no official record of how many hotels we have in Bangladesh. Civil Aviation maintains a hotel registry. However, most hotels register with the local authority. Our estimation is there are 3000 to 3500 hotels and resorts. We have onboarded more than one-third of them. Currently, ShareTrip’s hotel inventory is not only the largest in Bangladesh, but it is larger than many large global platforms including Agoda, booking.com, Expedia, etc.
These are some of the things we have been working on. We have transformed our business model from B2C to B2C2B. The B2B business has generated additional sales and growth. We have been able to leverage the market power to get special rates, deals, and extra incentives from our B2B partners including airlines. Since we generate an excellent business for them, it makes sense for them. It has allowed us to offer better rates and inventory to our B2C customers. Our B2B agents are happy because they get better deals.
Our business operation has grown significantly. The team has more than doubled. We have recruited some senior and experienced professionals from the aviation and hotel management industries. It has not only increased the strength of our management team but has also elevated our standing in the industry.
When many companies had to struggle and endure difficulties due to the pandemic in the last two years, by the grace of Allah, we had a rather smooth journey. We introduced new products, hired new people, and launched new verticals. When everyone was laying people off, we actively recruited throughout the pandemic. We formed several new teams and expanded our customer service, marketing, and tech teams. So COVID was a blessing in disguise for ShareTrip.
Ruhul: That’s an excellent overview of what you’ve been up to of late.
Sadia Haque: We have been providing an end-to-end travel solution to our users from day one. Another significant area we’ve focused on is gamification. We‘ve introduced several gamification features to improve engagement. A new feature called ”Have you been there?” encourages users to share their travel experiences, while allowing us to generate valuable insights about places people visit or want to visit.
We’ve introduced several pandemic-specific features over the last two years including providing COVID testing facilities and enhanced EMI facilities, etc.
We’ve also done meaningful work in medical tourism. We’ve brought in local and international suppliers to build out our medical tourism services. We will not provide the services. We’ll be working as the liaison platform. Turkey and Dubai have become major hubs for medical tourism. We are working to build our service portfolios in those hubs.
We have introduced a real-time flight tracker and automated visa services. The automated VISA service allows people to do all the preliminary VISA application works from our website without coming to our office. Once you complete the preliminary work, you will just need to drop the necessary documents at your office.
During the pandemic, travel was in constant flux. Airlines were changing their policies every few weeks. Travel guidelines were changing all the time. There were a lot of uncertainties. We got bombarded with questions from our customers.
To address the challenge and provide our customers with better customer service, we revamped our entire website. We introduced a dedicated information center to inform our users about various restrictions and travel guidelines. We introduced a live feed of travel advisories and travel information, similar to a blog, enabling travelers to get the latest information about traveling restrictions and guidelines. It not only improved our user engagement, but it also increased our traction, MAU and DAU.
We’ve introduced a major initiative that immensely benefits our users. All the OTAs and non-OTAs depend on GDS as the ticketing distribution system. However, we came to see that many airlines are doing NDC content, where you can directly integrate Airline API on your platform and bypass the GDS system. It allows the platform to get direct feeds from the airlines’ inventory, which means you can access the premium inventory and get better pricing since you are getting the prices directly from the airlines.
If you go to any airline’s website, you will see that they have different fares for GDS and their website. When you can directly access the airline's feed, you can show better pricing to your customers. We are the first platform in Bangladesh that has direct NDC done with several major legacy airlines including Singapore airlines, Qatar airlines, Emirates, and multiple LCC airlines.
The product development and the agreement for the NDC content have been completed. The commercials are also completed. As of now, no one in Bangladesh has done NDC content. As a result, our customers both on the B2C and B2B platforms get access to the premium feed of the airlines.
All these changes have contributed to our growth in terms of sales volume, customer retention, and engagement parameters over the last two years. Our retention has gone through the roof. The leading global travel platforms such as Agoda, booking.com, etc, maintain a retention rate of 72%-75%. Our retention at ShareTrip has been over 75% in B2C. B2C and B2B combined it is over 80%. This proves that whatever we are doing is working.
Ruhul: How much has the travel industry changed over the past two years if you consider the pandemic? How will these changes affect the industry going forward?
Sadia: The impact has been felt on two sides: the customer side and the supplier side. Being an OTA, we depend on our suppliers to serve our customers.
The pandemic has severely restricted the movement of people last two years. People couldn’t travel. After staying at home for a long time, people now feel the need to go on a vacation and travel. From the November/December of 2021, travel has resumed on a small scale. Today, 40% of our sales come from our B2C segment and we hope it will grow further in the coming days.
The pandemic has accelerated digitization in Bangladesh. An upside for online businesses. People have come to learn about the usage of digital services. For instance, we’ve been able to onboard a significant number of offline agents to our B2B online platform. It was relatively easier for us to convince them to convert online because of the timing, which would have been difficult for us to in any other normal time. These offline agents have become our loyal customers. Before, they had certain misconceptions about online platforms. When they started using our platform, they came to see that online offers many benefits. Online platforms are 100% transparent. You can serve your customers 24/7. Payment is secure. All these things played an important role in our B2B business growth. Today, we have almost 7000 agents onboarded with ShareTrip.
Overall, the impact of the pandemic has been a mixed bag for us. While our consumer business got affected like everyone else, we used the time to build an entire B2B business within a short time. We launched several products that received excellent feedback from our customers. In B2C, the uncertainty of traveling was out of our control. For B2B, the impact has been more constructive.
On the suppliers' end, both airlines and the GDS were struggling. Naturally so, given the hit international travel took. We tried to support them. At the same time, we received excellent support including technical, handling urgent cases, etc from the airlines and GDS. The airlines came to recognize the importance of the work OTAs do. Our collaboration with the airlines deepened during this time. It was a win-win situation. Collaboration is still playing a significant role in the industry.
Tech has transformed travel over the years. ShareTrip is a travel-tech company. But we also recognize the fact that no matter how advanced your technology is, travel is ultimately a human activity. If your service does not have the human touch, your business will lose its competitiveness. We have always made sure that our customers get this sense of humanity when they interact with ShareTrip.
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been fortunate to onboard some of the top industry experts from the aviation industry during the pandemic. We’ve hired some experienced people. Our team has grown.
There have been apparent downsides as well. Every industry suffered. Demand fell. Lockdowns and restrictions made it impossible to operate many businesses. Travel was one of the worst hit industries. The strategic decisions that we made allowed us to navigate the pandemic relatively safely. But I would say we could have grown even more if the pandemic didn't happen.
Ruhul: The pandemic seriously affected international travel. International travel was mostly off-limit in the last two years. Naturally, local travel across markets saw increased activities. Many industry experts predict this trend will continue and more people will prefer domestic travel over international travel in the coming days. Because people will remain cautious because of various uncertainties they faced while traveling internationally. Is the situation still the same? What is your take on this?
Sadia: This happened when there were travel restrictions everywhere during the pandemic. People were worried about traveling internationally. There were uncertainties. Uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic. Falling sick. Ever changing various restrictions. Moreover, there were various travel requirements such as a mandatory quarantine period, etc. People didn’t want to take a risk.
Since international travel was out of option, domestic tourism peaked during the pandemic. We had the highest sales of hotel inventory at that time. Domestic tourism in Bangladesh also flourished.
But I would say international travel is on the rebound. From December 2020 onward, our B2C platform started to grow again. Consumer travel has returned. For instance, our B2C travel now stands at 40% of our total sales. Since travel restrictions have eased globally, people have started to travel internationally again. In fact, we are seeing an acceleration in international travel.
Domestic travel will continue to grow but I don’t think it will happen at the expense of international travel. People will continue traveling globally.
However, we can leverage this growth to improve our domestic travel infrastructure. Domestic travel should be more convenient and cost-effective than international travel. It is still very expensive to travel within Bangladesh. We have a ton of tourism opportunities in Bangladesh but we have to invest and work to make the environment conducive.
Ruhul: That’s an interesting observation that domestic travel is expensive in Bangladesh. Why do you think domestic travel in Bangladesh is expensive?
Sadia: Although we are a hospitable nation, we have a long way to go when it comes to standards in hospitality in tourism yet. Premium high-quality travel services remain expensive in Bangladesh. You can travel internationally with the money you have to spend to travel locally. We still lack hotels that are in the 5-star category. The good ones are very expensive. While some people can afford it, many can not. We need to improve hospitality management.
Ruhul: Can you talk about the OTA market in Bangladesh? Please give us an overview of the changes in the OTA market, competition, challenges, etc.
Sadia: The OTA owns some 15% of the entire travel market of Bangladesh. But if you look segment-wise, for instance in airline sales, OTA’s market share is over 30% of the total industry. Within the tickets, there are segments where OTAs have a higher market share. For example, if you are looking at Dhaka-Bangkok-Dhaka airline tickets, Dhaka to Bangkok is considered one segment, and Bangkok to Dhaka is considered another segment.
OTAs have seen excellent growth over the last two years. The market share of online travel agencies has grown from a mere 5% to over 15%. If everything goes right, our estimation suggests OTAs will contribute to more than 35% of the total travel industry within the next 5 years.
Sadia: It is encouraging that a lot of new OTA players are entering the market. It proves that the market is changing and there is a growing demand for online travel services. It is a positive thing for the industry because more players mean the industry will grow further. The offline travel services market will remain. But we also see a healthy growth room for digital travel services.
That said, the Bangladesh travel industry has a long way to go. If I compare us with other markets such as India, we are still decades behind in terms of everything when it comes to OTAs. We can’t chase this chasm only with technological advancement. It will also require customer awareness, literacy, and knowledge. The good thing is that many of these changes have already started. However, I would say our pace of digitization is relatively slower than many other markets such as the Philipines, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc, where digitalization is happening at a much faster rate.
To that end, new OTAs entering the industry are a good thing. It will help the sector grow. It will increase the opportunities for our collective growth.
Sadia: The next thing I would like to touch upon is the inbound tourism in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis travel across the world. The outbound travel from the country has been growing consistently. But we haven’t seen much growth in inbound tourism. This is something where OTAs can play a role by attracting international travelers to Bangladesh.
If we can help inbound tourism grow, Bangladesh will earn more foreign currency, earn more revenue from the tourism industry, which will directly affect the GDP. At ShareTrip, one of our ambition is to be a strong contributor to growing inbound tourism in Bangladesh.
Coming to the challenges, the lack of policy guidelines remains a challenge. We have seen initiatives to develop a policy framework for several new digital industries such as e-commerce, digital financial services, etc. The tourism industry, however, still does not have any such body to drive this kind of initiative. We have Civil Aviation, Bangladesh Parjatan Corporation, and Bangladesh Tourism Board as our regulatory bodies, which are government or government-backed organizations. We don’t have any comparable private sector organization that can talk about the OTAs and various needs of the industry. So policy direction for the industry is a setback in my opinion.
The second challenge is a much-talked-about one. Payment remains a challenge in Bangladesh. Sending money abroad from Bangladesh is still complicated and no legislative policy has been implemented to cater to this section of the Tourism and Hospitality Industry. This limits our ability to expand our services and work with various international partners.
To grow the industry, we need to expand our ambition. We need to see how the other leaders in the tourism sector operate across the countries. Even Pakistan, which is commonly known for its political instability, has started to receive a lot of attention from international tourists of late. Bangladesh continues to struggle in that area. Industry stakeholders need to come together and take constructive initiatives for the growth of the tourism industry.
We have started a collaboration with the sections of the ICT Ministry to figure out what can we do for the growth. Everything is going digital nowadays. A few industries such as health, agro, education, etc, however, get more attention than others. Albeit these are critical industries and relevant to a great number of people. But that does not make travel any less critical an industry.
We need to understand that tourism is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. People travel for all kinds of purposes. People go on business trips. Family trips for urgent matters like medical check-ups. Of course, people travel for refreshments and to renew. But that is no less a need than others. To that end, we need a concrete policy framework to take the online travel industry forward. Otherwise, we will fall behind and miss out on growth opportunities.
Ruhul: We discussed ShareTrip briefly. Can you give us an overview of ShareTrip? How big is your team now and can you talk about your business such as users, operations, etc?
Sadia: We started our journey back in 2019 with some 10-15 people on our team. We’ve come a long way from there. Today, we’re a team of over 165 people.
We’ve aspired to build an organization from the beginning. We have designed our systems and processes with that in mind. We’ve built an open, flexible culture where our people enjoy a lot of freedom and are sufficiently empowered to make decisions, learn, and grow. We have also built a hierarchy because otherwise, it is hard to function in a disciplined manner.
We have separate departments for different verticals and services with sub-divisions. We’ve separate teams for B2B and B2C. A separate corporate business team. Finance and accounting teams. Then we’ve HR, Admin, marketing, customer service, and tech teams. All these teams function independently and also collaborate.
Kashef and I, both come from corporate backgrounds. We worked for some of the largest multinational companies in the country. Over the years, we have built a team with people who have experience working for large companies. Many of our colleagues complement our experience and skills. To that end, when building the organization, we’ve taken into consideration all the parameters necessary to run a company successfully. We’ve tried to use our previous experience and learnings. We’ve used the experience and insights of our colleagues. The combined effort has helped us to build an organization and operational structure which can easily beat many other online platforms. We can even go head to head with MNCs that have a similar structure to ours.
Our teams are led by unit heads. We have a strong team of CXOs who come directly from the aviation industry and have more than 15-25 years of experience. When you have a strong management team, the experience and expertise trickle down to the junior level.
Although we have a hierarchy to maintain discipline and communicate the fact that there is room for career growth for everyone, we maintain an open-door policy. We have a friendly and collaborative environment. Our team members treat this company as their home which makes us believe that we have built something amazing. While the senior management team comes with a lot of experience, most of our employees are young, which means we have an excellent blend of experience and youth.
Entering the B2B market was a major milestone for us. Compared to the pre-Covid situation, our GMV has grown almost 30X year-on-year. We hope to continue this momentum into the next year.
Ruhul: What are the challenges for the company now?
Sadia: To continuously make a difference. When you run an OTA and want to differentiate in the market with a strong competitive edge, you need to have a unique product and have to innovate continuously. Now innovating consistently is not easy. Because we have to understand what our target audience wants. You just can’t innovate mindlessly.
I might think that a certain service is necessary, but our customers don’t want it. It will not work. Understanding your customers and staying current with what they want is the key challenge.
Ruhul: What are some of the priorities for ShareTrip going forward?
Sadia: ShareTrip is the largest OTA in the country and all data will vouch for that. Our main goal for the coming year is to maintain our leadership position in the market.
Second, we want to build meaningful differentiation so that people choose us over other services. We have consistently launched unique features and we want to continue that.
Today, static competitive moats no longer work. You have to constantly create competitive moats. That is where we want to position ourselves in the upcoming years. We plan to add more value-added services to our platform. We have a few services in making and plan to launch them this year.
Domestic tourism is something we plan to work on. We also want to promote inbound tourism in Bangladesh. We want to collaborate with associations and stakeholders to grow the domestic tourism sector of Bangladesh.
Ruhul: How big is the travel industry in Bangladesh? In our last interview, you mentioned that people travel more than these days due to various cultural changes. What are some of the emerging trends in travel?
Sadia: Per 2021 data, it is almost a $2.5 billion market including flights, rails, Hajj, and all services. If things go well, the market is projected to reach $7 billion in the next few years. Our macroeconomic environment has all the positive signs. We’ve seen some major infrastructural developments in recent years. This will increase mobility and domestic tourism is likely to grow manifold.
Similarly, outbound tourism will continue to grow, where we are expecting at least 10X growth momentum.
Travel used to be exclusive in the past, accessible to only a certain group of people. Moreover, mainstream acceptance of travel as a worthwhile cultural phenomenon was absent. It has changed over the past years. Demographic change is a reason. Young people today are more into travel. Globalization has played a role. We are much more cosmopolitan today. We are constantly getting exposed to ideas from across the world. So far a greater number of people are into travel today.
The second aspect is that the cost of traveling has gone down. People can travel on a low budget. We’ve seen a proliferation of travel-related services. Travel agencies today offer group travel packages making it possible to travel on a low budget. Associated services such as Airbnbs, car rental services, etc have entered the market. The concept of boutique-ins has grown up. Although I don’t know how much success the concept like Airbnb enjoys in Bangladesh, boutique-type hotels and ins should play a positive role.
We now regularly hear terms like Staycation and Workation. There are so many definitions of travel right now. All types of travel, such as family travel, business travel, etc will set different trends in the market.
People travel for all kinds of purposes today. It is not only vacation alone. We have all kinds of travelers who need all different types of services. This offers excellent growth opportunities for the industry.
Travel has become so huge over the years in Bangladesh that we now have travel vloggers. This was not the case even a few years ago. Today, we have celebrity travel vloggers. It indicates the growth of the industry.
These are all positive changes. In the future, more diversification will occur. The pandemic was a difficult period for the entire industry, but it has also made it clear that the future of travel is up and towards the right.