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Riding the wave of change: The role of online travel companies in shaping the future of travel in Bangladesh

Travel in Bangladesh has changed and is also changing Bangladesh in return in the process. Travel has changed in volume, frequency, and as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Today, more Bangladeshis travel locally and abroad or at least see travel as an aspirational goal. The taste of and approach to travel has changed. People now explore many shades of travel, from solo to staycations to backpacking. More importantly, travel today is an established cultural phenomenon in Bangladesh. And with the rise of online travel services, how people purchase or access travel services has changed too.

Technology and innovation have played an important role in this rise of travel. Just 10 years ago, there were almost no online travel agents in Bangladesh. Most travel services were offline. Trust was a huge issue in travel. This started to change about five-six years ago when a small number of online travel agents, commonly known as OTA, started to offer travel services online. 

Online travel agents have not only made travel services easily and conveniently accessible, but they have also made traveling visible and relevant to more people. 

This is now transforming the travel market in Bangladesh. 

The second-order impact of the rise of online travel companies 

This year's travel season, now drawing to a close, has been busier than ever, despite the apparent economic downturn and consumers tightening their belts amid growing inflation and economic uncertainties. 

The air travel traffic trend in Bangladesh
The air travel traffic trend in Bangladesh. Source

As shown in the above graph, the number of Bangladeshis traveling has grown and reached almost the pre-pandemic level. The interesting part is more and more of those trips are being booked online. 

Freed from having to ring busy call centers or visiting the offices of travel agents braving notorious Dhaka traffic, consumers are going online in droves to research and plan their travel, and find flights, hotels, and other travel services. 

This has turned travel into one of the most successful e-commerce verticals in Bangladesh. Travel was ideally positioned to be an internet business. 

By designing websites and apps that regular consumers could use, online travel agents were able to put product availability and price transparency at customers' fingertips. This is changing travel. 

Even though the online travel business is less than ten years old in Bangladesh, its impact has been enormous. 

You can measure its impact across various metrics such as the ease of access to travel services, the growing importance of online travel agents, the market share of online travel services, etc. 

But the most important impact has been on the rise of travel itself as a cultural phenomenon. 

Bangladeshis used to travel before but the penetration of travel as something you do as a culture was limited. Online travel agents have helped transform this phenomenon. 

Take, for instance, ShareTrip, one of the leading travel-tech companies in the country that has played an important role in accelerating the rise of travel in the country. The company has not only played an important role in the growth and adaptation of online travel services in Bangladesh, but it has also helped travel reach more people. Platforms like ShareTrip have made travel visible to more people. Humans are mimetic. When we see photos of exotic places and see other fellow humans traveling to those exotic places, we crave that same thing. By making travel visible, OTAs have pushed travel to become a cultural phenomenon. 

Online travel platforms like ShareTrip have also made travel services more accessible. You can go to the ShareTrip website, research, and book all these services that you need. In fact, you can not only book air tickets and flights, but you can also cancel and get your refund in case such is needed. For example, ShareTrip has introduced a stream of new innovative services to make travel accessible digitally to everyone. The company has helped build trust in online travel services by delivering excellent customer service.

Moreover, online travel agents help airlines and hotels by making their offers more visible to a greater number of people. 

Combinedly, these changes have made travel visible and accessible to more people. 

Before, people didn’t know where to go to book hotels or a flight. It has become more doable over the years. 

Since the internet is the most efficient way to take a booking, airlines and others have also encouraged customers to book travel online by partnering with OTAs such as ShareTrip and others. 

Everything moves with the sentiment of customers and the market. As consumers became more accustomed to buying travel over the internet, suppliers had to join in too. 

A lot is already known about how people like to shop online for travel. A significant percentage of consumers start their travel planning online. People usually visit local and international travel websites to know about their destinations, check their options, compare costs, and plan trips. 

Industry insiders reckon about one-third of Bangladesh's $7 billion travel market will be booked online in the coming years. The number currently stands between 10%-35% depending on who you ask. Some segments such as airlines are already seeing a significant surge in online booking. 

To see more clearly what is happening, you can break down the travel market into a few parts: leisure travel, business/corporate travel, Hajj, medical tourism, and other related travel. All these segments are growing and their online shares are as well. 

Many online travel agents are now expanding into the corporate market with a series of bespoke services. The services are proving popular. 

ShareTrip has launched several services targeting corporate travelers. The company has been exploring partnerships with companies to offer benefits to their employees. 

This massive shift to online travel is not unique to Bangladesh. This has happened in markets like the US and Europe in the past. Bangladesh’s neighbor India has seen a similar rise in online travel in the recent past. 

While still far behind the markets mentioned above, Bangladesh’s online travel market has shown significant growth over the past several years. It is far from being dominant also means that the potential there is huge. Certainly, the internet has been one of the biggest drivers of change in travel in Bangladesh. And companies like ShareTrip are pushing the trend. 

Innovations and incentives  

As online travel becomes more important, the extent of services begins to matter. Being comprehensive gives online platform advantages in serving customers better, thus attracting more customers, and thus cutting deals with suppliers, and spreading the costs of their operations over more customers. This has led to the launching of comprehensive travel services by several online travel companies in Bangladesh. 

Take above mentioned ShareTrip as an example. The company offers a long list of travel services online: air ticket booking, hotel booking, tour packages, travel insurance, baggage protection, automatic online refund and cancelation, and a host of other services. On top of that, the company routinely releases new services. Innovation is central to how it operates. 

Let’s look into some of the innovations and incentives ShareTrip provides to accelerate online travel adoption in Bangladesh as a case for how OTAs are changing travel. 

ShareTrip has over 2.5 million international hotels, more than 1100 domestic hotels, and hundreds of combinations of flights to every country on its platform. The large hotel inventory allows users incredible flexibility in choosing the best hotel. You can compare prices, and amenities, and then confirm the booking. 

ShareTrip also spends a lot of time and resources carefully curating hotels and offering sufficient information about the hotels it onboards. Much of the travel experience depends on the hotel you stay in. This is why ShareTrip provides a lot more information than just the ability to look at hotel amenities. 

On top of it, ShareTrip has introduced a long list of features and services to make travel simple for everyone. Most recently, the company has launched the country’s first co-branded travel credit card with Mastercard and EBL. 

Through partnerships and strategic initiatives, ShareTrip has helped bring down the costs of various travel services. It has partnerships with several airlines that’ll allow ShareTrip users to access premium flight inventory at better prices. Lowest-price guarantees are an important incentive for customers. ShareTrip says it doesn’t view travel as a luxury, but rather as a common freedom and aims to make it available to all. 

Travel insurance is not common in Bangladesh. For domestic travel, it is hard to find companies that offer travel insurance. Online travel agents are now changing that. ShareTrip has introduced domestic and international travel insurance in partnership with insurance partners that covers protection against diseases, accidental hospitalization, including daycare treatment, or even death, making travel more secure and allowing travelers to take on any adventure without worries. 

Refunds and amending a booking are some of the major pain points for travelers. The offline process involves a lot of time and hassle. ShareTrip has recently introduced online flight change, date change, and refund services, and so far the only travel tech company to do so in Bangladesh. Customers can now reissue their flights by changing the date, time, or route according to their preferences. It also allows auto refund and cancellation services on the ShareTrip app and web platform. Consumers no longer need to call their travel agent or wait for email replies. Just a few taps to get refunds or cancellations started. The service will reduce hassles and improve the experience for customers. 

ShareTrip domestic travel insurance
Photo by ShareTrip

One-stop travel services 

The internet is fascinating in that it allows aggregation. You can organize and aggregate myriad services into one platform. If you are a vertical service provider, this aggregation can prove more useful. You can aggregate all the services in your vertical. Since many vertical services are interconnected and closely related, it also makes everything easier for customers allowing them to enjoy a smoother experience. 

Aggregation on the internet works because consumers also prefer platforms where they could find comprehensive services. More so, if it is about a particular service. To that end, travel is perfectly suited for aggregation. Someone who is traveling to Cox’s Bazar should find it easier to get all his needs such as flight booking, hotel booking, and activities in one place. This proclivity of customers also makes online travel services more lucrative. And online travel-tech companies are following through. 

As we discussed, ShareTrip has positioned itself as a one-stop destination for all travel services. It offers all the relevant travel services and is adding new services that are novel to the industry on a regular basis. 

ShareTrip has not only built a diverse distribution channel, but the company has also made it a priority to provide the best experience to users across platforms. The company continues to put its website and app at the center of its strategy. New features are introduced regularly based on user feedback and requests. It has implemented a chatbot to streamline customer queries and respond to them faster. Features like airline seat preference options allow users to choose their preferred seats easily. 

Not only that, but ShareTrip has also been working to make its app daily relevant to customers. Travel services are not a daily necessity. You need these services once in a while — every few months or once a year. That can be a challenge if you are looking to build lasting relationships with your customers. It can also cause difficulties in reaching a wider audience. 

To address this challenge and make its app regularly relevant to its users, ShareTrip has introduced fascinating ideas. A series of gamification features encourage engagement within its app. 

It has built partnerships with banks and financial organizations. It has partnerships with many lifestyle-based shops and outlets. Routine campaigns are run in collaboration with these partners. 

Some partnerships offer additional ShareTrip benefits to the employees or users of the brands/companies. For instance, a partnership with Grameenphone’s GP Star program will provide discounts and preferential treatments to GP users on the ShareTrip app. ShareTrip is working to expand these partnerships. These partnerships can accelerate ShareTrip’s growth and app users. 

A second kind of partnership looks to collaborate with different brands from lifestyle to fashion to food with the goal to provide additional benefits to ShareTrip app users. Similar to a loyalty program,  if you are a ShareTrip app user, you’ll be eligible for discounts and other benefits from these partner brands. 

If it works, it can increase ShareTip app engagement, improve user retention, and strengthen its moats. It also means whenever these users will need travel services, they will buy them from ShareTrip since they already have the ShareTrip app.

ShareTrip has long stated that it wants to provide complete travel solutions through its app and website. These new initiatives are a step in that direction. 

The focus is to offer greater value to customers, not just through travel but through experiences that can enrich their everyday life. But it has regardless fueled its growth. 

The invisible network effect 

There is a network effect in play. When you offer multiple services, one service can reinforce the other. Someone who buys a flight is likely to book a hotel as well. 

The network effect also favors the big platforms. The deeper the inventory and the greater the number of users, the more information a website will contain and the cycle reinforces itself. 

ShareTrip is also trying to expand beyond the basics of travel and offer more destination services, such as activities in Cox’s Bazar or a sunset cruise in some other destinations. The goal is to play the network effect and further reinforce the market power. 

The journey ahead 

Websites have already become the most important shop window for air tickets, hotels, car rentals, and many other travel services. 

But there is more room for growth for companies like ShareTrip. Offering customized and diverse services to regular travelers and corporate travelers. Making travel services accessible to more people by bringing down the costs. Everyone loves low cost. Even wealthy long-haul travelers are just as tantalized by low prices. Many use the internet to research and plan their journeys to find lower rates.

Building trust in customers is also an important task at hand for online travel agents. Improving the customer experience is a gateway to do that. In the world of online services, experience matters. It is an essential part of any flywheel and competitive moat you want to build. To that end, companies like ShareTrip have their task cut out. Travel is going online. There is no doubt about it. It has gone online to a certain extent. The rest depends on time and how players in the vertical decide to play. 

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