Roshan Mendis is president of ZUJI and Regional vice president of Travelocity Asia Pacific. Sports is something that’s close to Mendis’ heart. His first lesson in leadership came from the sporting world. “You get a great team together and you play to win.”
He likens the online travel market to the game of squash. “You have to be strong and nimble and the player who can make a move two or three paces ahead of the rest will win.”
Three months into the new job of heading ZUJI and you can tell Mendis, who comes from Sabre, is intent on playing to win and dare we say, squash the competition.
He’s spent a good chunk of the 90 days on strategy and planning for the Asia Pacific region. “We are putting significant effort in growing the company and are looking at investment opportunities, particularly in this environment.”
The first piece of the puzzle was the recent acquisition of Travelguru in India. “The Asia Pacific online opportunity revolves around four key markets – China, India, Japan and Australia. India is an emerging opportunity and depending what reports you read, the online travel market will be worth US$10-12 billion by 2012. The OTA space will be roughly $2.5 billion and the accommodation segment, $600-$700 million by then.
“We felt that Travelguru presented a great opportunity to double down in an important market. With Travelguru, we are buying into the leadership position in the hotel space.”
The company will operate the two brands separately in India. “It was almost by accident that it’s such a good fit. About 12-18 months ago, Travelguru got out of air and focused on hotel. Travelocity will now have access to the same great content that Travelguru has.”
He knows too the competition will be intense in India – it faces Expedia and the big three local players, Yatra, Makemytrip and Cleartrip, which he said, make up 80% of the market. The Travelguru acquisition, he said, would allow them to compete differently in India.
Mendis said the company would continue to evaluate opportunities in the key markets identified. However he recognised the challenges in China and Japan. “Anytime you are dealing with a different language, it’s a difficult effort for a global player. Of course, if you get it right, it is extremely rewarding.”
And however you may perceive ZUJI – whether it’s a local or regional brand, Mendis is clear about how he wants to operate it – “as a global brand bringing a global proposition to travellers and suppliers but with a layer of very important localisation.
“That’s a tough balance to strike because it’s a moving target but it is important to find that balance by market.”
Beyond expansion, Mendis is also focusing on demand strengthening and optimising of the current business – “to push and pull on the key levers”, as he puts it.
With the current economic calamities, online travel has benefited, he said. “Consumers have flocked to online travel agencies for great deals and suppliers are pushing us to expand distribution and extend their deals.
“We have seen steady and increasing volume, however we have experienced a significant decline in average daily rate – about 20-25% across the region – and yields. But the volumes are more than compensating for that.”
Asked if there was a danger that online players could be whipping up “e-steria” by over-stating the potential of the online travel market in these price-competitive times, Mendis said there was little danger of that happening because he sees the potential as real. “Online penetration in very important markets is still relatively low and for them to get to matured market levels, there’s still room for growth.”
New tools – social media, search and mobile – can only help with demand generation, he said. While ZUJI is doing very little with mobile in the region, he said Travelocity was experimenting with global efforts “and it may be that they work better for Asia especially in markets which went from offline to online and very quickly to mobile”.
He sees social media as a great way to spread your brand, create awareness and personalization and customer engagement. “It is not yet the great transaction driver it could be but I can see social media being the next level of influence in transactions.”
And even though he’s only been in the top job for three months, I couldn’t resist asking him what he would have liked to achieve after three years. His answer: “An Asia Pacific business for Travelocity which will enable Travelocity global to participate in the travel and online travel growth that is going to take place in Asia Pacific.”
He added, “I am passionate and intent on building a successful business not just in terms of finance and market share but as important as that, a business that 200 people around the region feel proud to work for.”
As for what keeps him awake at night, Mendis said, “I suppose it’s the stiff competition in a market that’s changing quickly. If you are responsible for managing a business in this space, you could have a few sleepless nights.”
What keeps him focused though is the higher purpose of what he does. “I love travel myself and to be able to enable travel for others and doing that in a socially responsible manner in which the environment is taken care of is very rewarding, personally and professionally.”
More Mendis´ thoughts on:
Dynamic packaging: “Has it changed and revolutionized the OTA segment? That’s a difficult argument. There’s a bit of way to go. I don’t think it is the be all and end all of online travel. It is an important product in our portfolio for consumers and suppliers.”
Meta-search: “There is a niche space for it with very price-sensitive shoppers so yes, it has a place for the segment of the travel population it serves. If you look at the traction that the meta-search sites have achieved in this market, it’s not fantastic. Yes, it serves a useful function but is it the main way of shopping for travel? I don’t think so.”
The competition: “I watch all my competitors closely and with lots of respect. What Wotif has done in the accommodation space in Australia is pretty impressive. Ctrip in China is incredibly successful – the way it’s built a business that is so applicable to China.”