The United Nations has officially pronounced 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. This indicates the importance of the sector and offers an enormous opportunity to further showcase the intensity of economic, social, cultural, heritage, and environmental value that the sector can bring. One region that has truly seen a tremendous rise in travel and tourism is the Middle East.
With the Middle East leading, the region being young, with 40% of its population under the age of 25, the travel industry in the sector finds itself at the helm of a change which is both generational and demographic driven. The signs of these were identified early by Bader Al Bader. In 2013, he developed Rehlat as a proof of concept to identify the potential technical and logistical issues which might hinder the success. This proof of concept remained until end of 2014 when Bader decided to take the helm and launch the fully operational website with an in-house team covering everything from technology to marketing. Finally a finished product, Rehlat was launched in January 2016. However, promotion was still restricted to Kuwait.
It was in the summer of 2016 when Bader and the Rehlat team was finally convinced with the product and decided to launch Rehlat beyond Kuwait. The idea was to move slowly first with Saudi Arabia and then the UAE.
“This gave us an opportunity to understand market needs. We stepped up our efforts in October 2016 which resulted in increased transactions on the website. This also encouraged us to keep moving. Today, we believe, with all our efforts, we are in the top three online travel companies in the Middle East with business being supported from offices spread across India, Dubai, Egypt and Kuwait,” says Bader, CEO and Founder of Rehlat.
Bader opines that “There are two kinds of OTAs in the Middle East. The regular offline agencies who want to go online with a ready-made booking engine. In this case, it is easy to start but once launched, will the company be able to handle the demand, varying needs of customer service, developer issues and more so exponential growth? The other kind, according to him, are the serious OTAs, which barely account to three to four in the Middle East.” Rehlat is safely in the latter category.
Localization was the key to where Rehlat is positioned today. The company has taken care of minute details like making the website available in both English and Arabic to keeping a customer service department who can talk to customers in their language, be it English, Arabic, or Hindi. In addition, Rehlat has kept the needs of its consumers in mind by providing the right price and product. For eg: Listing flights not only from Riyadh to Dubai or other regions in GCC but also to other popular destinations like Mumbai, New York, London, etc.
“It is not just mere transactions in terms of volume but also dollar value that matters. We are constantly working on methods where we can get more high-value transactions. Keeping these values in mind, we are growing at a fun pace but responsibly with actual returns. The returns are evident with a 20-fold increase since 2016 especially with expansion into KSA and UAE. We also have a substantial percentage of repeat users which is above average for this market. The team confirms that most of the new users are referrals of the satisfied customers and this further confirms that we are doing it right;” adds Bader.
Rehlat has has seen immense traction not just because there was demand in the market but also because of its speed of execution, research & development on new product ideas and quality of customer support.
Amanpreet Singh, COO, Rehlat belives that “the key to success lies in execution and taking decisions at lighting fast speed. By the time your competition thinks about his next action, you should have already launched the product to test the waters by checking the concept of minimum delightable product. If the data says customer adoption is there, you should quickly build on top of it and launch the full version.” He further mentions the benefits of making quick decisions and failing fast, as it allows you to learn quickly and evolve. Rehlat had a lot of operational challenges when there was sudden traction, and we took a step back and optimised our processes quickly; today we are sitting at a NPS which is north of 70 showing the trust that users have for Rehlat and says that the company is indeed here to disrupt the market.
Bader and Amanpreet want to take Rehlat to the next level in the existing markets before planning further expansion. With a current geographical spread across Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, Rehlat is exploring the other GCC countries too and have a plan in hand.
Rehlat also puts a lot of focus on security. Bader adds, “Every OTA should ensure that their risk rules are set up properly which should be a part of their operations. They should have a fraud section to flag off whether it is a risky transaction or asking for additional documents from customers or even handling chargebacks. Companies today need to be more proactive than reactive.”
With a strong foot hold in flights, hotels are the next target for Bader and the Rehlat team. “This is something we are doing well. We have just started focusing on hotels, but this will be a major part for us. Currently, we are working through suppliers who will always be our partners but we will consider eventually going direct to hotels,” he adds.
With flights and hotels in place, Rehlat has now introduced the region’s first eWallet loyalty program, Karam. Rehlat is the first OTA to do so and now all registered customers of Rehlat are eligible to use Karam on Rehlat.
With Karam Cash, customers enjoy quick bookings, attractive offers, easy instant refunds, and no chance of payment failures. The Karam balance is now available for flights only, but soon will be available for hotel reservations too.
The duo sign off on the note, “The Middle East’s travel landscape is changing and so is the story of Rehlat. We want to be the disrupting factor in the Middle East’s travel space at a level where when people think of travel, they think of Rehlat.”