MakeMyTrip Group CTO Sanjay Mohan on using tech to navigate the Covid-19 turbulence
In the early months of 2020, online travel aggregator (OTA) MakeMyTrip found itself unable to keep up with the flood of flight cancellations and refund calls from harrowed passengers. Cut to a few months later, when the government began lifting travel restrictions, it had to ensure that it checked all travel compliance checkboxes and maintain customer satisfaction.
For India’s largest OTA player in terms of market share and a company en route to profitability in the financial year 2020, the pandemic presented a unique stress test that forced it to rethink its business growth.
“It was complete chaos during the initial months with lot of flight cancellations or change in dates. We could not take as many number of phone calls because ratio of people trying for cancellation and refunds as well as rescheduling their travel was very high. That had to be automated, instead of relying on answering calls from a call centre with limited staffing,” group chief technology officer (CTO) Sanjay Mohan told TechCircle.
When business took a backseat, the technology team at MMT focused on growing customer satisfaction and retaining existing customers. The company also increased spending on technology – including engineering, product development and user experience – to address the compliance requirements brought about by Covid-19.
“We had to extend the technology budget but also a lot of re-prioritisation had to happen. When there is less travel happening, the feature prioritisation is on customer satisfaction side rather than revenue generation,” Mohan told TechCircle.
The changes in lockdown announcements including guidelines on travel, reconciliation and government mandates on contact tracing of passengers and self-declaration by travelers changed rapidly on a week-to-week basis, leading to reactive changes in the product and technology. However, some of the integrations made with the airlines, hotel partners and cabs are long term and here to stay, Mohan said.
Founded in 2000, the NASDAQ-listed company reports revenues across three main streams of business – flight ticketing, hotels and packages as well as bus ticketing through redBus. The platform also partners with multiple vendors for providing cab booking services, such as Meru, electric vehicle platform Blusmart and others.
Due to Covid, the platform had to ensure compliances for each line of business. While state borders remained closed and bus ticketing took a hit, the focus was on airline ticketing as well as hotel and cab booking.
“Even before Covid we would provide a lot of ancillary services such as seat selection, meal selection and others. When Covid happened, online check in was made mandatory as airports did not want crowding at the counters. Seat selection follows online check in because if you don’t select a seat, you are assigned a middle seat by default and due to the pandemic people did not prefer sitting in the middle seat. Also, the boarding passes had to be generated online,” Mohan said, adding that it took the platform weeks to enable these ancillary services online with its airline partners.
“Not all airlines were in the same state of preparedness. Some of them did not allow automated check-ins through APIs,” he said adding that Covid has pushed technology adoption.
Similarly in case of hotels, MMT created contactless check-ins with partners by getting customers to upload their ID proofs online. Customers can collect their keys and directly go to their rooms, thus reducing crowding at the front desk. This is another feature Mohan said is here to stay, as are sanitisation of cabs.
“With our cab partners, we ask the driver to share evidence of sanitising the cabs through videos or pictures and of him wearing a mask covering the nose and the mouth – something which can be easily be detected by artificial intelligence. This serves as an assurance to the customer,” Mohan said.
Apart from enabling these features across different lines of businesses, Mohan added that MMT’s technology teams in Bengaluru and Gurugram have also managed to integrate their APIs (application programming interface) with banks and payment gateway providers for better updates on refund status.
“Again not all banks move at the same speed but we can now give updates to our customers on the exact status of their refund,” he said.
As part of continuing to expand its business, MMT has also managed to launch its site in Arabic for its customers in the GCC.
Other technology updates include ad-based monetisation of the company’s information page for checking flight status and personalisation of hotel experience for customers.
“We have been working on personalising the hotel experience based on how the platform understands a customer based on data points. We also worked on a price lock features for one of the airlines we work with,” said Mohan, adding that Covid accelerated the technology roadmap for the OTA.
The platform has been on the road to recovery with domestic travel reviving. MMT reported breaking even for the third quarter of financial year 2021 in January, at an adjusted operating profit of $5.2 million. Recently the company also announced raising $200 million from convertible senior notes to meet its working capital requirements.