A read-up on their swanky new app on the iOS platform, and a look-see at their impressive website later, we were sure of where we were headed. Cleartrip.com is a name that instantly brings to mind the image of pocket-friendly holidays tickets – that you might've indulged in too.
A quick rush through the busy lanes of Mumbai, and some interesting bits on the city’s mill days, courtesy an enterprising cabbie, we reached the Cleartrip office. We were ushered in, and in the walk through the large space we could see dozens of heads, buried in work, probably helping ‘you’ make that trip memorable, and of course, keeping their motto in mind, simple. We were there to meet Mr. PKX Thomas, and were eager to know more about him and the popular site. Below is our tete-a-tete with Mr. PKX Thomas, COO, Cleartrip.com.
PKX Thomas, COO, Cleartrip.com
Could you tell us a bit more about the profile you manage at Cleartrip?
Well! My profile at Cleartrip is multi-faceted. In a way you could say what jobs nobody else does, is done by me (chuckles). Technology has been an integral part of my profile here at Cleartrip, and fascinatingly it has been my steady passion, too. Apart from that, I do look after the business side of things, too. I look at the things on the product side, too. Also, HR operations are taken care of by me. So, in that sense, I don lots of hats.
What idea led to the beginning of Cleartrip?
Cleartrip was started between Stuart (Stuart Crighton, CEO), Hrush (Hrush Bhatt, Founder & Director), and a few others. At the time we began operating, the space was virtually empty. Booking a ticket, for most parts was a paid thing. If I wanted to book a ticket to some place I would have look out for a travel agent, whom I would expect to do the needful. I joined Cleartrip, somewhere around the same time as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers joined as investors to Cleartrip, i.e. end of July, 2006.
In India, the concept of booking a ticket online is still in its infancy stages, in such a situation, what were the risks you had in your mind before taking the plunge?
People are now changing their view pertaining to the idea of buying a ticket. We are experiencing a growth rate, which is currently higher than that of the airline industry. More and more people are now looking at websites like that of ours as a convenient option to buy their tickets from. The transition from offline to online is happening steadily.
Book while on the go..
Also, users have now understood that the online medium adds more transparency to the whole buying process. Like earlier, if you approach a travel agent to book your ticket, you were forced to believe the price he quoted, simply because there was no way you could cross-check. However now, that is not the situation. If the agent quotes you one price, you can visit us, and get the same trip costing you much lesser. However, having said that, these dual markets will continue to exist. The online medium is self-serviceable – you search, you pay.
However, the challenge that remains is that people have got used to conventional means of buying a ticket. The risk here was that when booked online, the ticket comes in an email, the print out of which has to be produced at the counter at the railway station, or the airport. It most definitely lacks the look, and feel of the good old ticket. Initially there was a lot of uncertainty about whether that particular format would be accepted. But, today, it is accepted everywhere. Also, the ease of the usage of our travel website instills the confidence in the user. In many ways, during the pre-purchase period, we empower the user to make the decision. Then comes the decision, in that, you will always pick something that’s more cost-effective, and not something that’s plain exorbitant.
Additionally, if for any reason, the user feels the need to change his purchase decision, then the quality of the services provided, refund given for the same, et al further helps us to build the confidence of the user.
What edge can I expect while booking my tickets via Cleartrip vis-à-vis the conventional ‘standing in a queue’?
These days, like I mentioned before, users have the option to check with the prices on our portal before they decide to approach a travel agent. This way the agent would find it difficult to make the customer agree to a pre-decided price, since the users will be armed with the knowledge that the fare is lesser, elsewhere. This helps to keep the prices down, and empowers the customer. So this way, even if a particular user is not an online travel booker, he will turn into one sooner or later, due to the confidence that we instill into his psyche.
What probably keeps the customer away from making a transition into the online space is the provision of security, or the lack of it that one usually experiences in the online space. A goof-up, or a glaring error in the online space can only be addressed via an email, on the other hand, in the offline scenario he has the benefit of reprimanding someone, even physically if need be. That’s probably the only difference.
Especially in times like these where you get to hear about hacking, what is the kind of security that Cleartrip promises to its users? What has been the most recent security addition that Cleartrip has added?
Security has been our prime concern since day one of our operations. For starters, we don’t make the user put down his credit card number during the transaction. Instead, he is directed through the whole process using an IVR number. Only then is he asked to punch in his credit card number. However, the information that reaches our database is encrypted. We store in the masked number of the user’s credit card, which is virtually worthless for a hacker, as using that he would gain nothing. It’s essential for us to store the masked credit number in our database, since it’ll help us redirecting any grievance queries of the user using the masked number provided.
You recently introduced your services, and optimized them for use on the iPhone, complete with Retina Display. Will the experience be just the same, like it would be while using Cleartrip on the conventional PC? What has the response been like?
With Retina Display..
Well, the experience isn’t exactly the same. In my view, a mobile device is meant to enable the customer. Usually, our travel decisions are on the spur of the moment. Suppose, I want to book my return to Mumbai, from Delhi, and I’m not in the confines of my room, or don’t have access to internet, at such times, the only thing that most of us have ready access to is a mobile phone. So, using our iPhone-optimized website and the Express Checkout feature enabled for HTML5, users can book their tickets directly using that. The best part is that except for the first time, users don’t have to punch in any details for any bookings, thereafter. So, the idea is that the mobile-optimized website will help the user make the purchase decision, and once he’s done deciding he can then log onto the site on his desktop and make the purchase. Currently, we have over 5,000 users using the mobile platform to make their searches.
So, currently, we have domestic flight searches made available, as well as trains. International will come soon, too. However, we plan to include hotel searches towards the end, since that’ll require a lot of bandwidth, and with the lack of 3G connectivity for the major part, it seems difficult now. Also, people don’t find it comfortable to book a hotel without seeing it, unless it’s someone who travels frequently. Also, the style sheets on our mobile platform optimize themselves, according to the phone.
Do you see people, especially in India, managing their entire trip (flights, hotels, and trains) on an online portal, like yours?
Truly, a SMALL WORLD!
Yes, to that effect, we have a new service that we launched – Small World – wherein the user gets all the information he wants to know about the place he wishes to visit. Using the Small World service, users can avail information on – currency v/s rupee rates, places of interest, weather updates, photo gallery, maps, traveller ratings and reviews, flights, hotels, time zone details and other details.
What concept, technology would you tout as the next big thing for Cleartrip?
Now, on your smartphone..
When travel and technology converge, it is the end user who’s set to benefit, for sure. Suppose, last few seats are available in a particular flight, the airline will never want to sell it at a cheaper cost. So, we are working on a way to get around that – convincing the airlines on how to do it. That way you will have the customer choosing a flight over his frequented mode of traveling, thereby adding more value to the entire chain. We’re planning to add a car booking service, too.
Chief Operating Officer, Cleartrip, COO, credit cards, domestic, Express Checkout, fares, flights, hack, hotel reservations, international, iPhone, IVR, masked number, Mobile, optimized, PKX Thomas, Search, Small World, trains, travel services, Web services