Six in itself is a perfect number, so say the Pythogreans. In keeping with the sentiment, TravelScapes in its quest for some of the finest professionals in India Travel, takes you on a journey with six first ladies of travel in India. After all there are six ‘perfect pitches’ in a “maiden” over!
TS GURPREET K. SEKHON
We start the story with a disclaimer. While we celebrate six woman professionals and their journeys through the years in the dynamic Indian travel scenario; as we explore the qualities they bring to the table as women, the challenges that the profession brings with it and their advice to women professionals in the industry, we do not –neither do they– perceive them as inferior or superior to men, they are simply professionals in a level playing field and boy! Do they play well!
Here are the stupendous six, in no particular order.
Managing Director, Outbound Marketing
How does one capture a live wire,− a highly charged beam of energy − on paper, in monochromatic hues? The task is challenging as one sets out to profile a woman as dynamic as Vasudha Sondhi, Managing Director, Outbound Marketing.
Even before she speaks, her eyes communicated an animated energy as her smile gives you a glimpse into the woman who is joie d’ vivre personified, not unlike the portrait of a Cuban woman by Ashish Chawla, that hangs on her wall. Behind her is a painting in tea stain by artist Bipasha Gupta −a deconstructed Durga, which is in keeping with her artistic side and a reminder of the unique village hide-out where she mentors art and artists.
However as Vasudha starts to speak, all that comes through is a true professional, with clear goals and a clearer strategy. As one travels with her through her story and that of Outbound Marketing, one cannot but be impressed and then dawns the realisation as to why is she so deserving of her reputation as one of India’s finest Travel Professionals.
Her writer mother and physicist father were not too approving of her career in hospitality when she informed them that she had passed her hotel management entrance. She smiles as she recalls how they had ensured that she got a degree in Public Administration in addition to her four-year diploma.
Campus placements got her offers from with both the Taj and ITC management programmes, where she chose the former. After a couple of years in F&B production and another three to four in F&B Service, she shifted to sales owing to the birth of her son and subsequently took a year’s sabbatical.
Even though she had risen to the position of Associate Director of Sales, before she took a break, on return she faced an industry, which was not too accepting of a young mother.As opportunities in hotels were not coming her way, she took up a job in a small travel outfit. PATA 1992, brought with it a wonderful opportunity and a chance to work in SITA World Travels, under the legendary Inder Sharma.
“What a personality!,” exclaims Vasudha, “I learnt so much from him!” She goes on to say, “ When you are with sales of an Indian hotel chain, your exposure is very limited. Working in SITA, I got a lot of exposure as I was doing international business development.” After having worked extensively in the company, Vasudha got the opportunity to work with the Meridian Group, a part of the UK based, Forte Hospitality Group at the time. The company wanted to set base in India and appointed Vasudha as the head of the Meridian team from a Sales & Marketing perspective. She subsequently a part of the New Hotel Opening team and went on to launch five Meridian properties in India.
It was, yet again, a huge learning experience for Vasudha as she led the India team and was reporting in to the Middle East office. “ It was a massive opportunity and a huge upswing in my profile, something I could live up to.” As she was enjoying her stint with the group, an ex-colleague who had set up a company in the US, was looking for an entrepreneur in India, who would own his business but would be an affiliate. While Vasudha was not willing to make a change, her husband Sanjay decided to take up the opportunity and established Outbound Marketing in the year 2001. A year later, he felt that there would be no perspective to the business without Vasudha who, after much deliberation, decided to take the plunge. “I was initially doorman to the Chairman and doing everything from sales to marketing, PR, strategy, making reports and doing just about everything,” she smiles.
It took four years to get clients who wanted to stay with the company rather than merely using it as a stepping-stone. While initially the company was experimenting with all kinds of clients, it decided to focus solely on the hotel business which was Vasudha’s forte as she knew both Indian and International hotel chains well.
Also, the company decided to focus on the Sales and Marketing, rather than the pure GSA model, with a firm focus on delivery. “We claim that we put sales back into the representation business, with our commitment to deliver numbers, “shares Vasudha. For the first 10 years, the company remained below the radar, focusing solely on clients. It offered them a customised sales approach and dedicated sales people who offered customers only their product, rather than clubbing it with a host of others.
2005 brought with it a chance to represent a few destinations and since destination management required a different kind of focus, OM Tourism was formed in 2008, to focus on the representation business. Sanjay currently heads OM tourism, while Vasudha continues to drive marketing and strategy in the company. Both OM Tourism and Outbound Marketing, today, have highly driven and empowered teams, which is one of the reasons behind the companies’ success.
“I can very proudly say that, today, we are unique in being the only ones in India to have such a good number of hotel chains, that have entrusted their brand to us,” shares Vasudha.
Coming from a highly professional family, Vasudha never thought of herself as a woman but always focused on realising her potential. She believes, “You cannot rest on your past laurels as you are only as good as your last win.”
On women in the industry she feels, “Though there are a lot of women in the industry, there are not enough women at the top There is a serious need to mentor women to get them the confidence to achieve what they are capable of.”
This woman of substance continues to inspire many, as she leads by example!
Ratna Chadha, Chief Executive TIRUN, is one of the most dynamic professionals in the Indian Travel Industry. A perfectionist with an eye for detail, Ratna is a leader who has inspired many.
A professional whose example is truly a motivation, to say the very least, Ratna has heralded cruise travel in India, along with her husband Gautam Chadha and currently heads TIRUN, the exclusive Indian Representative for Royal Caribbean Cruises with a portfolio of three of its cruise brands including Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises. As a leader who inspires by example, Ratna is constantly touching new milestones, crossing landmarks and setting new standards not only for TIRUN but the entire cruising industry in India.
A graduate from the premium Lady Sri Ram College, Ratna went on to join ITC’s Welcomgroup Hotels division in 1977, as a management trainee. What started as a management programme, went on to become a rather fulfilling career that spanned 12 years in various roles within the organisation.
A London job for her husband led to Ratna’s brief stint in the Sheraton Hotels Marketing office, however after two years, Gautam’s inner call for entrepreneurship led him back to India and Ratna not only followed suit but also joined hands with him to form a new venture.
“I joined hands with him. I’m talking about the 1990s here. By 1991, together we established the American franchise of Discover the World Marketing (DTWM) in India, representing global travel brands in the country including Hertz, US Airways, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn Hotels, Universal Studios and subsequently Royal Caribbean Cruises in 1993, “ recounts Ratna.
What started as a company with cartons for chairs, and a single peon; went on to become the pioneer of cruise representations in India. Within a few years of founding DTWM, Ratna and Gautam decided to drop the airline and hotel businesses, focusing on only cruising. In 2001, DTWM-India was rechristened as TIRUN Travel Marketing and focused exclusively on cruise vacations by promoting three cruise brands within the umbrella of Royal Caribbean Cruises –Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.
11 years later, in 2012, Ratna held the complete reins of the company as the the Chief Executive of TIRUN Travel Marketing.
On the challenges of being a woman in the industry, Ratna claims they were no different from any other working woman’s, which was finding a balance between work and home.
The biggest challenge however came from the fact that TIRUN having pioneered the idea of cruising in India, had to initially create awareness. It was a market where there were merely 200 people with an Indian address who had travelled on a cruise ship and those who wanted to, did not know who to approach.
So the first step was to educate people about cruises andtelling them how it was different from taking a ferry ride.Also the awareness had to be spread both quickly and effectively as neither Gautam nor had Ratna had a business background or surplus money to bank upon.
The permission to sell the products in Indian rupees, was one breakthrough however it is still not an easy business. “Marketing the cruises continued to be like finding a needle in a hay stack because India is such a vast and diverse countryand each one needs something different. So to find a common thread was a marketing challenge. We started with getting into affiliated communities. It took time to make them understand the concept via presentations, and that’s how the word spreads even today,” shares Ratna.
Another challenge was that Indians needed to travel to America just to be able to board a cruise and that in itself was not so easy. As world is getting smaller and people are willing to try new things and spend more on exceptional travel experiences, it is finally time for TIRUN to ride the wave under Ratna’s strong leadership.
One being asked as to what differentiation does she bring to the table, being a woman; she says, “Women are playing a very important role in the tourism industry in India. They are naturally inclined to being amiable and have a flair for making tourists feel welcome and comfortable and thus have a bit of an advantage over men when it comes to segments such as tourism and hospitality. This is precisely why many of us are working very successfully in this industry.”
She elaborated that the inherent better understanding of human nature and the fact that they tend to be very presentable and personable, puts women at an advantage in the industry.
On being asked to impart some advice to women professionals, she said; “I would just like to say that as women, we must first alter our own ways of thinking and not succumb to limitations placed upon us under the garb of tradition. We must be ready to unleash our full potential and not start believing the myths about stereotyped roles. We must also be supportive and encouraging of other women without judging them by patriarchal yardsticks that we wouldn’t want to be applied to ourselves.”
Coming from a woman who is a beacon of light in the Indian tourism industry and has led the way by example; a woman who has broken stereotypes not only as a person but also for the industry as a whole; a woman who is a powerhouse of energy, grit and determination; it is advice worth heeding to!
Director, Nijhawan Group
With a sense of all prevailing finesse and sophistication, Priyanka Nijhawan, Director, Nijhawan Group, is a head turner, for more reasons than one. As a director and force behind of what has become one of the most prolific Hotel Representation companies in the past five years, Priyanka has made her own identity in a business where all her predecessors in the family are legends in their own rights.
“I call myself the fourth generation of the Nijhawans in the travel industry. When Ankush joined the group, he had the legacy of two generations. However, by the time I entered the industry, Ankush himself was so well established that I felt I am a generation behind. Hence, I had not only three generations to guide me but also three generations to live up to. Starting from, our grandfather Late Mr Bansi Lal Nijhawan to our father Mr Sham Nijhawan and to my husband Ankush, each one had their distinct individual identities. I am just hoping that I can carve out my little fourth corner somewhere and live up to the legacy,” shares Priyanka rather modestly.
A graduate in Maths(Hons) from one of India’s most premier institutes, the Lady Sri Ram College; Priyanka went on to top the prestigious Delhi University and earned a place for herself as a scholar at Kings College London where she did her Masters in Computer Science and was awarded the “Best Student of the Year”. When she decided to join the family business post marriage, her degrees naturally led to a job in the accounts department of the Nijhawan Group; which she did as well she had done anything else.
Motherhood brought about a sabbatical from work, though not from the industry and Priyanka continued to rule the travel circuits and the networking events. Her experience, excellent relationships and knowledge of the industry paid her in good stead when she decided it was now time to come to the front-end of things and join the Representations Division of the Nijhawan Group.
It seemed that the profile was cut out for her and was a perfect fit for her skill sets, the industry insights she had and the excellent network of people she was connected to. Priyanka brought in her personal style to the work and through sheer professionalism, and weight of her personality has brought the company to a position where it now represents one of the most premier bouquet of luxury hotels and theme parks.
A partial list of the company’s representations includes top luxury hotels around the world such as the Armani Hotel Dubai, The Address Hotels +Resorts, Vida Hotels, Rove Hotels and Dubai Parks & Resorts in Dubai , The Harbour Plaza Hotels & Ocean Park in Hong Kong, The Aitken Spence Hotels and Aitken Spence Travels in Sri Lanka as well as Nusa Dua Beach Hotel & Spa Bali among others. Turyaa Chennai is the first domestic hotel that they have signed up with. Adaaran Island Resorts in Maldives is now the latest addition to this portfolio. The list is growing and becoming longer and better under Priyanka’s strong leadership.
It has been a good five years she admits as they have grown both in terms of representations and team size.
“We have grown multi-fold in the number of brands we represent. In terms of our own team, the aggression has grown as has the visibility. Overall it has been an extremely rewarding journey,”shares Priyanka.
Even though young on the circuit, Priyanka is selective in her choice of representations and picks only the ones that fall into the niche luxury segment and hence are good brand fits.
On being a woman in the trade Priyanka feels,” Our industry is very woman friendly as compared to others and is very welcoming. Also ,per se, we as a culture have come of age when it comes to accepting women in the workforce or for that matter in any field.” She goes on to express how grateful she is for the unmitigated support and approval she received from all her seniors when she entered the industry and that continues to be the case.
The biggest challenge of being a woman professional however, she feels, is the constant juggle of the coin and shift in priorities between home and work. “You have to multitask and there is no escaping that. You constantly have to keep taking a priority call, 24x7, by the minute, by the hour and that is something that never stops. However that is a balance that every working woman has to perfectly manage.”
That she manages both equally well and gives credit to her husband, Ankush Nijhawan who has been both her guiding force and beacon of support both at work and in her personal life.
Having been an achiever and idealist since school, being the school captain, an accomplished dancer and debater, Priyanka continues her pursuit of perfection rather well both at home and work. Poised and soft spoken, Priyanka certainly is the complete package of a wonderful mix of humility, kindness, determination, sophistication and professionalism certainly deserving of her place in India’s top women professionals in travel.
SELF- ASSUREDLY DETERMINED
Sucheta Nagpal, Director & CEO, Travstarz Global Group, reminds one of a graceful tightrope walker, given the two key qualities she possesses– a keen sense of balance and focus. She has a refreshing matter of factness to her that can only come from someone who is confident, self-assured and secure. Someone who has gotten there through sheer perseverance and hard work and can do it all over again, and better.
Before starting Travstarz Global, Sucheta had a rather interesting career that was diverse, held together by three factors excellence, passion and commitment.
An interior designer by training, Sucheta early enough into the profession realised it was not quite her cup of tea. She found her cuppa, to use a metaphor, and her first real job in a French company, Kayak Systems, which specialised in managing Hotel Loyalty Programmes. The birth of her son brought about a career change and a rather rewarding stint with an immigration and student counselling company that dealt largely with HNIs. With the birth of her daughter she, once again, changed gears and quit the company where she had risen to the position of Vice President. What followed was a stint in an events management company, where she handled weddings and MICE, essentially working with the hospitality industry, which was her passion.
The calling of finding the balance between long hours and young kids, caused her to, yet again, quit her job, however, the workaholic in her needed the drug called professional satisfaction. Hence was born Travstarz Global Group, a company that specialised in B2B travel with a staff of two girls.
She soon persuaded husband, Pankaj Nagpal, who has been her vehement supporter, to join her. While Sucheta’s exuberance was a perfect fit for sales, Pankaj brought with him a solid background of accounts and strategy. It turned out that he also had a knack for product design and technology, which gave the company an impetus and together, they set about taking the company forward.
“There were two things we were clear about,” says Sucheta, “one that we were going to keep doing what we had set out to do and not resort to B2C or something else and second, we were going to ensure that our names were synonymous with our company’s.”
Sucheta and Pankaj have certainly managed to fulfil both these goals and fulfil them well but it has been a not without the occasional pebble in the path. They started with HongKong, Malaysia, Macao and later added Mauritius and Maldives.
“Initially there were no contracts with hotels and we used to inform them of every booking, even if it was only for two or four days, that it had come through us to build that relationship,” recalls Sucheta.
She smiles as she says, “Today we have contracts with almost all leading hotels and they know us. Not only that, with the launch of our portal we are now compared to some of the leaders in the industry.”
As the journey progressed, the company made small inroads and there were small victories. Sucheta found people who were willing to take the risk and entrust their business to a young company.
Along came new offices with some unique challenges. “When we opened our office in Thailand for an entire year, we were unable to retain employees one month to the next owing to the inability to be able to communicate with them and vice versa, “ shares Sucheta. This continued till Pankaj decided to take Thai classes, which was when things settled a little.” Today, the company has a Thai-born Indian partner –only for Thailand– and the going is smooth.
The company, today, also has offices in Bengaluru, Pune and Mauritius. Another asset that the company has, is an excellent team –people who are responsible and empowered.
Solely responsible for Sales and Operations, Sucheta is also the critical link between the two. She has her hands full and she loves it!“It has been an interesting journey and a rewarding one, “ she shares.
On working with Pankaj, she says, “Sharing goals and working together has strengthened our bond and increased our respect for each other. Both of us bring strengths to the table and we recognise that.”
Sucheta debunks the myth of a gender bias in the business world, “A woman needs to know how to conduct herself. What to say and to whom to say it to. If you are offering something to someone that is not relevant to him, you would not be taken seriously. However, if you know your business, you shall be taken seriously and respected, irrespective of gender.” she elaborates.
“I have never found any challenges in being accepted, being a woman, on the contrary at times people are more receptive to you and it is easier to get through to people. However beyond that your professionalism counts,” stresses Sucheta.
She also does not believe that women are better suited to certain roles within the industry and feels it is a personality rather than a gender thing.” There are no boundaries at all. It is a clear stage for all and in today’s world, it’s a level playing field.”
The only advice she has for anyone is, “Enjoy your work and give it your all,” a piece of advice that has served Sucheta well as she continues with a single-minded determination, gaining new ground and scaling new heights with a company that is growing at an enviable pace.
Young, focused, professional, this soft spoken woman has made it like few others in India. As one looks into the serene, calm eyes of Sabina Chopra, COO and co-founder, Yatra.com, one sees hints of a steely determination and a single mindedness that make her one of the top women entrepreneurs of the country. A look into her journey, learnings and the things that drive her is a must for women or for that matter any one who is looking out to become an entrepreneur.
A graduate from Delhi University, Sabina started her career with Japan Airlines. Her passion to know and learn, paid her in good stead and she learnt some extremely valuable lessons that served her well through her career.
“As I was a fresher, my priority was to understand aviation as an industry to dig in deep in to the metrics to learn more. One of the most important lessons my first job taught me is that hard work and professionalism are of utmost importance.”
This led to a rather exciting job in ebookers, Europe’s largest online travel company as the Head of sales where under her leadership her team doubled its target in less than six months.
Her stint in ebookers led to perhaps the most important turning point in her career where she turned entrepruener as the Co-Founder & COO-Corporate Hotels of Yatra.com.In her current role,Sabina manages the sales, fulfilment, and after sales support for all Yatra corporate hotel business. She also looks after the expansion of the corporate clientele where to ensure that Yatra’s hotel product is the best on offer.
One being asked whether she had faced any gender bias or challenges being a woman, Sabina said, “Yatra.com started with Dhruv, Manish and me and I never felt out of place or uncomfortable being a woman. Besides, each one of us comes with a different experience and different point of views which help us take more effective decisions. It brings balance to the system. The challenges faced by me were what anyone else in my place would have faced and not necessarily because of the gender. I have been fortunate in every way.”
She further elaborates, “By and large I am a positive and focused Individual who loves taking on challenges. I also like to maintain a work-life balance which is extremely important to me. India today is at an important stage of evolution and we see enough and more women at the helm of affairs other than home. It has never been difficult to work in Yatra where we all work as equals. Times have changed and the professional landscape today accords equality to all.”
She believes that women entrepreneurs bring particular sets of skills that not only set them apart from their counterparts, but also lend themselves to being successful entrepreneurs.
Talking about the qualities that contribute to the success of women as entrepreneurs Sabina says,” Women in general are known to be better communicators. The social skills coupled with multi-tasking skills gives us an edge to beat the men at their own game! When it comes to India specifically, women leaders have a better feel of the household spending patterns. They understand consumer perspective better. They have a way of building trust with customers, shareholders, and other stakeholders.”
Her message to women entrepreneurs is rather practical, “Dream big but be realistic about that dream. No dream is unachievable but it is very important to lay a strong foundation for that dream. Entrepreneurs should put all their energies in understanding the market and their target audience. Effective use of the available resources is also very essential as young entrepreneurs tend to invest a lot in marketing and adverting of the product, I strongly believe that it is more important to invest in developing the product which is the soul of your business,” she says.
A true team player, a committed professional with exceptional leadership skin, Sabina quietly works on laying a strong foundation, as her company goes from strength to strength.
What makes Munnmunn Marwah, COO Think Strawberries’ inclusion in this list even more noteworthy is that, she is the only professional who is neither an entrepreneur nor a stakeholder in the company but, nonetheless, has become the face of Think Strawberries through her sheer professionalism.
If one had to pick a single adjective to describe Munnmunn it would be precise. She is precise and focussed –words which translate into a perfect personality sketch –a true professional. A woman of few words, except when it comes to business, Munnmunn, nonetheless comes across as a very pleasant and happy person. That combined with her approachability and a genuine need to help those around her grow, are qualities that make her one of the most sought after professionals in travel.
A graduate from Delhi University, Munnmunn started her career with sales in Sahara Airlines, where she was instantly hired owing to her confidence and communication skills. Her onward journey was exciting, and full of challenges. Her job in Sahara was followed by one in Intercontinental as the manager of the Law Club –an exclusive club for lawyers. After a short stint in the role, she got the chance to work with TIRUN travels which proved to be quite a learning experience and shaped her career in travel to quite an extent. She speaks warmly of both Gautam and Ratna Chadha who taught her the value of first impressions and detailing in work. Lessons learnt well, Munnmunn spent a good five years in the company in both sales and operations.
Yet another progression came to her career with a job with the Reservation Systems giant, Abacus, followed by an exciting position as the Head of North India Sales for the Travel division of TATA AIG. While she loved her work and was doing extremely well in her new role, she felt that long hours and an even longer commute were taking a toll on her.
It was then that she came to Eastbound Travels which was setting up a B2C portal, the project was abandoned due to lack of funding but with the company refused to let Munnmunn go and shifted her to their outbound division. Her excellent on-job performance, professionalism and deliverables got her the job which would, perhaps, be the most defining role of her career.
When Munnmunn joined Think Strawberries, it was no cake walk. While she had considerable experience of the travel trade and the GSA role, she did not know the representation business, unlike her colleagues. Munnmunn took it up as a challenge and set out to learn whatever she could. “Even till date, there is a lot of learning on the job and as the business changes on an everyday basis, I keep updating myself.I think of myself a perpetual student,” shares Munnmunn.
Talking about her current role at Think Strawberries she shares,“With a career spanning over 20 years in sales across India, my core competence is to understand and leverage distribution channels, Outbound Travel companies (wholesalers and retailers), specialised incentive houses, airlines and key corporate companies. What sets me apart is the ability to lead teams and provide solutions. I have a sound knowledgeof the online travel model as well, and have helped set-up and manage various B2B as well as B2C portals. I understand the requirement of the ever changing online world and continuously working on new products and offerings. I also have developed a strong network in UAE over the last few years where I have developed a good relationship with key Media and corporate houses in the MENA region.”
Talking about the qualities she brings to the table as a woman Munnmunn says, “I have leveraged my femininity to overcome bad situations using traditional women skills of tact and diplomacy while maintaining a firm versus aggressive stand. I manage employees, most of which are male and I am managed by males. I can faintly hear my feminist colleagues in the background cheering for me, and I usually wear these facts like a badge of honour on my chest.”
She further adds,“I approach all my deals from the business point of view, so I am more practical and less idealistic. It has been said that there’s a freshness in my opinions that is much needed for the travel industry,”|she adds.
A professional who is thankful to her mentors in the industry, she truly believes in mentoring those under her. Always available and a solution provider for her team, she strongly believes that one should nurture one’s juniors and prepare a strong line up of people who can take the company to the next level.
Her message to women professionals in the industry is, “Don’t hesitate -be confident. People, who carry themselves with confidence, no matter which gender, typically get noticed more. Women need to be aware not only of their own growth, but that of those around them.”