Mumbai: Naina and I meet Pradeep Saboo, Chairman & MD of Guideline Travels, one of the fastest growing travel and tour companies in the country, on a Friday afternoon at his Kalbadevi office in Mumbai. He is a hefty man dressed in white slacks and is feverishly typing away on his Apple Mac. We were meeting him for the first time having only interacted with his nephew Yatiraj Kabra, who heads sales and marketing for their cruise business.
Many years ago, Pradeep, a commerce graduate, was making calls at the ring of Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and his spouse Monica was dabbling in travel, more as a hobby. They shared an office. The stock markets were going down and the travel industry was getting ready to explode.
Guideline Travels is running on 22 now. February 18 is when it all started. Pradeep is pretty sure for a reason. “When Monica was undergoing caesarean for our first child, my school friend Kishan and I were waiting outside the hospital. We decided, let’s start from tomorrow because Monica won’t be going back to work for quite some time now.”
Naina interjects, “Do you miss the share trading industry?” Pradeep says reminiscing those days, “I had a badge you know. But I don’t miss it. I generally don’t look back.”
Pradeep started from a small 100 sq. ft. godown in Kalbadevi with six staffers offering air ticketing and bookings for a few hotels in Lonavla and Mahabaleswar. “A year later, we commenced tour packages and then cruises. We slowly got out of ticketing, visa and passport.” Today, 90 per cent of the business is from outbound tour operation, including MICE.”
Initially the company organised a few tour groups to Malaysia and Thailand, a handful of cruise holidays and weddings, and they all went very well. In 2010, Pradeep started managing religious tour groups. The first was a group of 600 guests to Switzerland for seven nights at Interlaken. This became a growing segment. Another turning point was the Cricket World Cup in South Africa in February 2003. India reached the finals, so many Indian groups were travelling to watch the matches and Guideline Travels was managing the logistics. “For one India-Pakistan match we did a group of 1600 passengers.”
I always had this misunderstanding so I check to clarify, “Many believe you mostly do cruise bookings. Why is that so?” Pradeep has heard this umpteen times before. “It is true that many people have that misconception, but cruises form only about 40 per cent of our business and is growing at 20 per cent YoY. I am not personally involved in that business since the last five years as it is on auto-pilot mode. We have been operating series group departures for over 15 years now.”
In the cruise business, the principals entrust the marketing budget with PSAs (Preferred Sales Agent). So media visibility has led to that notion. Guideline Travels’ own marketing budget is seldom spent as the package tour business grows by word-of-mouth and repeat customers.
Since the last four years Pradeep is doing MICE. “I always thought of MICE as a low-margin business and did not get into it for so long, but now I stand corrected. We take reasonable margins and still have projects lining up. We get advance payment also.”
Pradeep has travelled to 50-plus countries and driven vehicles in about 25. He is a die-hard fan of self-drive as he believes it not only offers flexibility but serves as a rewarding experience as well. “Many people are scared and ill-informed about driving licence rules in foreign countries. They think the Indian driving licence is not accepted. The US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and France, all accept the Indian driving licence; the Middle East does not.” Pradeep’s favourite driving experience was presented by the Canadian Rockies, though he has steered across the hilly terrains of South Africa, Switzerland, New Zealand, Scandinavia and Scotland. This year in December the Saboos are planning to visit Switzerland and Pradeep will be driving in the snow. “Of late, we have been taking winter holidays as we cannot be away during summer when it’s peak season for our business.”
Guideline Travels has offices in Kalbadevi, Kandivali, Ghatkopar and Surat, and employs 52 people. Pradeep does not want to go public or have 50 owned branches across India. In the last four years he has been focusing on building strategic partnerships with other tour operators in tier II and III cities. “This has been growing very well. We do a channel partner conference twice a year. I also take their feedback before launching new products.” Such partnerships have made Guideline Travels very strong in markets like Nagpur, Rajkot, Ahmedabad, Chennai and that list is growing. “They really believe in the products I create. I feel nice when they support my vision.”
Naina wants to know if the kids are developing an interest in the business. Pradeep laughs out loud. “It’s a very big question and I am so confused. You know the millennials have very different views. My daughter is 21 and she is proceeding to Warwick to study further and son is 16. He seems interested – this is the third year that he has travelled along with our Europe tour group and Yatiraj for 21 days – as a passenger and not tour manager.
Pradeep has high regard for Raj Travels owner the late Lalit Sheth whom he fondly remembers as Lalitbhai. “He was a big visionary, ahead of his time. We were his sole suppliers for cruises, so I used to meet him every month. I follow his thinking that the price of any tour package should be all-inclusive. Also, I value customer feedback the most. Give the customer what he/she wants; they will pay you what you want. As simple as that. You never underestimate the spending power of a customer. If you are offering value, they will pay whatever you want.”
Ark Travels and Guideline Travels go back a long way. Kishan Biyani was 50 per cent owner of Guideline Travels before they split in 2009. Then Biyani bought in to Ark Travels of the Tandons.
“Was it amicable?” I ask. “Yes. We certainly had differences of opinion. So we spoke one evening across this table where we are seated now and in five days we decided on everything; no arbitrator, no third party. There was no bloodbath whatsoever. He is married to my cousin sister. Our college and school groups are the same. We also used to live in the same building.”
Born and brought up in Mumbai in a typical Marwadi household, Pradeep secured 74 per cent in Class 12 and joined Jaihind College. He is a hardcore ‘townie’ who loves everything about SoBo. Pradeep is not into any sport or fitness. He loves Bollywood and socialising with friends play a very important part in his life. Driving is another passion and we know all about it by now. He owns an Audi Q5 and a Mercedes C Class but has very fond memories of the Toyota Corolla that he once had. Apart from his spouse and children, his mother, Yatiraj and his wife, and another cousin Rahul stay together in their palatial home on Elphinstone Road.
I want to know if Monica is still involved in the business. “Very much,” says Pradeep. “She joined us again in 2003 but only undertakes special projects like a market recce for creating a new tour product or a wedding. She also manages the US market for us.” Pradeep loves his sleep and is a late riser. “I am in my office from 11 am to 9 pm”. It’s an odd timing he accepts with a chuckle. “I start ‘my’ work at 7 pm and finish by 8.30. After 30 minutes of social media, I leave for the day. Once home, I am focused on family.”
“I always thought of MICE as a low-margin business and did not get into it for so long, but now I stand corrected. We take reasonable margins and still have projects lining up. We get advance payment also”