Mumbai: It takes me a month before I meet the matriarch of India’s cruise line industry. That is because she is occupied running her successful business venture which she co-founded with her late husband Gautam Chadha while also wearing multiple hats to nurture and grow the still nascent cruise tourism business in India.
As a Member of the Government of India’s Taskforce on Cruise Tourism and the CII Committee on Tourism, and also as President of the recently-formed INCLA (Indian Cruise Line Association), Ratna Chadha, CEO, TIRUN Travel Marketing, is a widely-respected voice in the travel and tourism industry. With the ministries of Tourism, Shipping and Water Resources suddenly going ballistic about the importance of promoting cruise tourism as a means to provide employment and generate revenue, Chadha’s counsel, validated by decades of experience, has become ever more invaluable.
I meet her at her ‘own’ office in New Delhi and is soon joined by heir apparent Varun Chadha, COO. What follows is a journey down memory lane, punctuated by hard work, die hard perseverance, sustained success, and last but not the least, an untimely loss. There is lot of light-hearted banter too, thanks to Varun’s candidness and self-deprecating humour.
TIRUN (derived from Chadha’s children Aditi and Varun) was a pioneer in 2001 when much of the travel trade did not even know how to spell ‘cruise’. With its three brands – Royal Caribbean Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, TIRUN has witnessed 25 per cent CAGR over the last three years. This, at a time when the cruise line industry in India grew at an average of just 15 per cent as per CLIA (Cruise Lines International Association). In 2017, India booked 1,72,300 cruise passengers and a sizeable chunk of that was through TIRUN, which should establish beyond doubt their leadership position. TIRUN clocked a GMV of $40 million last FY.
Chadha, the daughter of a tea planter who migrated from Lahore to Amritsar during the Partition and was employed with McLeod Russel India in Assam and West Bengal, was a boarding school student from the age of five. “It made me very independent,” says Chadha. An alumnus of Maharani Gayatri Devi (MGD) Girls’ Public School Jaipur and Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College New Delhi, she topped the university in 1975 passing with honours in philosophy. “The exhaustive network of contacts I have made today is because of my Alma Maters,” she confides.
Starting her career with ITC Hotels at the front office, Chadha met her future husband there. In 1978, ITC Hotels commenced their management training programme and she got selected. For the next 12 years, she served in various roles starting with unit sales at Maurya Sheraton, eventually moving into a global role, looking after international inbound sales for the entire hospitality chain.
In 1989, Chadha’s husband, who was then with British Airways, got posted to London. The couple were already parents to Varun and Aditi. After two years in London when she worked briefly with Sheraton, they decided to return to India and start their entrepreneurial journey. The leader in global travel services and distribution, Discover the World Marketing (DTWM), was looking for an India partner. The couple established DTWM India in January 1991 with a small office at Connaught Place. The DTWM portfolio then included Hertz, US Airways, Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn Hotels, Universal Studios and subsequently Royal Caribbean Cruises. “It was just the three of us – Gautam, me and an office assistant,” reminisces Chadha. “We had very clear rules from the start. Gautam was the CEO. I, an employee working behind the scenes. Any ship can have only one captain. He was the face of the company. Those days, after work, I would go to IITTM next door to educate myself about this industry.”
Thanks to their growing business with DTWM, her husband was inducted into the Board and the couple travelled around the world meeting clients. In one such meeting in 1993, Royal Caribbean Cruises asked the Chadhas if they could represent them in India. “India was a very different outbound market then. A paltry $500 was permitted once in two years for Indians to travel abroad. The B2B travel industry here knew only credit transactions at that time and cruise bookings required upfront payment in forex. I was very skeptical, as always, but Gautam saw an opportunity,” recollects Chadha. “He went to the RBI and argued his case, citing the example of how foreign airlines were operating in India, collecting charges in INR and remitting it as forex to their principals overseas. In 1994, RBI finally relented.” That was a major tipping point for the cruise industry in India till then, booking only over 1000 passengers annually. The travel trade suddenly started warming up to the cruise product. It also helped that cruise bookings enjoyed much higher margins compared to airline tickets and hotel bookings.
The Chadhas leveraged their relationships in key markets across India to grow the cruise business. They were now a 25-member team. In 2001, the couple parted ways with DTWM and incorporated TIRUN Travel Marketing to exclusively represent the Royal Caribbean portfolio. “I was again against this divorce from DTWM but gave in to my absolute trust in Gautam’s intelligence, foresight, experience and confidence.”
The same year, the Chadhas started Journey Mart, a B2B OTA (Online Travel Aggregator). It was an idea much ahead of its time – a virtual marketplace, an ‘Amazon for travel’ where travel industry sellers could set up shop. Varun, a Doon School alumnus, like his dad, joined Journey Mart after his graduation in commerce and a short stint in KPMG.
Everything was going fine and TIRUN set up offices across India, many of them fully-owned premises, a reflection of how successful the enterprise was. “He never liked any loans and always wanted to earn and spend,” says Chadha. “Even when it was financially prudent to borrow, dad insisted on living within one’s own means and if it meant selling assets and investing in the business, he would do that,” adds Varun.
In November 2012, less than a year after moving to a fully-owned head office in New Delhi, like a thunderbolt from nowhere, Gautam passed away, leaving TIRUN in the hands of his spouse. Varun took over as COO and his mother became the CEO and face of the business that employed about 100 professionals. Aditi, then a post-graduate in management from Warwick, UK too joined the business to look after marketing.
In early 2013, the principals came calling. “We made a strategy presentation to them and they saw that the full team was committed to my husband’s vision, more than ever before. They left convinced that we would continue on his path. In spite of a difficult year in 2013 when the dollar appreciated against the rupee, we strived hard and exceeded expectations, theirs and ours,” says Chadha. In 2017, TIRUN and Royal Caribbean Cruises celebrated the Silver Jubilee of this winning partnership.
TIRUN has a presence in 16 markets today: Mumbai, New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Hyderabad, Pune, Chandigarh, Surat, Kolkata, Noida, Jaipur, Guwahati, Indore and Raipur.
“Many folks ask us what next,” says Varun. “Shouldn’t we be diversifying into booking of ancillary services? But we are clear that we are a marketing organisation specialising in cruise vacations. That’s our forte.”
I ask Chadha if the constant flip-flops around policy governing cruise tourism is frustrating. “Please don’t get me started,” she says. The goalpost keeps shifting and it’s always been two steps forward and three steps backward.” India badly needs many domestic ports to drive growth in the cruise segment. Cruise ports should be built like modern airports. “Let’s get the policy right first. We have fabulous destinations and unique experiences to offer for onshore excursions,” adds Varun.
On the recent customs duty shocker to international flag carriers, Chadha comments, “For a paltry revenue accrual we are ruining the cruise market which has the potential to deliver revenues in excess of Rs. 35,000 crores.” While high GST rates adversely impact domestic cruise providers, irrational customs duty is playing spoilsport with international players. Even the excise policy is a grey area. That’s a lot of lobbying to do for Chadha.
The mother-son duo work in tandem taking TIRUN from strength to strength. Aditi moved out some time back to do a second masters from Columbia University, New York. She is presently busy with launching her travel and lifestyle startup. Varun also completed his MBA from Singapore Management University. “It’s fun working with mom. I am like any other employee here and treat her as my boss,” says Varun. “We do not take work back home where we are a joint family with both my grandmothers, my spouse and two kids, and Aditi.”
A typical day for Chadha starts around 7.30 am with an exercise regime supervised by a trainer. She travels a lot and is at least out for 10 days a month. Like her late husband and Varun, she also loves golf and if she is found missing from office in the afternoon, most likely she may be putting green! Her evenings are usually reserved for spending time with her mother, mother-in-law and grandkids.
As we wind up, two anecdotes remain fresh in my mind. Incredible India is a domain the Chadhas had registered in their name, yet, in a heartbeat, gifted it to then Union tourism secretary Amitabh Kant. Post the Kargil war, the Chadhas who were representing the Royal Caribbean portfolio in Pakistan as well till then, refused to continue. Both actions speak louder than words.
In the six years since the demise of her co-founder and life partner, Ratna Chadha has steered TIRUN Travel Marketing to greater success and she is in control. Cruise Control.