Mumbai: I am ushered into the corner office and wait for her to arrive. On the desk is ‘Talk Triggers – The Complete Guide to Creating Customers with Word of Mouth’ by Jay Baer & Daniel Lemin.
With many friends including my ‘bestie’ based out of the US, I am well exposed to the gradual ‘Americanisation’ that they have subscribed to, be it the accent, attitudes or sometimes even values.
However, the lady sitting in front of me, in spite of having been educated and worked there for eight years, countless trips thereafter and plenty of pleasant memories, still remains an exception to that, at times unfair, generalisation. And I am not saying this just because she is clad in a saree!
The organisation she founded in 2007 represents and markets the ‘land of the free, home of the brave’, an organisation with USA destination marketing expertise in India. It has been more or less a monopoly of sorts, a one-stop expert travel shop for USA, a fiefdom she has passionately guarded and conceded very little over the years to competition.
I am in conversation with Sheema Vohra, Managing Director, Sartha Global Marketing and the next few hours fly by laced with loads of laughter and a lot of anecdotes – the hugely inspiring journey of a highly charming woman leader.
Sartha today represents several major US destinations including Brand USA – the destination marketing organisation for the US.
Vohra’s childhood was steeped in music and theatre especially thanks to her mother who was a producer with India’s national broadcaster. As a student of the illustrious MGD Jaipur, renowned for holistic education, things could not have gotten any better.
“It all started with my love for Urdu poetry,” she says. “My parents knew Urdu and many artistes used to come home to perform. I became a fan of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and a diehard romantic. I really understood him – each time I read his work it had a new meaning. It began with my love for ghazals, then Indian classical, followed by thumris to dadras and khayals. I love them all.”
Vohra was an artiste in college, dabbling in Urdu theatre and later Hindustani music. She does not get time to practice theatre anymore but music continues to be a passion. Last year she went to the Indian Music Summit, and for the first time, sat down to listen to Carnatic music and it was ‘love at first sound!’ I ask about her favourite musician and she says, “It’s difficult to name one as I have too many – Begum Akhtar, Kishori Amonkar, the list goes on.”
After passing out of IHM Pusa in Delhi, Vohra started her career at the front desk of ITC Maurya Sheraton. She soon left them to join the International Trade Fair & Conventions Department of ITDC. She was looking after international delegations visiting India and still remembers a chance meeting with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “Mrs. Gandhi was also in a saree. She told me, ‘Your mother has great taste. They don’t make those anymore’.” The saree has always been Vohra’s signature attire. “I wear it abroad too. I like it. This is my cocktail dress! I am most confident in it.”
At the age of 24, Vohra decided to move to the US to pursue higher studies. She secured admission into the hotel school of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas on scholarship. “It was a major turning point in my life … the country, the education system, my classmates. The two-and-a-half-year BS in Hotel Management program transformed me completely. It is the best thing my parents ever did for me.” On campus, Vohra got hired by Marriott International.
Working with various Marriott hotels and moving around in the US, Vohra’s career and personality flourished, and her romance with the USA started. Little did she know then that it would later become her life and livelihood.
Suddenly, after eight years in the US, Vohra decided to return. “I still don’t know why I returned. Nobody actually thought I would.” After short stints with The Claridges and The Oberoi in New Delhi, Vohra joined a few partners to start Connexons, an inbound travel company. When Marriott decided to open a GSO in India, Vohra’s firm was the first choice.
This was followed by her signing a JV with Singapore-based PR firm Mileage Communications to mark their entry into India. Mileage today retains tourism clients but also does PR work for non-tourism accounts. Vohra is a director on the board of Mileage Communications in India.
Yet Vohra was unsettled. She soon left Connexons and joined Marriott again as senior director of sales for the India Sub-Continent. But she now wanted to be an entrepreneur. In 2007, Vohra and Sunil Puri, a chartered accountant, established Sartha (meaning ‘successful’ in Sanskrit). “India’s outbound growth story was exploding and many foreign destinations were looking at India, setting up representations and offices. The USA was yet to do this and I saw an opportunity which would also allow me to engage in something I would really love.”
Sartha started with a pilot project, the India Mission roadshow which they did with USTA (U.S. Travel Association; that time it was called TIA). Soon San Francisco fell into their kitty. The rest followed. Today Sartha is a proven specialist in USA destination marketing.
Vohra has been the International Advisory Committee (IAC) Chair for IPW in India, Nepal & Sri Lanka since 2001. U.S. Travel Association’s IPW is the leading international inbound travel trade show, driving $4.7 billion in future travel to the United States.
“God has been very kind,” says Vohra. “To represent the country that I love the most for what it has to offer as a destination to clients in my home country has been a dream come true.” She travels to the US at least five to six times a year on business and returns charged with ideas and passion.
In 2017, the United States welcomed 12,85,466 visitors from India, its fifth largest source market globally and sixth highest in terms of spend ($14.7 billion). The 2018 numbers are not yet out but it is certain they cannot disappoint. That Sartha and Vohra have a huge role to play in this is no secret.
Every Indian aspires to travel to the US. So do you really need to push, I ask her? “Though Sartha’s clients are all in the US, they have different requirements in India,” says Vohra. “We customise everything for each client. It is not a cookie-cutter approach. Themes, audiences, communications pillars, marketing strategies are all different for each client even though we focus on leisure and incentives segments mostly in India. The originality of our thinking for individual clients is why we have retained them over the years.”
With three offices and about 40 professionals, Vohra has her hands full. “I work really hard,” she says, “that’s my leadership style, lead by example and remain hands-on”.
After 11 years, what is next, I prod. “Sartha is a one-stop-shop marketing organisation for destinations interested in the India market. I want to sustain our customized approach to each client. We have invested in technologies and new methodologies that will ensure high yield and targeted results for our customers. We will continue to abide by our principles of integrity, transparency and efficiency.”
A typical day for Vohra starts around 9.30 am and is, as she puts it, filled with emails and meetings. Since her clients are in the US, the days are long and work gets taken home for late night or early morning calls. “I spend a lot of time understanding products, targeting, strategy and communications,” she admits.
Though hard pressed for time, on the personal front she has some plans in 2019. A physical exercise regime and exploring executive education are certainly on the cards.
Vohra has grown Sartha’s US-focused business mostly on positive word-of-mouth references. I am not sure she needs to read the book on her desk. She can in fact write one on the subject.