Mumbai: We have been after this story since October 2018. We met Kishan Biyani, Managing Director, Ark Travels for the first time at IITT Mumbai. It took another 10 months to finally sit down with the ‘cruise czar’ of India at his office in Andheri West. Since most travel industry majors have their offices in Lower Parel or South Mumbai, we started with that.
An astute businessman, Kishan Biyani has grown Ark Travels’ cruise business from the dumps to Asia’s number one and now aims to make it the biggest online company for cruises
“All my 40 team members stay close by. So it is better for me to spend an extra hour and drive down from Prabhadevi where I am staying than wasting 40 hours of my team,” reasoned Biyani. It is this rare degree of sensitivity and humaneness which wins him innovative birthday cards every year from colleagues who consider him family.
Behind the unassuming and down-to-earth persona is an astute businessman who has grown Ark Travels’ cruise business from the dumps to Asia’s number one. “I came into the travel business because of my good friend (Pradeep Saboo of Guideline Travels). My family business has been textiles for generations and I grew it substantially till that day at the hospital where Pradeep’s wife lay in labour, when we decided to start a travel business,” Biyani reminisced. After 11 years of a successful partnership, they separated amicably in 20 minutes flat, “because we were transparent and fair to each other.”
In 2008, Ark Travels owned by the Tandons had run into rough weather, even losing the PSA for Genting Cruise Lines. Biyani picked up a decent stake and started to grow the cruise business. Soon he was joined by former colleagues Khalid Gori and Prasad Bhinge. Today, 95 per cent of Ark Travels’ revenue is from cruises. It has representatives in 11 cities and few months ago set up office in Bengaluru.
More than 60,000 passengers go on a cruise every year through Ark Travels. For the past so many years, Ark Travels has been the largest seller in India for Genting and the last three years, it is the largest seller in Asia. Growth has been stupendous but a lot of hard work has gone into it, no doubt. When Genting finally decided to re-award the PSA to Ark Travels, they set an ambitious target. Biyani and co. exceeded expectations every time. “In 2021-22 we want to touch 1,00,000 passengers,” said a confident Biyani.
Two years ago, Biyani launched DeckPro, an online B2B marketplace for the cruise product. It already has over 9000 agents online. Globally, only 17 per cent of the cruise bookings take place online. In comparison, 45-48 per cent of hotel bookings are online. DeckPro is already clocking 10 per cent and Ark Travels hopes to achieve 25 per cent by 2020. In order to educate the trade on DeckPro, what it offers and how it can help sell better, roadshows have been planned in 89 cities of which 22 have been completed. Biyani is spending 2 percent of his Rs. 200 crore revenue (approx.) on technology deploying an in-house engineering team.
Biyani doesn’t want to restrict himself to just selling the cruise cabin. He wants to offer a package that guarantees an experience of a lifetime – shore excursions, transfers, hotels, rail journeys, all of it. And he wants everyone involved to share the cake while ensuring the packages are much cheaper on DeckPro than ones bought on-board by passengers.
“15 per cent of passengers in India upgrade to a higher category cabin on-board,” said Biyani, adding that this is a lost opportunity for the agents. “They undersell base category cabins fearing competition. But the idea is to sell an experience to the customer and not just a cabin. Competition is not the pricing but the quality of the experience that can be delivered. Over the years, less than 3.5 million Indians have travelled on a cruise. When the market opportunity (addressable market) has only been barely scratched on the surface, what competition are we getting scared about?”
His business can grow only when the market grows because the commission is fixed. As new and bigger ships enter the waters and attractive all-inclusive packages are increasingly bought online, the business will boom. The conversion of FIT leisure customer to a cruise holiday is around 20 per cent in India. This can grow further if agents know what they are selling. “Through the years, I have taken on-board about 4500 agents on FAM so they know first hand what experience they are selling,” informed Biyani.
Ark Travels is also PSA for ClubMed, an all-inclusive holidays resort company with over 65 resorts worldwide. Other niche services like Europamundo Vacations (coach tours across Europe) and Rail Europe (train journeys across Europe) are helping Ark Travels to create compelling packages for cruise passengers, feels Biyani.
Recently, Ark Travels signed up with Jewel Changi Airport to offer their cruise passengers breakfast, wi-fi, baggage transfers from carousel and check-in & cabin keycard at Changi Lounge – all for SGD 35. “Since our cruise customers fly in to Singapore early and the cruise check-in is not until 12.45, this is a great deal for them as they can relax for a couple of hours after arrival and then do the city tour by themselves before returning to the lounge for complimentary coach transfers to the cruise terminal,” said Biyani. It is about thinking out-of-the-box.
Born and brought up in Mumbai, Biyani attended Manav Mandir High School in Napean Sea Road area where they stayed as a joint marwadi family before graduating with a commerce degree from HR College. At the age of 17, he got into the family’s textile business, Baleshwar Synthetics Textiles, and slowly learned the ropes. At 19, he took over the business and engaged another 11 factories on job works to deliver the orders he had generated. “In 1992, I was among the first few guys to bring in imported machines and set up a factory at Tarapore, 120 km away from Mumbai,” remembered Biyani. It was initially shirting and suiting and later yarn. A new plant has now come up in Amravati and his elder brother runs it.
Compared to other cruise line operators, Genting is very flexible according to Biyani and he feels it is because many Asians work there. This makes Genting very suitable for Indian weddings or groups as last minute changes and requests are our thing. He does two weddings every year on-board and secures his next booking by word of mouth. Though there are so many queries, in order to retain the charm of a cruise wedding, Biyani has been very choosy.
Cousin Kishore Biyani of Future Group is one of his role models, someone from whom he has learned immensely.
“We grew up together and I have always taken his advice as he is very insightful and understands the pulse of the customer,” said Biyani. Another person, this time from the cruise industry, whom he admires a lot is Naresh Rawal, Genting’s Vice President of Sales in India and South Asia. “Naresh has helped and influenced me a lot,” concurred Biyani. “I was a shy guy focused on my business. Naresh told me to speak and be more visible; host events; interact with media. I listened to him. That’s how in the last eight years we have built our brand, my industry relations and even hosted a ‘annual thank you’ party!”
According to Biyani, agents decide to work with someone based on their relationship and not commission. “I am available to my agents 24×7 and I stand by them through thick and thin. That’s how I create travel partners out of travel agents.” Of the 9000 on DeckPro, at least 1500 are his travel partners. Ark Travels is the only player in India exclusively handling the cruise product.
Biyani’s sister Anuradha Lakhotia is married and settled in the US. His spouse Jaishree is a homemaker. Son Vedant has graduated in commerce and joined the business. Vedant wants to start an event company and even look at the wedding segment. Daughter Sakshi is still in college doing Bachelor in Management Studies. She is spending some time at Ark Travels and plans to do masters abroad.
Holidays twice a year with family is a must. “Earlier I preferred party places. Now I have started visiting quiet regions – Windermere & northern England and Mykonos (Greece) I loved.” He spends money helping people. He is not fond of anything materialistic, and shares clothes and shoes with Vedant. “I am not very brand conscious either. I am neither too fond of cars. I drive a Hyundai Elantra automatic.”
Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan are his matinee idols. He can watch any movie and often quotes dialogues from movies in his conversations and speeches. “Kaam woh karo jisme massa aayega,” from 3 Idiots is one of his favorites. “We are marwadis. Paise ham tho kidhar bhi kamayenge,” deadpans Biyani.
“My vision is to become the biggest online company for cruises. I have no doubt; our future is DeckPro. A couple of hoteliers did approach us for API but we declined. DeckPro will be for cruise and cruise only,” Biyani signed off.