Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Dot-Com in 2005


Having reported quite extensively on the events (read madness) leading upto the bursting of the great dot-com bubble in 2000, it is with a combination of nostalgia and scepticism (a little of the former and large doses of the latter) that one regards any organisation with a dot com appended its name.

In the go-go years, as one wise man referred to them subsequently, it was the youth who ruled the roost. If you were older than 27, you were over the hill, if you hadn't spent the last few years in the US, preferably on the West Coast or referred to that $50 million valuation with the appropriate twang, then you were not all there. So on and so forth but this is not, one must hasten to add, a generalisation.

At a major aviation and travel exposition the other day in Bombay, it was with some interest that I shook hands with Navneet Bali,CEO & Co-Founder of www.allcheckin.com. Incidentally, its been a good five years since one's last dot-com encounter; most of the smart 27-year-olds, apart from turning 32, have either gone firmly underground or lead respectable lives doing normal jobs. A handful have probably survived. Thankfully, they behave normally now.

Bali, who lives in England, entered the dot-com world a little late in life. Before one describes him any further, a little about his firm, allcheckin.com: this is an airline and hotel search engine, one of the many in a highly specialised species of search engines that are in some demand right now. allcheckin.com, incidentally is modelled on expedia.com.

Tickets For Sale !

Allcheckin focusses on giving you the best travel and stay deals, a typical day would see the site hosting the best fares on flights from Glasgow to Vancouver and London to a host of destinations from Rome and Madrid to Alicante and Nashville. The airlines include Air Canada, Alitalia, British Airways and our very own Air India. Allcheckin, says Bali, showcases offers from a host of travel providers and you can view prices and itineraries for over 500 airlines, over 80,000 hotels and leading car rental companies from across the world.

So, is Bali a 27-year-old, cool dude who sports the dot-com era uniform; chinos and cotton shirt and refers to a potential $100 million valuation like it was small change ?

Well not quite. Bali is in his fifties or thereabouts. He sports a simple but well cut grey striped suit, speaks softly and you could assign him to any job in almost any industry at a resonably senior level but not quite a dot-com or travel portal.

There is a reason for this. Bali, as I discover, worked for 18 years with the Taj Group of Hotels at the St James Court in London. Seasoned hoteliers are normally not brash and are, I have discovered, usually tuned to listening first and talking later. St James Court, to digress briefly, is still owned by the Taj and this writer makes a reference to this grand institution in an earlier post (Battle For Britain !).

A Hotelier Goes Online

A few years ago, Bali left the Taj Group and joined ebookers.com as CFO. Now, ebookers was a very well known, though not so profitable, British online travel search engine, then owned by prominent British Indian Dinesh Dhamija. Ebookers.com, which grew out of a regular and large travel firm, was sold for $415 million to car-hire and hotel group Cendant last year.

Around the same time, summer 2004 to be precise, Bali founded allcheckin.com. Business has been okay and picking up, it appears, but there is some way to go. While the UK market is pretty tuned into travel shopping on the web, India is not. And Bali is presently in India to explore opportunities for a similar, domestic site. Well, having trawled around the websites of Air Deccan, Jet Air and Kingfisher and ocassionaly some of the hotel ones as well, a sales aggregation job like allcheckin could surely help.

What makes a travel search engine tick ? Technology is critical to its functioning and success but so are the old-fashioned industry relationships. The first part has a home connection. Bali says allcheckin's CTO is Indian and shuttles between England and, where else, its back-end in Delhi where a handful of techies man it. The relationships obviously are a straight sales function. So, though expedia.com was set up by a bunch of Microsoft techies who subsequently built the sales capability, its not easy and the business is fairly brick and mortar in that sense.

No Vacancy On This Site

Disputes often arise in this space, as Bali points out. An expedia.com might tussle with a leading hotel chain because it would not sell more than the number of rooms allocated to it. As a result, a visitor to a chain via expedia might find a full up sign, though technically that may not be the case. The hotel chain might then want expedia to re-direct visitors to its own site which the portal might not. Expedia might demand higher margins as well, since it would claim credit for the brand and the loyalty with the traveller.

Bali feels the market for cheap air travel is going to get exciting. "Most people are looking for basic brand comfort but price will be the biggest driver," he says. According to him, with so many low cost carriers and increased domestic tourism, the potential for such sites could be there. "Interestingly, while internet penetration in a country like India is low, it is features like travel search which enhance internet usage. That's how it happened in the UK as well," he points out.

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