Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I Finally Made It To IIM Ahmedabad (A)

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I finally made it to IIM Ahmedabad. Obviously I mean a short visit to the campus. What did you think ? Anyway I always thought the campus was tucked away in some quiet corner, away from the city. I guess it must have been at one time. Now, the town of Ahmedabad has pretty much wrapped itself around the institution, honking cars, dusty roads et al. Similar to IIT Bombay.

The Louis Kahn brick structure has stature and exudes the quiet grandeur, despite the scores of cracks in the walls and arches that look like they are going to give way any moment. Looking at the arches, I am reminded this is a Government institution. I understand the IIM Calcutta buildings are in worse shape so..

I realize there are actually two campuses, the old brick one whose photographs we see all the time and a new one built in `exposed concrete’ whose photographs we do not see. Not surprisingly because the exposed concrete (the result of thought out architectural strategy and not an accident) will take some time getting used to. After all your first thought is, hey, when are they painting these walls ? A busy road that separates the two campuses but an underground tunnel with a permanent and insightful exhibition of IIM’s history connects the two.

Its A New Course

My colleagues and I are being given the tour by Prashant, a PGPX student and former TCS guy – the one-year MBA programme, which despite whatever else anyone at IIM might say, is pitched directly against the Indian School of Business (ISB). I mean the 1-year-duration part, not necessarily the cut-off age or other factors. Be that as it may, the fact that IIM has responded is worthy. Given its parentage ie.

The one-year course has much higher cut-offs, you have to be at least 27 years old, or roughly seven years of work experience. All this was told to me by Prashant as well by professor of marketing Arvind Sahay who is one of the faculty members overseeing this course. It’s a bit of a pet project for Sahay and I would wish the team all the best.

Sahay is one of the many boyish looking professors who dot the IIM landscape. I met another IIM A professor T T Rammohan Rao (TTR as he is called) in Mumbai recently. My first words to him were, "Oh, I thought you were much older." "I am sorry to dissapoint you," he said with a twinkle in his eye and in a tone that must be trademark sarcasm. Incidentally, a study of Sahay's bio (IIT, IIM, PhD from Austin, U Texas in marketing, Assistant Prof at London Business School) can inspire or depress, depending on where you are in life. I guess I tilt towards the latter !

Job Market Will Set The Tone

Now the big question. How will IIM A’s new course stack up against the Indian School of Business (ISB) Hyderabad ? It’s a tough one. Sahay admits they are a late entrant in this format - the first batch passes out in March 2007 – and there is a while to go. Placements were on as we were walking around the campus and presumably in a month, things will be clearer. Sahay did say a couple of big placement offers had already come in.

From a course perspective, I did get the sense that IIM has tried hard to distinguish itself from ISB– notably its focus on a higher percentage of resident faculty. I also got a sense that the one-year is pretty exhaustive. The students point out that they are working all the time. That is not a comparison with ISB of course, just an observation. I also felt that IIM might have responded better and faster, if only it could.

My gut tells me that ISB might lead in the job market for a year or two more before it becomes a neck n neck battle. If the job market continues to boom, you might see equilibrium achieved even more quickly. I am basing this on the fact that the input in both cases is more or less similar and of a high quality. I have met ISB students and I met some IIM PGPX students – I see no structural differences ! Would be interesting though to hear what everyone else thinks !

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Five Tips For Surviving India's Budget Airlines

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For the last few days I have been flying a mixture of high and low cost carriers (though the opposite of low is not high by any stretch) and I feel confident enough to put down a small survival guide. I welcome you to add/subtract to this list. Hopefully we will have a useful Indian budget air travel guide at the end of it !!!

Choose the right Low Cost Carrier (LCC)

I am a great admirer of Capt G R Gopinath but his airline is a no-no as far as I am concerned. I like time-bound arrivals and departures even on holidays and personal visits and Air Deccan has not delivered on this count. I speak from personal and collective experience here.

Actually, Air Deccan (they do fly sectors others do not) is okay if it’s the first flight out in the morning. These are usually on time. But first flights are usually at 5 am or thereabouts. For people like me, that’s last night. Spice Jet and GoAir seem to be doing pretty okay on schedules, from my own experience.

Always ask friends and colleagues about their experiences. Ask only one question. Was it on time or not ? If not, was it the airline’s fault or ATC etc etc. My advice is to use punctuality as the ONLY benchmark in your assessment. The rest does not really matter.

Takeaways

1. Punctuality over everything else
2. Choose the early morning flight if you don't trust the airline to be punctual
3. Visit both travel as well as airline websites
4. My choice of aircraft..Boeings are a little more comfortable and agile than Airbuses


Ticketing And Fares

All airlines have pretty robust ticketing platforms, including Air Deccan. So you can buy your ticket online quite effectively without any hassles. And they do get honoured when you land up at the airport. If there are any problems here, I am not aware of them. Facilities like choosing your seat do not always work. On Spice Jet for instance, I’ve found that the java application does not run all the time.

On fares, remember that Air Deccan is not necessarily the lowest. So, do browse through sites like www.travelguru.com (my friends) or other ones like Makemytrip and cleartrip. They all seem competent.

If you don’t always want to go the internet way, use call centres. They are quite efficient and can take you through the process of choosing ticket, airline, giving you some basic advice and so on. Again, I’ve only used Travel Guru which I am happy with. I am pretty some of the others would be good to.

Tickets are typically emailed to you. Its possible you might get a better deal that what you got on the airline’s website but its not likely to be killer one. The advantage is that you can enquire after special offers, packages and the like. Increasingly, you can book hotels as well. I did so for a personal trip to Hyderabad this time and the hotel was a good budget one and everything went smoothly. I didn't have to pay because I had already given by CC details to Travel Guru.

Travel firms or agencies help when you need tickets in a hurry. Or want to cancel and rebook. I did that once from Bangalore airport if I recall correctly. I cancelled my delayed flight, checked out the best fares that were on offer (for flights in the next two hours) and booked another ticket. All in about three minutes. I then walked over to the airline counter to collect the ticket ! Remember, for all the sophistication on the internet front end, the back end is like any other travel agency !

Takeways

1. Start by scanning the travel websites
2. You could use the travel website/agency to look for deals. You could get good budget hotel deals as well.
3. Call the travel website helpline to work your way around.
4. Always visit the airline website to see if the deals match
5. Credit cards are safe, at least I think so.

Departure

This is the tricky part and can call for considerable mental and physical preparedness. Let me give you an example. I was flying Spice Jet from Delhi to Hyderabad a few days ago. I reached the airport an hour and ten minutes before departure. I spent roughly 20 minutes in the line for baggage screening, 40 minutes in the line (systems were down for 10 apparently) for check-in and another 15 or 20 for security check. Not adding up ? Of course not. The flight took off late, not because of air traffic or fog but airport congestion.

Now,I catch the same Spice Jet flight back from Hyderabad to Delhi the next morning. This time, I spend 2 minutes in line for baggage screening, 1.30 minutes at check-in (there was no one ahead of me) and 3 minutes at security check. Is there a pattern here ? To some extent possibly. Delhi airport is a bloody mess. GMR (the chaps who run the airport) have cleverly segregated low cost from high cost.

Either way, its good to be mentally geared. And its not the time factor only. Be ready to confront bawling babies, stressed out mothers, countless parents scurrying after restless children, family members shouting for each other and minor bruising from baggage trollies as they brush past you.

The good news it that quite likely you will meet a fellow traveler who too is rolling his or her eyes at all of this. So you can strike up a conversation on budget airlines in general and maybe other things of mutual interest in specific. Years of Shaolin Temple training in patience and silence ensure that I am not the first to plung into such conversations. I do go along if approached though.

Takeways

1. Gear up mentally before you leave for the airport. Meditation might help.
2. Reach at least 1.5 hours before. You could reach 1 hour before but be ready to race around like a headless chicken.
3. You could be surprised too, the way I was at Hyderabad.
4. Remember, the LCC terminal will resemble an inter state bus terminal or railway station.
5. Prepare to meet all sorts of folks. Enjoy the experience. Think of it as a microcosm of India etc.
6. And yes, the bus ride to the aircraft will most probably be in a scavenged and retrofitted state transport bus. There will be no aircon and it will wait to fill up, rather than rush off with small batches. Just like the ST buses.

On Board

Actually, this is the easiest part because there is little given or taken. You might be served some bottled water (smallest size)and VERY light snacks like a biscuit. Or maybe you could buy some food. Either way, do NOT go in expecting four-course dinners. I am surprised how many of us still do. Come on, you can’t pay Rs 1 + taxes for a Delhi – Mumbai flight (or wherever) and expect food. Bring your own.

Air Deccan has free seating. Not sure about all. So remember you have to make a run for it. If you have travelled in Mumbai locals as I have, this is the easiest part. Just don't try and jump into the aircraft or out before it reaches the tarmac, as you might into or out of local trains leaving and approaching Churchgate station.

Takeways

1. Carry food, water if you feel like mid-air meals.
2. Do not expect any inflight service, except water.
3. Don't expect flight attendants to rush to you when you jab the button. Not that they do in high cost carriers either.
4. Carry reading material. Mostly, there will be no newspapers. Expect one inflight magazine which should take you roughly 2.5 minutes to complete.


Arrival

Not much to report here. Baggage will take as long as anyone else, though some airlines are faster at baggage extraction and dispersal. In the last two days I have spent roughly one hour waiting at the Delhi and Mumbai airport aprons for a parking bay..yes, I couldn't believe it, but turned out that neither could the pilot - of the Delhi-bound aircraft - who kept expressing shock and surprise !

Takeaways

1. The same ST bus will fetch you
2. Once in the exit terminal, you will mingle with passengers who've just arrived on high cost carriers. Don't know if you will feel good or bad about this
3. Once you step out of the terminal, you will be at the mercy of tough looking taxi drivers, credit card subscription agents and sundry touts. In this, you will be treated on par with your HCC passengers.

Happy Flying..

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What's The Difference Between A Mumbai Taxi Driver & India's Leading Hotel Chains ?

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Well, nothing ! I remember every time the local train system conked for some reason the taxi drivers used to drive up their fares. The meter was forgotten. So a Churchgate to Bandra ride which was, lets say, Rs 300 by the meter, suddenly became Rs 600. Stranded passengers wanting to reach home obviously had little choice.

I think of the Mumbai black and yellow taxi cabs when I check into hotels these days, particularly the leading hotel chains in India. As I am right now in Delhi at a `prominent' address. The hotel is nice, as it always has been. Except that the tariffs have been jacked up beyond comprehension. Worse, they are mostly quoted in dollars. Its like the rupee had gone out of fashion. Or the dollar figures make the tariff seem smaller. Incidentally, I recommend you carry smelling salts in case you feel dizzy at the check-in counter. And while checking out.

I have no specific problem with the hoteliers. Since they are in this business to make profit. Except that they switfness with which they've raised rates, almost unapologetically, makes me feel they are behaving like Mumbai's taxi drivers. Yes, yes I know there is no fixed or regulated tariff for hotels.

But It's The Same Product !

But its the same product. The rooms are the same, the linen is identical, the telephones don't work some times, housekeeping often forgets to bring what you asked for and the food, well, is the same. Service, let me tell you, is not top of the line. The difference is you know the customer will return. Where will the guy go ? And yet, you are paying twice as what you did six months ago.

Makes me think this is a good time to buy hotel stocks, since I might benefit from their success if not their product. And yet, I don't find the hotel stocks exactly soaring. I wonder why.
 

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