Ritu Mehrotra, Country Manager – India, Sri Lanka & Maldives, shares her views on Booking.com’s commitment to the Indian market, the recent trends in the travel industry and how OTAs are going to remain a major driver of demand for the hospitality industry.

Hotel companies, in the past few years, have ramped up their own outreach by investing considerable resources in developing their online presence to encourage more direct bookings from customers. Some would argue that such a trend could, in the long run, dampen business prospects for OTAs, more so of those dealing in the hospitality space. Ritu Mehrotra thinks otherwise. While she concurred that the trend of hotels muscling up their online platform has been the “case for a long time”, she suggested that hotels still viewed online platforms such as Booking.com as a crucial and valuable driver of demand for their business.

According to Mehrotra, Booking.com enabled accommodation providers to capitalize on the internet opportunity and reach a global customer base. To her belief, Booking.com was arguably the most cost-effective marketing channel to drive incremental business for properties of all types and sizes. “We help make the accommodation market a level playing field where smaller guesthouses can feature alongside established hotel chains, and new destinations can compete with well-known favourites,” she said. Further elaborating on the subject, she added: “we are experts at bringing properties new customers from all over the world. We focus on the technology, content, localisation and 24/7 customer service in more than 40 languages so that our partners can channel their energy into delivering great travel experiences for travellers, which is what it’s all about.”

The rise of the domestic leisure segment coincided with Booking.com’s vision and strategy for the Indian market, she said. Calling India a “prized market”, she argued that the idea for the company was to completely localise the Booking.com product and experience for India.

Giving an insight into trends in the Indian market, she mentioned that technology was spurring even more trends in travel. Explaining her assertion, she said: “for example, we are seeing a rise in mobile booking leading to a tendency for more spontaneous travel and the expectation that the process can be reliably completed in a few simple taps. We’re also seeing a demand for more unique experiences and the appetite to explore different places to stay.”

Stressing that technology was “making it possible” for more diverse properties to reach a global audience, she argued: “we continue to see a growing overlap between business and leisure travel, with people increasingly tying personal travel into a business trip. With that people expect the same quality of service and flexibility when booking business and personal travel and this is something we as Booking.com can offer.”

She also suggested that there was a movement towards newer destinations, beyond the usual leisure getaways. “People are now exploring the interiors. They are more open to sampling newer things,” she said. Ritu highlighted that the attraction for sampling new experiences was fulling this new development. She mentioned that the experiential quotient had been integral to Booking.com’s offering and the company had launched ‘Booking Experiences’, globally. (It is a new division within Booking.com and provides a diverse range of products and services in the experiences segment.) “It will soon be launched in India as well,” she informed. “We’ve focused on delivering a great booking platform and that’s something we’ll continue to do, but increasingly we’re looking at ways to assist our customers throughout their trip. We will also continue to look and test new technologies to take even more of the friction out of travel,” Ritu added.

The alternate accommodation segment has caught on, partly because of its ability to fill the supply vacuum and partly owing to its experiential flavour. According to Ritu, Booking.com had been offering a diverse range of accommodations including homes, apartments and other unique places to stay for years and actually pioneered the home and apartment space. “In recent years, we’ve seen the demand for stays that go beyond the traditional hotel, such as homes and apartments steadily continue to grow. We are busy building relationships with as many different kinds of accommodation providers as possible, and also making adjustments to our platform to ensure we are providing the best possible range of options to meet all of their unique needs. Our customers are hungry for choice and new experiences—and that’s great news for the industry,” she told us.

However, despite the recent scaling up in the space, most players have been found wanting in enforcing even a semblance of standardization in quality and comfort. Reflecting on the segment, Ritu shared that because of the continuously growing demand from customers to experience stays beyond a traditional hotel, there was a significant room for Booking.com to continue innovating and optimising its offering of homes, apartments and other unique accommodation options, which already numbered more than 5.7 million listings globally on the company’s platform. “While these types of stays have been listed on our site for many years, there is still much that we can do to help remove even more friction from the experience,” she said.

Ritu told us that Booking.com had recently introduced new features to enabled a more intuitive interface and an even more seamless experience, especially for property owners. “We have introduced new settings for our vacation rental partners which enable them to require certain information, such as a verified phone number or address details, before a customer can book their property. This provides them with enhanced control and increased peace of mind,” she detailed.

Hitherto untapped markets had opened up, providing newer opportunities for business to OTAs, Ritu shared. The government’s focus on connectivity and infrastructure was paying rich dividends for regions such as the Northeast, she told us. “Bhutan, Nepal and the Northeast are gaining momentum as destinations,” Ritu told us. When asked whether the Indian outbound movement was having an incremental effect on businesses, she agreed unequivocally to the assertion, calling it a “great development for travel and tourism.”