Srinath Shankar’s grand plans of backpacking across Europe were shot down when his visa got rejected twice, in 2009 and in 2010. “It was the recession period, and I was a solo traveller. So they thought I could be a potential immigrant,” laughs Srinath. Today, he has 30-plus approved visa stamps on his passport.
With friend and business partner Hari Ganapathy, Srinath explores new places across the globe and helps others do the same. In 2014, the duo started PickYourTrail, a travel technology startup that plans international holidays. Recently, the company also received close to three million dollars (around ₹21 crores) in a Series A round of funding, led by GoFrugal CEO Kumar Vembu and iThought ideator-founder Shyam Sekhar, which was joined by Entrust CIO Rajagopal Subramanian and Freshworks founder-CEO Girish Mathrubootham.
“For the first seven months it was just us,” says Hari, “Then we hired around six people. We have a team of 100-plus now and a bunch of campus recruits are joining us soon.”
Birds of a feather
The 33-year-olds, both alumni of Vivekananda College, first met during a college play. They kept in touch, hung out often and found corporate jobs in Bengaluru post-MBA. In fact, Srinath’s first trip to Europe was in 2012, when he accompanied Hari on a family holiday. Hari’s parents, wife and her parents and relatives were all part of this trip, Srinath’s visa was approved for the group trip.
In 19 days, they went across France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Spain. “We attended the La Tomatina festival in Bunol (Spain), went to small European towns, and stayed in a 125-year-old apartment in Rome, where they had a family tree dating back 400 years,” says Hari.
The entire trip was self booked. “Rail Europe was most sought after but we booked on independent local train websites like Trenitalia and sncf.com,” says Srinath. After the holiday, they received a lot of queries. That’s when they understood that more people want to travel on their own, but are not sure how to do so.
“Going to Europe was considered an elite thing. What was on offer was limited. Information too was limited. Not many knew of the existence of budget carriers such as Ryanair or Easy Jet. We realised it must be overwhelming for people who wanted to plan a trip,” says Srinath. This got them thinking, and for six months they tried to figure out if they could start something in the travel space.
Eventually Srinath and Hari moved to Chennai and started PickYourTrail. “A lot of our batchmates were getting married around that time and they asked for our itinerary for their honeymoons. Thanks to that, our customer count went up to around 600 in the first year,” laughs Srinath.
The website had a simple landing page with a photograph of the island of Santorini and the words: Personalised vacations crafted by travellers.
“In about a week, we had 1,000 sign ups. We started speaking to customers to understand what they wanted, their interests, dislikes... One of our first clients was a group of ladies who wanted to go to Chiang Mai for the Lantern Festival. They had a fabulous trip,” says Hari.
The team has built a personalised algorithm that takes into account around 40 factors such as time of travel, duration, preferences, ratings... to create personalised itineraries. After the booking, clients use PickYourTrail’s app track bookings, weather updates, city-specific recommendations, real time flight information and for on-trip chat support.
Meanwhile Srinath and Hari are kicked about their recent holiday in Japan. “There are some great flight fares available this time,” informs Hari. Japan is seeing a lot of tourists this year. Southeast Asia, too, is in demand.
“An interesting trend picking up is last-minute, short-haul vacations. Clients do three nights in Bali or a weekend trip to Krabi, Dubai, Singapore or Malaysia. With many countries offering visa on arrival, it makes it easier,” says Srinath.
These are mostly 25 to 30-year-olds, he adds. And of course nowadays Instagram plays a role. After all, who doesn’t like their #vacation posts trending?