Made in Maharashtra Mumbai

Alone, but not lonely

‘Influencers’, or experienced travellers, guide others through chat and in return, win travel credits

By and large, Indians still love to travel in packs, which explains the popularity of packaged tours. But away from the hustle, the young are preferring to go it alone.

An estimated 3.5 million Indian travellers in the age group of 25 to 35 years go abroad each year, and plan their own trips. For a traveller like this, sightseeing is humdrum.

This is where city-based travel startup Ithaka Travel comes in. The company helps travellers book activities and experiences prior to their journeys.

The idea was born out of cofounder and CEO Rahul Singh’s (30) experience as a solo traveller; in his words, “one of the earliest in my generation.” Mr. Singh found it easy to book hotels and flights online, but found no access to unique experiences such as scuba diving in a remote island in Thailand, a bicycle tour or food tour or even a luxury rooftop experience.

Alone, but not lonely

He wanted to book activities for travellers like him, and Ithaka came into being in 2015, organising trips to Thailand and Indonesia.

The startup’s name was inspired from a Greek poem and illustrated comic. It has a very profound line that ‘it’s about the journey, not the destination’. Co-founder Ameya Sahasrabudhe took the line to heart, and a business took shape.

Much of the travel planning happens through chat, the ‘human interface’ that solo travellers take comfort in. In the initial years, travellers’ queries would be answered through chat — “messaging was getting more and more common” — which soon converted into bookings for activities travel agents did not offer.

“When we are talking about a world of limitless travelling we had to power that, which was the challenge,” said Mr. Singh.

The influencers

People who plan their travel independently know it’s a chaotic process. “Despite accessing information from several sources, they are unsure about half the things. So from the value end, there was no better sticky experience than what the firm was building,” he said.

Over the years, the startup has evolved beyond being an ‘internal team of travellers’ helping people book their tours. Last year, it unveiled a community of travel influencers — well-travelled people who chat with others on the platform in their free time. In return for their service, the influencers earn travel credits, which they can redeem on their next tour.

“You can travel entirely for free next, you can earn that much,” said Mr. Singh.At least 20 influencers have earned fully-funded international trips in just three to four months of being on the platform.

Growing in scale

The startup began with Thailand because it wanted to build a global brand. It then unveiled the service in Bali. “We now help with Turkey, Singapore, Malaysia, the U.A.E., 14 countries in Europe, and are launching in Sri Lanka,” said Mr. Singh.

Ithaka has built a base of 150,000 annual travellers and wants to bring global travellers on board. It is also growing the number of destinations. “From two destinations last year, we are ‘live’ at 20. And by the end of the year, we will be live in 50 to 60 destinations,” Mr. Singh said.

The company hopes to help Indians travelling to any destination abroad, and aim to reach 10,000 to 15,000 travellers a month. It is currently catering to around 2,500 travellers a month.

In the next five years, it hopes to become a unicorn in travel: a billion-dollar company. “We have to get to a scale of helping a million travellers per month, fully established as a global travel brand. Whoever is travelling should be on Ithaka,” said Mr. Singh.

Challenges

The going has not always been as smooth for ths startup. Nearly 20 months ago, when Mr. Sahasrabudhe quit, the firm was on the verge of closure. Mr. Singh, who was his classmate at IIT Bombay in 2012 stepped in.

“We were in a very bad state because we were looking for funds and not many investors were enthusiastic about the model; it was not going anywhere,” said Mr. Singh.

A round of funding from Thomas Cook India raised its fortunes and hope. “We fully transitioned last year from an in-house team model that was not scalable to a community model which is fully scalable,” said Mr. Singh.

Mr. Singh has faith in his customers, who he says, “are helping us create better travel content, and bringing more influencers and travellers.” He also hopes the community will grow to a 100,000 the world over.

Ithaka Travel

Founders: Rahul Singh, CEO Mithilesh Said, CTO

Projected revenue: ₹6 cr. (FY 20)

Started in: 2015

Target: Global solo travellers

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 8:17:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/alone-but-not-lonely/article30081136.ece

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