Zubin Karkaria: Travel Executive in Conversation


May 6, 2008

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Time is a precious commodity for Zubin Karkaria, chief executive officer and managing director, India & South Asia, Kuoni Travel Group. Steering the Rs-1,800-crore travel company, the largest in the country, has its own advantages. He is a sought-after travel professional. There is no doubt about that. But the biggest disadvantage is that he can barely find time for himself or his family. Karkaria, however, is not complaining. “As you grow in your professional life, you have to be prepared for it,” he says.

Peers describe him as a go-getter. “He is very alert and conscious and constantly tries to raise the bar for himself and his team,” says an industry executive. This go-getter also loves taking up challenges. At the same time, he never hesitates to turn to God when the going gets tough. “I am a Parsi priest. So I know the importance of God in my life. I turn to him all the time,” says the father of two.

This spiritual side, in fact, helps Karkaria maintain a fine balance between his family and professional roles. It is something that has held him in good stead throughout even as he embarked on a career in travel and tourism some 19 years ago. “I graduated from HR College in Mumbai and began working with a friend, who had a travel company. My love for the travel business started then.”

Karkaria put in two years at Orbit Trade Fairs and Tours moving to the outbound travel company SOTC, now called Kuoni following its acquisition by Switzerland-based Kuoni Travel Holding in 1996. He has been with Kuoni for the last 17 years and is still going strong. “The association with Kuoni has been long, but I’ve never had a dull moment,” he says. “My company understood my needs, desires and ambitions and has helped me grow along the way. Not only has this been professional growth, but also personal growth. Why should I move on then?”

It was at Kuoni that Karkaria was truly able to hone his skills as a travel industry professional, moving from managing trade fairs, conferences and dealer incentive programmes as the head of the B2B segment to handling large group tours and holiday packages on the leisure side of the business. In a sense he was able to get valuable experience at both ends. This helped him identify need gaps as well as new areas of growth and opportunity. “We not only focussed on Indians wanting to travel abroad, but also dwelt on Indians living abroad who wanted to travel with other Indians. This was a huge success,” says Karkaria.

There were other innovations that Karkaria and his team introduced. One was ‘Holiday Abroad Now, Pay Later’. “This came out of a research study we commissioned,” says Karkaria. “The research showed us that the biggest handicap to travelling overseas was money. People then did not have the lumps sum amount to travel overseas despite it being a priority. Apart from getting a house and a job, a middle-class person’s aspiration is to travel overseas. But we realised that they didn’t have the money to do so. It then struck us that we could provide loans to them. We were the first company to introduce such a scheme. We tied up with Kotak Mahindra Bank for the purpose and it caught on. Today it makes up 10% of our business.”

Karkaria did not stop at that. As the acting chief operating officer of the company—a position he took up in 1998 —he was part of the management team that put in place a blueprint to push the company’s inorganic growth plans. Two Companies were acquired subsequently —SITA World Travel and Tour Club—in 2000 and 2001. The acquisitions helped the company cement its position in destination management, incentive, business travel and inbound travel segments—areas where Kuoni didn’t have a presence. It continued with its inorganic agenda by acquiring a third company Distant Frontiers in 2006. But even as all of this progressed, Karkaria launched a few divisions such as VFS Global in 2001 and the visa services arm of Kuoni that now has operations in 39 countries. “We began with three offices in Mumbai, Pune and Ahmedabad and expanded to different locations subsequently,” he says.

The business travel operations of Kuoni, which is said to be up for sale right now, was also relaunched by Karkaria as HRG SITA in 2007. The man, however, refuses to be drawn into a conversation about who the likely buyers are for HRG SITA right now. “We have four different businesses if you take into account business travel, outbound travel, destination management and visa services. There is a fifth venture too, the Kuoni Academy of Travel,” he says.

In an industry where the need for people, especially, young people, is always there, Karkaria believes the academy is doing some valuable service. “The churn is very high and there is need for a stable, skilled workforce. Even when I recruit, I bear in mind the number of jobs the candidate has jumped. If he is stable I would prefer him over the ones who’ve been moving around too fast.”

With the dynamics of the business changing constantly, Karkaria finds himself on his toes all the time trying to identify consumer trends and new patterns of behaviour. “Things are no more the way they used to be. Today people prefer shorter holidays as opposed to longer ones. The accent is on having fun and spending quality time with the family as opposed to shopping. People simply don’t have the time so they would rather spend whatever time they have with their close ones.”

Karkaria does the same whenever time permits. Short holidays with the family to Goa are a favourite past time. “I prefer Goa because it is a short flight from Mumbai. My children are aged four, and six, so it works better that way. When you go there, you relax and have fun. That helps me recharge.”

His other favourite destinations include Singapore and Malaysia. “We try not to repeat our international holiday destinations because the kids could get bored. It’s fun when they are engaged,” says the man who specialises in enabling good times for others.

Original article here.