Lubaina Sheerazi, COO, Blue Square Consultants, in a candid conversation with Reema Lokesh, speaks about her journey in the industry and crafting the Oman success story in the India market
From business development in the tour operating space to that of destination development and brand representation, how did the journey begin ?
My career journey began in my 20s from a major in textile designing, followed by fashion designing. My entry into the travel industry was more by chance than as a focused career move. A casual study course related to the travel industry, to that of working with some leading brands in the travel space across specialisations built my groundwork leading me to this day in my travel industry career. In 2010, post the global financial meltdown, India was witnessing a boom in outbound tourism, outpacing western countries in terms of growth and absolute numbers. That’s when Blue Square Consultants was born, out of a need to provide comprehensive sales and marketing services to tourism brands within a professionally managed corporate set up.
What according to you were the critical challenges faced along the journey?
Oman undoubtedly was one of my biggest challenges. Having said that, promoting Oman has been one of my most fulfilling experiences. It is a beautiful country, offering interesting experiences but the travel trade and consumer perceptions were diametrically opposite to the real facts. Further, Oman being the first destination and client on board was in itself a critical test of our abilities. While the role itself was daunting, it was also the most challenging time in my personal life. Being a start-up, in many ways I had to begin from ground up. In retrospect, all those challenging situations and even rejections were a part of the learning process.
What helped you craft the Oman Tourism success story in India?
I believe it was sheer determination to succeed and a lot of hard work. A considerable amount of my time was spent in building faith, motivating and educating the ministry and private sector on India’s growing potential. Most importantly, the team at the Ministry of Tourism was extremely supportive of my belief. Our strategy was to attract the perfect mix of leisure by positioning Oman as a standalone five-night destination for the neo well educated Indian traveller seeking authentic experiences in the Middle East.
We got the Oman Tourism account way back in 2010. It was the time that the country was practically unknown as a tourist destination. Europe being the primary source market for inbound arrivals, there was limited focus on India as its travel potential was embryonic. While the market did open up, we were soon hit by the Arab Spring which shifted our efforts towards changing consumer perception and showcasing Oman as the best kept secret of Arabia.
Hence, it was only 2012 that saw the launch of our first campaign for Oman. Given limited budgets, it was a strategic move to target key cities in India like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai. Our initial approach was segmented to encompass the consumer and media segment while also building trade relationships. In 2013, we expanded our presence in other cities like Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Ahmedabad. We were able to achieve all of this within a short span of time while judiciously using our marketing spends. This was followed by several familiarisation trips to the destination that was targeted at hosting the best in the business, including small-mid sized enterprises among others. Additionally, the focus was on hosting informative webinars, offline trainings and joint promotions with tour operators to further strengthen our presence with the travel trade. We also identified the potential of the “celebrations” segment and marketed the destination amidst stiff competition to make it one of the most sought after destination wedding locations. The MICE segment was another focal point for the Sultanate. Having started with small groups given the limited inventory, today, we have the capacity to host large groups of up to 1100 pax.
Along our journey, we reached another successful milestone with the launch of Oman’s global advertising campaign in 2017. The film was conceptualised, developed and executed by the India office. The feature highlighted not just the culture, landscape and history of Oman, but also showcased it as an ideal adventure and wedding destination.
In due course, India moved up to become one of the most important source markets for the ministry. Over the last five years, Oman has witnessed over 31 per cent growth in Indian arrivals. The reduced visa fees, new e-visa system, along with the newly opened Muscat International Airport and launch of the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre will definitely be a boon for Oman’s tourism. With the visa policy we see more travellers adding Oman to their travel bucket list.
What are the current challenges you face in your line of business ?
Travel representation is a growing business. New players emerge to challenge established brands and this in itself keeps us on our toes. With more players entering this space, it will inevitably lead to a shakeout in the coming years when the players with a professional acumen will attract the best accounts and brands and this will bring about a maturity in the business.
Being a woman leader has its own triumphs and
challenges. Would you like to share your thoughts on this ?
I have never faced gender bias, fortunately. In our industry, there are quite a few women leading from the top and I would like to congratulate each one of them on their success! I know some of them personally and each of them has made an impact and inspired a lot of us, including me. Neelu Singh is a great example who has been instrumental in helping me discover my potential and constantly inspires me to push my boundaries and excel.
Work life balance is easy to preach but hard to practise. But we constantly work towards achieving it. Trade-offs are inevitable, though. Having said this, juggling various roles is also very gratifying and has given me a wider perspective in life and broadened skills sets.
What is your vision for the industry?
The travel and tourism industry will continue to grow upwards with a healthy GDP growth, a stronger passport, disposable incomes and growing exposure to the internet. If nothing else, the sheer size of our rapidly expanding middle class practically guarantees success for India’s outbound story for the next couple of decades. And as we grow, tourism brands across segments will be vying for a piece of the Indian outbound offering ample opportunities to all of us including the representation sector. However, the industry is in a constant state of transformation and the traveller is evolving faster than ever. As tourism marketers, we will need to be strategic and forward thinking but flexible enough to change course to keep up with this dynamic new traveller.