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BW Businessworld

Tourism needs a new narrative: Zubin Karkaria

In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Zubin Karkaria, Chief Executive Officer, VFS Global Group, shares more about his career path, entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen, trends in tourism and hospitality, success mantra, visas and VFS Global.

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VFS Global has recently introduced pioneering initiatives in the visa space such as the ‘Visa At Your Doorstep’ service, which enables customers to apply for visas from the comfort and safety of their home or office. The group has now introduced this service in over 30 countries worldwide for specific client governments.

In an exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Zubin Karkaria, Chief Executive Officer, VFS Global Group, shares more about his career path, entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen, trends in  tourism and hospitality, success mantra, visas and VFS Global.

At the outset, congratulations on the completion of 20 years of VFS Global and its market leadership position. How did you get your start in travel and tourism and how did that career lead you to your current position as the world's largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide?

Thank you for your good wishes – it has truly been quite a journey over the last two decades, one that I look back at with both pride and humility. My affinity for travel and tourism began from my college days, when I helped out a friend at his travel agency. The travel industry then was a highly aspirational field to be in. I must say a lot of that passion for this sector is alive and well in me even today! When I joined SOTC, the industry was at the start of a phenomenal growth phase and I was given a lot of responsibility and had a steep learning curve. When Kuoni acquired SOTC in 1996, the company took a quantum leap and became India’s No. 1 travel company, and also gave us the confidence and freedom to experiment and pursue new opportunities. One of those opportunities was VFS Global. 

Our model was simple, though unheard-of at the time. We proposed to handle all non-judgmental aspects of the visa application process for client governments so they could focus purely on the decision-making aspect, i.e. to grant the visa or not. This was aimed at easing the burden on embassies and consulates who were dealing with long queues and high number of applications, and also to introduce many conveniences for customers, such as centres in multiple cities (at the time, customers could only submit applications in Delhi or Mumbai), air-conditioned facilities, courier services, etc. 

It was a pioneering idea that took quite a lot of time to pitch and persuade potential client governments before it was able to be viewed with confidence. Eventually, we won the first visa application outsourcing contract with the US Consulate in Mumbai after which there was no looking back. The important aspects of this business model are that we do not play any role in the judgmental / assessment part of the visa application process, but handle the rest of the entire process, while also appreciating the sensitivity of it – hence there can be no compromise on integrity and security of the overall process.    

Today, we are honoured to be the trusted partner of 64 governments globally, who we serve across 144 countries spread across five continents, through over 3500 Visa Application Centres. With VFS Global, we have built a truly global business from scratch, where we had to set the benchmarks and develop systems and processes for an entire industry, and that journey has been immensely satisfying. It is also a matter of pride for us that we have developed a financially stable and strong company which has weathered the worst of the current crisis and is now looking at further strengthening our market position in the years to come.

Do throw some light on the important milestones in VFS Global’s history with our readers.

Serving a sovereign government is a serious and sensitive proposition. Visa application outsourcing as a concept was unchartered territory back when we started out. So getting those first few contracts were our biggest milestones – we had to convince the governments not only of our competence, but of the very need for such a service! Once our reputation developed about us being able to manage this sensitive process in a professional and secure manner, it became relatively easier to convince governments about outsourcing the process to VFS Global. 

Another milestone was our first global rollout of UK visa applications in 2007, when, from operating in 11 countries, we had to expand to 33 countries across seven regions, in a matter of months. It was a stretch for our teams, but also a game-changer for us when we managed to successfully set up operations in the new locations. It allowed us to showcase our capability to rapidly roll out standardised global operations, and in a sense, proved that we were here to stay. 

Introducing the concept of a Joint Visa Application Centre too was an important milestone for us, as for the first time, it enabled customers to submit applications for multiple countries under one roof.

As a company that constantly pushes itself to offer new services, innovation is a cherished value. Our new technologies have leveraged on our first-mover advantage. One recent pioneering game-changer we introduced in the visa space was the ‘Visa At Your Doorstep’ service, which enables customers to apply for visas from the comfort and safety of their home or office. We have now introduced this service in over 30 countries worldwide for specific client governments.

Another breakthrough innovation was LIDProTM (or Location Independent Document Processing) a solution first developed for Finland’s Ministry for External Affairs, which enables remote visa processing and has won us much recognition. 

We have been setting the benchmarks for the industry for the past two decades through  major and minor innovations happening on a routine basis. With a fast-changing technological landscape, our focus will be to introduce faster and better services and products that have a lot of value for today’s customer, even within the tightly controlled visa services space. 

As an entrepreneur in the domain of visa services, what was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

When we started VFS Global, our parent company Kuoni was already a market leader in the travel sector. But as pioneers in a brand new industry, we had to think like entrepreneurs on how we could persuade our clients to think outside the box. As with any new concept, visa process outsoucing as a model was met with its share of skepticism and long-drawn preparation on our part – we conducted six-month-long surveys of customer needs, and faced long gestation periods of up to 18 months – before we were able make any headway.

As a next step, growing the business and building robust, transparent and audited processes at every stage of the visa application process, according to the widely varied requirements of each client government, have presented several new challenges – but they were critical to the fundamentals of building of processes not just for the company, but for the industry as a whole. 

Hence, our teams had to have a level of ‘entrepreneurial ideation’ which is definitely a key strength we exploit at the organisational level, as we strive to innovate and infuse fresh perspectives into the business. I must add here that given the sensitivity of data and information we deal with, ensuring quality control and data protection by our systems across people and geographies – 24x7, 365 days of the year – in an uncompromising manner, is one of our biggest focus areas. Being one of only a handful of companies that was compliant with the EU General Data Protection Regulation when it was first introduced was also very gratifying for us. Over the years we have invested significantly – and consistently - not only in people development and technology, but also in specialised functions like Compliance, Information Security and Data Protection, for each of which we have highly experienced and dedicated teams, processes and controls which are benchmarked to the highest international standards.

What is your ‘success mantra’?

A very strong ‘can do’ attitude and equally strong customer service and business excellence orientation have been our underlying success factors. In a dynamic industry as ours, it is imperative to have self-belief and a ‘can-do’ attitude and come up with new ideas to stay ahead of change. Though we are in a leadership position, entrepreurial hunger is still very much in our DNA. With intense competition, opportunities remain as opportunities for a very short time, so we need to always keep our foot on the pedal. 

This belief has enabled our teams to deliver solutions and services in a highly professional and reliable manner and develop trust and goodwill with governments world over. Sovereign governments acknowledge VFS Global to be one of the most competent and trusted service providers in the visa, passport and consular services business.

At this point of time, there are reports of a positive uptick in hotels occupancy levels, which is such a positive for the recovery of travel and tourism. With a finger on the pulse of the Indian and global trends, how do you see the developing situation?

Expectedly, the pandemic impacted the travel ecosystem significantly across the globe. Be it natural disasters, terror attacks, or war, the travel and tourism industry is usually the first to bear the brunt. But as we have seen several times before, it usually recovers fairly robustly and continues to grow. 

As industries grappled with the COVID-induced drastic changes and slowdowns, VFS Global responded very quickly and in a bold manner to adjust to the new market environment. Our immediate goal was more survivalist in nature but we also see this as a big opportunity to transform our business model and make it even stronger and more resilient for the future. We have embarked on a major transformation project which will leverage technology to develop an even stronger, more efficient, more resilient business model of the future. 

At this stage, it is still too early to predict how the next few months will pan out, with travel recovery sure to be impacted by COVID-19 spikes in some regions, and on the positive side, by the rollout of the first vaccines. However, we are confident that we will emerge from this crisis in an even stronger position and that the value proposition of VFS Global remains intact.

We are very conscious that in a post-COVID world, health considerations will take precedence. From a Visa Application Centre, to an airport, or sightseeing at a destination, people will be looking for assurances that all touchpoints are safe during their journey. At every step of the visa application process, we are focused on providing that assurance to our visa customers and client governments, including standardised health and safety measures to be followed across all our Visa Application Centres. For example, our Centres around the globe have implemented a mandatory appointment system, body temperature checks, physical distancing measures, regular disinfection of high-contact surfaces, personal hygiene, and employees wearing masks and gloves. Keeping the new focus on health and safety in mind, we are also expanding our online / low-contact services like doorstep visa application options and courier services.

As part of these efforts, technology is set to become the biggest enabler for companies in the post-COVID world to provide a more personalised customer experience. Overall, this is a time for companies to adapt, and align ourselves to new demands from customers, and provide a high level of service and personalized customer experience.

How do you see India outbound’s travel shaping up over the next five years? What according to you will be critical in the near future in the outbound travel sector?

It would be premature to predict the outlook in any market with the course of the pandemic still evolving. Economists expect a full recovery of the travel and tourism industry perhaps in 2022 or even later. At this stage, one cannot predict if and when borders will open up fully to pre-COVID norms. That said, people are keen to travel as soon as they possibly can and we expect this pent-up demand, along with a new dimension of health considerations, to be a strong driving force for the sector to rally and show a positive trend. 

With India traditionally being one of the fastest growing outbound travel markets where passport penetration is still low, there is indeed ample opportunity for growth in the post-COVID world. I would say India has all the right ingredients to continue as a strong source market going forward.

Do you suggest any changes in the country’s visa policy which may further help in reviving the inbound and outbound travel economy?

Changes in visa policy are entirely the prerogative of governments, and we, as a visa service provider, cannot speculate or offer suggestions on what kind of changes they may introduce. Some governments have already mandated COVID-negative certifications at the pre-departure stage for travellers to ease the pressure on on-arrival testing. Some countries have also made having travel insurance with COVID treatment cover mandatory. We may see more such health-related moves in the future as well, as part of the travel recovery process.

What are some of the latest innovative solutions introduced by VFS Global in visas processing? 

The ongoing pandemic has changed booking and travel patterns, pushing bookings and payments online, and customers are showing a greater willingness to pay a premium for exclusivity and at-home services. Sensing this evolving need, VFS Global is focusing on reimagining the customer journey by bringing more of the visa application process online and to the safety of our customers’ homes. We are scaling-up our Visa at Your Doorstep (VAYD) service across various countries, allowing customers to complete visa submission and biometrics in the comfort and safety of their homes and offices. Further, we are bringing digital to the heart of the customer journey by moving more of the application process online. 

The LIDProTM (or Location Independent Document Processing) solution, which   enables remote visa processing to deliver significant efficiencies for client governments is another excellent innovation and we continue to sharpen the model.

To address the need of the hour for customers globally, VFS Global has tied up with local leading laboratories in around 40 locations (so far) of operations for pre-departure COVID-19 tests. We are leveraging our technological know-how to offer a seamless appointment booking system. We are also adopting tools like IVR (interactive voice response) for our helplines and Chatbot helpdesks to improve turnaround times and reduce errors. These initiatives will also allow us to focus more on the value-add for our customers.

How do you see the future of travel and tourism in India? Please suggest a few steps for the travel industry stakeholders for its rapid recovery?  

I don't see any reason not to be bullish about the future of travel and tourism sector in India. With a growing middle class, young population, a growing economy and burgeoning tier II and III cities, the country has all the ingredients to remain a major player in the global travel and tourism market. The Indian economy as well, after having gone through a rough patch on account of the pandemic, is expected to record a double-digit growth of 10 per cent  in FY 2021-22, according to a latest report by Deloitte. Thus, the future surely looks promising. 

However, as the pandemic is contained and travel resumes, it will be vital for all the stakeholders to come together and work towards bringing consumer confidence back. This is where technology adoption will play a major role. Companies will have to explore technological solutions that allow travellers to maintain social distancing norms as much as possible and at the same time, get a high level of service and personalised customer experience. 

In the upcoming recovery period, two aspects will be vital to driving demand - constant communication with customers in light of regularly changing government advisories and newer travel trends, and ensuring health and safety for customers.

Kindly name the countries that VFS facilitates the visas for in India? Where all do you have branches in India? Which is your busiest branch?

VFS Global serves 49 client governments in India through visa application centres in 18 cities, out of which around 37 of them have currently restarted visa operations in full adherence to their own health & safety requirements and health and safety guidelines of the local authorities. Typically, the big metro cities in India see the largest footfall.

List of 49 client governments served in India:

Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Laos, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxemborg, Malaysia, Malta, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Ukraine, United States, Vietnam 

What is Zubin Karkaria’s message to budding new and impressionable entrepreneurs and the hospitality, travel and tourism industry at large?

I believe tourism entrepreneurship is all about storytelling and offering services which add value. While selling tourism to consumers in the post-COVID world, budding entrepreneurs should look at developing new products and methods of packaging them. As an industry that is so vital for the Indian and global economy, tourism needs a new narrative, and ambitious and talented entrepreneurs can help in building our case from the scratch and tell our stories afresh. 

Every challenge or adversity can bring with it an opportunity. If there is a silver lining in this crisis, it is that travel companies can think much more boldly and expansively about the future, and perhaps act on a once-in-a-generation idea. We need to prepare tourism and hospitality for the ‘new normal’, and that's where new entrepreneurs should focus - encouraging new business models, embracing digitalisation, and meeting the safety and health needs of travellers. 

How would you want to be recalled, in a few words, after you have played your innings and handed over the baton to Gen-Next?

I feel it’s still quite early to write down my legacy, but if I did, it would be simply: that there is no substitute for hard work and perseverance to make dreams come true. No matter how challenging a situation is, and there have been many of those, I have usually convinced myself to find solutions through self-belief and a ‘can-do’ attitude. Clarity of purpose and integrity to purpose are very important. The focus of the next generation of leaders must be to create genuine value for your organisation and for society. Dare to dream, but back it up with action. This will work in any industry or in any endeavour.

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