Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Lockdown Diaries Part 6: Take Me 2 The World is synonymous to Experiences

Uma and I have had an interesting couple of weeks. You see, we both love sharing our culture and experiences while learning from the others. That way, we are teachers, as well as learners.

When our best friend Wendy asked Uma to organise a South Indian style Valaikappu (baby shower) for a mutual friend, she was over the moon. She immediately connected with other mutual friends, planned every detail with them and coordinated all arrangements. On Saturday the 4th July, the celebration turned out to be such a joyous occasion for all. Uma was at hand to explain the rituals to our Kiwi friends Wendy and Sally. She also had the opportunity to learn the Kiwi way of celebrating baby shower through Sally. 

For me, it was a bit different. I was asked by Dana Taylor from IPU New Zealand, a tertiary institution in Palmerston North, if I can deliver a guest lecture for a group of Tourism students. What a great time for the students of Tourism to hear from a practitioner under the current COVID-19 climate!  I gladly accepted the invitation, since I have a longstanding relationship with IPU - I have been personally running New Zealand tours for their visiting International student groups.

I spoke about where it all began for us at Take Me 2 The World, where we are now surviving COVID-19 and what is our strategy for the path forward. When the Coronavirus disaster stuck without warning, we needed a lifeboat immediately. We used all possible resources under our command - the Government wage subsidy, MBIE funded COVID-19 Business Continuity Planning business coaching, Tourism New Zealand funded strategy consultation with KPMG, attending Industry webinars keeping us abreast of developments, participating actively in formal & informal support groups and finally keeping ourselves physically & mentally well.

Then I spoke about our next step, which is to look at surviving until the borders open. Here is where we exercised our imagination and creativity to design our "Slice of the World in New Zealand" series tours. We created these tours for discerning travellers who want to indulge in unique and authentic International cultural experience by making the entire trip stress-free and without the need to leave New Zealand. Before we talk about our strategy for the post-COVID world, let us take a quick look at some of these tours.

A Slice of India in Queenstown is a tour for active and curious travellers, who want to have enriched cultural experience enjoyed as a group of likeminded people. Our guests join Uma and Nats in Queenstown to intimately understand the scintillating millennia-old Indian culture. They would learn to cook Indian food with Uma. She would be their main chef preparing a delicious Indian dinner at The Rees boutique luxury Hotel. They then participate in the Bollywood dance class, shaking their legs at the party. While they are busy having a time of their lives, they enjoy the best of both worlds with some top activities that Queenstown has to offer.  

For the discerning traveller who wants to indulge in authentic cultural experiences, the Slice of Latin America in Queenstown tour is a perfect fit. We have taken care of minute details of the tour to make it stress-free, while creating a memorable Latin American cultural experience. Our guests would feel pampered with the personalised service from the Mexican-born, New Zealand-resident Tour Leader Tere Morales-Probert. Columbian-born Erika and Francisco will mix them Latin American cocktails, while they sample a variety of Tapas-style canapes. Then the tour party joins them for a colourful Latin American dance extravaganza with a selection of music. And they round it off with a dinner of Latin American flavours. 

Our exciting Slice of France in Taupo tour is for those who wish to spend quality time with loved ones. Plenty of fun activities are designed to be enjoyed together. The group plays fun-filled games of Pétanque and Chaise Musicale with the French Sommelier Francis Auclert, the Wine Knight. They go on to sample six types of French wines and pair them with a French dinner at the luxurious Hilton Lake Taupo. Our passionate and experienced Tour Leader Colin will provide a lot of insight into the French culture, having lived in and immersed culturally in France. 

Further more, we are launching the Slice of Latin America in Auckland and Bay of Islands very soon. Our plan is to design and run 9 to 12 tours. If our Kiwi travellers support us by going on these tours, that would take care of us until the borders open. Then our long-term strategy for thriving would kick in once some semblance of sanity returns to the world! See you soon in my next blog post. Au revoir! 

Friday, 19 June 2020

The Lockdown Diaries Part 5: Power of Networking

Uma and I waited at The Cooperage Café with a sense of trepidation. It was to be our first encounter with a larger-than-life celebrity. We had watched him with awe on TV, smashing Australian bowlers all over the park in 2007. There walked Jacob Oram to our table towering over us! We were in for a surprise though. Jake was so down to earth, even joking to the staff. He made us perfectly comfortable and we ended up chatting for an hour.

It was not a chance encounter. We were connected through a chain of 5 links. It all started when I had joined Sime Darby Commercial Group (TIL Group back then) as the IT Manager in 2010. Christine from the local recruitment agency PN Personnel used to help us with staffing back then. She introduced me to her colleague Mason, who became a good friend soon.

When Uma and I founded Take Me 2 India and added Take Me 2 New Zealand, he suggested that I meet Julie from Destination Manawatu (now merged into Central Economic Development Agency - CEDA). Uma and I met Julie and started off with our presentation. She asked us to pause 2 minutes into the presentation and brought her teammates Janet and Kate into the meeting.  We continued and explained our vision and philosophy.

Janet and Kate were so engaged into what we were trying to achieve. They started connecting us with so many people. One such introduction led us to Matthew, who had been the sales manager at Hotel Coachman at that time. Matthew is a natural connector of people and through him, we met with Jake Oram.

When we met Jake, neither side knew how we were going to work together. We promised to keep in touch after exchanging contact details. Around the same time, other contacts started developing. Kate from Destination Manawatu introduced us to Tania from Tourism New Zealand. When Uma and I travelled to India in December 2013, we flew to Mumbai to meet Neha at Tourism New Zealand India office, whose contacts were passed over to us by Tania.

Our meeting with Neha turned out to be a big turning point to us. We learnt about the distribution channels within the tourism industry. We also learnt about a key Tourism New Zealand trade event called KiwiLink. We decided to participate in KiwiLink India 2014. Our senior partner Eswar and I presented our New Zealand inbound tour services to around 300 Indian travel agents in 4 cities.

Soon after, one of the Delhi-based agents who attended KiwiLink contacted us to organise a New Zealand trip for an Indian school students group. We put together an exciting program for them and the tour was on! One of the key items on the tour? A day of cricket coaching by the legendary Jacob Oram!

The story doesn't stop there. During KiwiLink India, we met a lovely guy called Sachin who was liaising with all the logistics. During the evening network function at Mumbai, Sachin pulled me aside and introduced me to Shashank, who owned a sports tourism company. We kept in touch regularly.

When Jake Oram and I decided to launch a tour for 15 to 17-year old Kiwi cricketers to India under the brand name Kiwi Caps in April 2018, I immediately contacted Shashank and engaged Sports Konnect to handle the Indian side of logistics!

See how it was like pieces of a Lego set, forming a meaningful structure when different pieces are put together? THIS is the power of networking. Luckily for me, it has been one of my key strengths. I thought I would deconstruct how I go about it. I am sure there is a large body of works on this topic, but whatever I say here is based on my own experiences and reflections.

For me, there is one strong attribute that is key to network. I have always been genuinely interested in people. And when you meet someone, it must never be in the basis of 'what is in it for me'. It is rather effective to find out what the other person has and how you could help by utilising it to be mutually beneficial. For these reasons, I have never shunned meeting anyone even when there were no pathways for potential collaboration apparent. And it almost always has worked.

I also like to point out that networking is not speed dating. Patience is a virtue when it comes to networking. When you are earnest in your efforts, it blossoms into beautiful friendships. I can't put a value enough to emphasise how important this is. Friendship often nurtures empathy. Empathy is the core for humanity. Being humane is the secret behind collaboration. Collaboration has always been the key success factor for Take Me 2 The World family.

So why is this important in the current context of our survival against the COVID-19 crisis? We have been able to design a superb series of "Slice of the World in New Zealand" tours, because of our collaboration with many friends from our various supplier partners. I will talk about it next week.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

The Lockdown Diaries Part 4: From the Dream to Reality

After gaining my MBA degree from Massey University in 2010, I was at crossroads with my career. The question was whether to continue to grow in my IT career or to spread myself horizontally into general management. By 2012, I was no longer enjoying being in IT. I was dragging myself to work every day. It was a joyless situation to be in.

I have always been open to reaching out to my friends when I am down. I called my very good friend Wendy from MBA one day (Yes, she is the one Uma and I were going to escort to Morocco along with a group of her friends!). Wendy suggested a meeting with her friend Mo, who was doing IT contract work in Wellington.

We three met for coffee at a café in George Street, Palmerston North. Mo was explaining to me the ups and downs of IT contracting. While he was talking, I had this sudden Eureka! moment out of the blue! 

You see, most people who haven't visited India have a mental picture about it, most of it being stereotypes because of what they read in India. But if you had visited India, you would agree with me it is a lifechanging experience. Why not take Kiwis to India and provide them with an authentic, unique and personal travel experience? Weird, right?

I thanked Mo and Wendy, came back home, and had a chat with Uma sharing my idea with her over dinner. She didn't hesitate and told me to pursue it if that is what I had wanted to do. This was in October 2012. For the next few months, we did our research looking at how the tourism industry works, what the other travel companies do, and crunching the numbers. We also had our Kiwi friends enthusiastically participating in our focus group meetings.

On the 10th April, 2013, we met with Bobbie O'Fee at O'Fee and Associates. The same day, we registered our company BlooMoon (NZ) Limited! Our brand was called Take Me 2 India. Uma designed our website. Our Facebook page was up. And the word started spreading.

Jocelyn, my other very good friend from MBA and her husband Chris immediately registered with us for a tour of India with their 3 children! I personally escorted them through South India for close to 3 weeks in December 2013. While they loved their experience, their honest feedback on where we needed to improve was highly valuable to us. How blessed have we been!

In March 2014, I gave up my 6-figure salary and resigned my job as the IT Manager at Sime Darby Commercial NZ Ltd. I must really thank Uma and the boys for the sacrifice they have been through. Our lifestyle changed overnight. Never thinking twice about buying gourmet bread turned into looking at the price tag twice!

Uma and I continued to look at ways of growing the business through creativity. We looked at the behaviour of International tourists visiting New Zealand. Most of them travel only to popular tourist locations like Auckland, Rotorua and Queenstown. Having lived here since 2004, we know New Zealand has much more to offer. That gave the birth to Take Me 2 New Zealand.

As months rushed by, our happy guests started asking for more destinations. We started extending trips from India to Sri Lanka and Maldives, New Zealand to Australia. We decided to consolidate all destinations into one single brand - Take Me 2 The World!

And came our biggest milestone at the time! Jocelyn and Chris wanted us to design a South America holiday for their family this time. I invited my long-time friend Erika, a Columbian-born NZ resident, to work with me. She not only helped to design the itinerary, but also made all arrangements and escorted the family to Peru, Chile and Ecuadorian Amazon!

We have never looked back since then. Well, not until COVID-19 put a dampener anyway! Uma's cousin Eswar and brother-in-law Aura from India became part of the Take Me 2 The World family. We opened our India office in 2014. 

We made our New Zealand inbound tour operations into a B2B model, primary working with overseas travel agents, but without compromising our motto of authenticity, uniqueness and personal attention. We became members of Tourism Export Council of New Zealand and got ourselves Qualmark endorsed.

We have always run Take Me 2 The World with the 3i attributes our senior partner Eswar has advocated - Integrity, Intention and Intensity. We have made mistakes and learnt from them. Each one of us have played our roles, contributing to our growth. I have been reflecting on some of the key moments in our Take Me 2 The World journey. Let me share them with you next week.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

The Lockdown Diaries Part 3: Kindness lights up our lives

What has been happening in the US right now is terrible. The fire of hatred engulfs city after city, day after day. The looting and arson are unwatchable on one hand. The brutality applied by the Government is terrifying on the other. I am struggling to put my head around the hatred, apathy and egotism exhibited from different quarters there, especially when the entire world is in the middle of a socioeconomic crisis in a scale not witnessed before!

I am simply confused, because what Uma and I have experienced so far is only love, empathy and kindness. People have gone out of the way to extend their hands to us. It felt as if all of them had been feeling protective of us! 

When things started going pear-shaped all over the word, the first phone call came from Nicky checking in how we are doing. It was quickly followed by my friend Subbu from Australia, Simon, Kalpesh, John and Venky. Simiyon, one year junior to me at Uni, has been messaging me regularly offering his counsel and ideas.

Then Joyce started giving her chiropractic care for free. With no income in sight for months on, I emailed Nat that I wanted to suspend his lawnmowing service, he simply replied that he would continue to mow for free until we start seeing some income. Celia laughed it off when I asked her how much I needed to pay for the garden maintenance.

In the early days of the lockdown, Uma and I started going for long walks daily. It was strange to walk through empty streets with only teddy bears keeping us company from windows, gates and letterboxes. But one day, we passed over a stranger who had been sweeping fallen autumn leaves from her driveway. We ended up chatting, mindful of our social distancing requirements.

We mentioned to her how overwhelming we had been feeling at that moment, worrying about the future of Take Me 2 The World. She looked at us seriously and said, "For a kiwi like me, it would be great to travel with you and understand New Zealand from your point of view as immigrants". We parted ways after bidding adieu.

Once we reached home, Uma and I talked about what Lyn had just said. I decided to send a newsletter to our network of past guests, friends and well wishers, inviting them to brainstorm ideas with us. The reply emails with responses and inputs simply oozed love and care! We then followed it up with a Zoom meeting. It was fascinating to see how much people wanted us to succeed! 

Together, we came up with several ideas: 
1. We will immediately capitalize on Uma's culinary & teaching skills, which should help us with short-term cashflow.
2. We will launch a series of International Themed Tours with New Zealand for Kiwis, who cannot travel overseas - Bring the World to New Zealand, so to speak.
3. Our specialty is creating tailor-made itineraries. We will promote it as a service.

Immediately after the zoom meeting, Al and Alison called us and said they have transferred a $1,000 to our account as a Koha. They advised us to use it to bring our ideas into action. We were left speechless with their kindness!

We immediately registered Uma's Indian Homemade Food service with the city council, delivering dinners on Wednesdays on pre-order. As soon as we posted about this service on Uma's Indian Vegetarian Cooking Class Facebook Page, the planned 15 meals sold out! Jayne straightaway gave us $60, asking us to use the excess to spend on our initial outlay! Jeanine was giving constructive feedback each week and even offered to collaborate.

I have no doubt that we would be a success story when we come out of this. But the victory doesn't belong to Uma and me alone, but collectively to every single one of the lovely people of our Whanau! It is no accident that I mentioned at our BNI Chapter meeting this week that I feel Blessed and Positive.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Lockdown Diaries: Our Arrival

All things being normal, Uma and I would have been escorting a group of friends in Morocco as we speak! Today would have been Day 12 of the tour for Wendy and friends, starting from Dades, enjoying the views of Atlas Mountains and arriving at Marrakesh. As things stand, we are rescheduling the tour to May 2021.

Since we didn't catch the flight to Morocco, let's talk about another flight. This is probably the most important flight we ever took as a family, the one that bought us to New Zealand for a fresh start just 16 years ago.

June 2004 brought us our red-letter day in the form of an email from my friend Saravanan. He was living in New Zealand, working as SAP Specialist in the IT Department of Click Clack Limited - you know the company that made unbreakable food storage containers? He was asking me to apply for the position of IT Systems Administrator. 

I applied just for fun, not thinking too much about it. But then, to my surprise I was interviewed twice within a week and got my offer of employment! And on the 15th August 2004, when India was celebrating its independence day, Uma and I arrived in these shores with our 4-year old Sai. 

When we came out of Auckland International Terminal to catch the shuttle to Domestic, we had our first taste of Kiwi kindness. We had packed 14 pieces of luggage assuming naively that we wouldn't be able to get most Indian things here. It was spitting when we came out. We were all tired to the bones after a very long-haul journey. Sai was clinging to Uma. The shuttle bus arrived. Before we could blink our eyes, fellow travellers picked one of our luggage each with a smile and carried into the bus. I can assure you it was not just the rain that made my eyes wet.

And so began our life in New Zealand, in Palmerston North!

Thursday, 21 May 2020

The Lockdown Diaries: Life after COVID as Tourism Operators in New Zealand

Most people switch on their apocalypse mode during when a crisis strikes. And then there are some, who see new opportunities. I guess Uma and I belong to the latter category. I wouldn't pretend that we were not rattled when COVID-19 situation escalated very rapidly. 

There was no known strategy to refer to. All the rulebooks and norms were thrown out of the window. Doors were closing in whichever direction you looked to. Revenue from our Tourism business not just became Zero, but it started going negative when clients started cancelling and we had to issue refunds. 


Meanwhile, the bills kept coming. Mortgage needed to be paid. Our 19-year old son Sai is studying Bachelor of Music (film music composition specialization) at Victoria University, Wellington. How do we pay his fees? 12-year old Aniruth is in Year 8. Will we still be able to spend $300 for his school camp in October, if at all it goes ahead? Questions. Lots of them. With blank answers.


Before I tell you how we went about finding some goals to work toward to, let me take you on a time travel back through our lives. Back to when I was a regular, routine-bound, employed man. Uma was discovering herself with a Web Design business, and then with her Uma's Indian Vegetarian Cooking Classes. Then in April 2013, both of us became entrepreneurs and partners-in-crime, starting our Tourism business in April 2013. Fasten your seat belts folks, because you are in for a rollercoaster ride!