Wonderlook Magazine Interview of Tornos’ Founder President & CEO – Prateek Hira (December -2018 Issue)

Prateek has two researches to his credit, one on Sri Lankan Tourism as a part of for his research for The Leeds Metropolitan University, while another research by him was on Senior Tourism for Center of Tourism Recreation Research. He has been a Heritage Tourism’ by IGI Global, US. He has two Post Graduate degrees to his credit, one in tourism while another in economics and is academically quite active by not only serving on the boards of many Indian universities but also by regularly teaching tourism in the capacity of an adjunct professor of tourism in many universities.

Prateek Hira talks to Wonderlook about his wonderful journey and ambition. Here is how he responded to some of our questions. And the answers given by him clearly reflect his utmost desire of developing tourism in the country and surely this conversation was an enriching experience.

Tornos is about to complete the milestone of successful 25 years in the market, would you like to share your experience on the journey so far?

Some sweet, some sour, some good, some bad and some ugly, is how I describe my journey of 25 years in tourism trade. When we completed our 19 years we were joyous to know that we ended our teen years and were entering adulthood but we were clear that our quest for learning will never end, so we took up the phrase, ‘Learning Tourism’ even in our ‘25 years run-up logo’ that changed every year like a count up number from 20 to 25.

The days in 1994 when Tornos was set up were tough, really tough, and when today we look back, we realise our own evolution and how we evolved traversing this journey of 25 years. The day when Tornos was set-up we had gleaming eyes that looked ahead and we resolved to do things that others don’t. Term ‘out-of-the-box’ was quite clear to us and we always planned our products based on ‘Knowledge’. ‘Knowledge’ according to us,  is the key component of any successful tourism product and to offer some unique experiences one has to rediscover, reinvent and redesign to suit the evolving taste of the travellers.

In 1994 when no one was thinking of walking tours we offered ours, when no one was talking of street food to foreigners, we started our food walk and when no foreign tourist was coming to Lucknow we brought in many of our clients here. The projection and explanation of an ‘Experiential Tour Company’ was extremely difficult then, but we believed in our products and above all we believed in ourselves. So here we are today in our 25th year of being.

India is a huge market and has enormous potential, yet most of the service offered by most of the travel trade is calculable and stereotype. What is your response to this?

India due to its diversity and versatility is attractive for all demands. We need to segment demands and carefully place products under suitable categories. ‘Look Beyond’ should be the mantra for all of us, where we design programmes that are out-of-the-box, backed by well-researched knowledge, are immersive in nature and have a unique proposition.

Travel has evolved with time and the demand has shifted from ‘sightseeing’ to ‘sight-experiencing’, from ‘just visits’ to seeking ‘in-depth knowledge’ and from ‘abstract’ to ‘immersive’. Thematic tours that are loaded with knowledge could do wonders and there is absolutely no dearth of special interest themes in India. Be it gastronomy, history, culture, craft, religion, performing arts all have a strong presence, it’s just about converting these assets into experiences and designing thematic tours around these to make the visits meaningful and loaded with firsthand knowledge.

Then there are untouched regions of India, rather states that have great potential but we have not thought of it and have only saturated specific places, thereby suffering in terms of incoming numbers. We need to create new avenues for tourists and also simultaneouly recreate and reinvent existing destinations, thinking of repeat tourists who would like to come in search of new destinations and may also want to repeat destinations from previous visits only to explore another aspect of the same destination. We as tour operators need to come out of our comfort zone and not only develop our markets by venturing into untapped markets, but also grow our existing markets by offering new products and avenues.

It is important that we adopt a differentiation strategy and based on our specialisation and acumen become a ‘market nicher’, occupying a niche in the market. In fact Indian tourism industry lacks such professionals and there is a huge dearth in this segment. Sadly in India, we only value large players in tourism, often overlooking and ignoring the niche operators, who consciously are small, though now when there is a paradigm shift in tourism demand, niche operators offering micro-specialisations and experiences, are the players who take the front seat and are expected to drive the growth in tourism.

As tourism has evolved world over, India too needs to keep pace with this evolution by reinventing and rediscovering itself as a destination. We as operators did think of repeat businesses, but seldom pondered upon the idea of ‘repeat destinations’, that actually did not allow destinations to grow beyond a set product offer. It is imperatively important that we as industry, graduate to the next level on our offers, rediscover the already discovered in all its new light and redesign the days and nights spent here. Attention should be paid to retain tourists for more nights with host of experiences and activities on offer, add more excursions to the list than just overselling a few and allowing visitors to experience first-hand real local life should be the agenda.

You mentioned the necessity of rediscovering and rebranding Indian destinations. How do you intend to encourage the industry to make it work?

India is a huge untapped arena and there is enough for everyone here. We only need to re-discover, differentiate, re-brand and then reap the riches of tourism.

“Tourism to be delivered, needs to be understood”. India has been considered a single destination, often overlooking its diversity and huge size, and then tourism in India was thought only to be visiting concrete structures and quite restricted to a few north Indian states. Kerala was first to break this stereotype image and emerge as a destination unto itself and now many other states are following this model. Travel has evolved with time and technology, today’s traveller is mature and learned due to his vast exposure and easy access to global knowledge. A mere visit is not tourism today, it has to have an element of learning and absorption that makes the visit meaningful.

Till quite recently, as tourism industry, we refused to budge from our old run-of-the-mill itineraries and thought Taj Mahal will be able to handle all the burden of India to sell tourism, but we were so sadly mistaken about this and just in time realised and changed track from offering just tours to offering experiences. The time has now come, to reinvent, differentiate and localise our tourism efforts and to come out of our DMC mindsets, that has believed in ‘know-all, do all’. It is just not possible in case of India, which is not only large in size but also quite diverse in its offer. 

We need to understand the essentials of tourism in the new age and focus on promotion of experiences rather than just concrete heritage. India by virtue is an experiential destination and can offer unlimited avenues in this area. It is imperative that we understand this paradigm shift in demand and accordingly develop a micro understanding of products, get into micro-planning that values local experiences and encouraging the trade to think out-of-box. Each destination in India should be reinvented, rediscovered and rebranded with renewed focus on making India a hub of experiences.

Tornos is known to have so many experiences and thinks out-of-box. Throw some light on this.

If you see our logo, the tagline reads ‘The Nostalgic Experience’ this is what we have stood for since our being and this has been our core-competency that has made us stand apart. Every year Tornos is known to introduce no less than three out-of-box products and tours. A committed team works all through the year to conceptualise, research, plan and host innovative products. We launched walking tours in 1994 when probably Indian tourism industry did not know about this concept. Presumably, or as far as we know, India’s first food walk was started by us in Lucknow way back in 1995, when we took the mantle of offering street food to foreign tourists for an experience. Today most of our products are highly recommended by international travel magazines such as Conde Nast Traveller, Lonely Planet and Nat Geo Traveller. 

There are many new comers in the Industry who would love to hear few words of wisdom from a knowledgeable person like you. What do you want to say to them?

I think new comers whom I refer to as ‘new blood’ in the industry, bring in freshness of thoughts, fresh ideas and give new life to the tourism industry. Having said that, it is imperative that the new generation realises that tourism has evolved if we foresee 2030 it is just about 12 years ahead and if we look at 12 years ago we realise we lived in a primitive era, where everything was so different. The way we lived, worked, researched and communicated all were so different. Imagine 12 years ahead, it will again be so different, rather more, as each decade has a faster pace of change than its predecessor.

Some people believe that tourism education may not be important to be a successful entrepreneur but I think otherwise. Education in tourism gives a robust and firm ground while it also makes one understand the industry in depth. New comers wishing to join the trade should ideally study tourism to have an analytical edge over others. Internship and field visit should be treated with utter seriousness by the students of tourism in order to get the pulse of the current environs and to understand the pace of the tourism industry.