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Rehlat: Travel made Simple, Easy & Fast

Bader Al Bader, president, Rehlat talks to TBMEs Charmaine Fernz on intricacies of setting up an OTA for the Middle East traveller, getting the right product mix and plans ahead…


The idea of venturing into the online space emerged when a family member faced problems while booking a personal trip. The outcome of the trip resulted in thought seeded for a year which began in 2011. However, it was only in 2012, when Bader Al Bader met with an Indian outsourced developer to evaluate options of setting up an online portal.

Despite studying in the US for graduation, Bader was not deterred, he constantly kept in touch with the developer in India to finalise a top-of-the-line product. It was when he got back to Kuwait in 2013 that a proof of concept for Rehlat was brought to life during the summer. The idea of launching a proof of concept was to identify potential technical and logistical issues that might interfere with it future success. This was a basic model capable of just booking a ticket.

The Journey begins

The proof of concept helped Bader gain some traction which encouraged him to take the next step. He explains, “There was a popular website during those days in Kuwait called ‘Indiansinkuwait’, which catered to the Indian expat community. We took a banner advertisement on that portal for a month, which also included eshots sent out to their database. On the first day itself, the advertisement drew in about 7,000 visitors to our proof of concept website and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.”

This growing demand encouraged Bader to work on a superior product. The proof of concept website was kept live up until end of 2014. Bader now decided that there was a need for expansion. He reminisces, “I decided that we needed everything in-house right from development to marketing. Recruitment commenced in 2014 and subsequently, we opened an office in Hyderabad (India). We got our license in India by March of 2015, by which time, we already had a few developers and marketing people working on the product. The in-house technology took a year to be built for smooth functioning.”

Finally, a finished product – Rehlat – was launched in January 2016. This according to Bader was their second birth. However, the portal was consistently being tested for any issues up until summer of 2016. Until then, Rehlat was only being promoted within Kuwait and not much activity beyond the country.

It was in the summer of 2016 when Bader finally convinced with the portal decided to promote Rehlat beyond Kuwait. The idea was to move slowly first with Saudi Arabia and then the UAE.

“This gave us an opportunity to understand market needs. We stepped up our efforts in October 2016 which resulted in increased transactions on the website. This also encouraged us to keep moving. Today, we believe, with all our efforts, we in the top three OTAs categories for flights online in the Middle East with offices in India, Dubai, Egypt and Kuwait,” says a confident Bader.

Carving a Niche

According to Bader, the advancements in technology witnessed many players enter the online travel space. However, in his opinion, there are two kinds of OTAs in the Middle East. The regular offline agencies who want to go online with a ready-made booking engine. In this case, it is easy to start but once launched, will the company be able to handle the demand, varying needs of customer service, developer issues and more so exponential growth? The other kind according to him are the serious OTAs, which is barely three to four in the Middle East region; Rehlat can safely be added to this category.

Apart from the product, it was necessary to understand that there were no set rules in the online world. A market leader’s position can change based on volumes and the amount of investment injected into the product. Keeping this ideology, it was during 2016, that Rehlat began witnessing traction and the feedback was surprising. Bader feels, “We were getting the volume but were not ready operationally. This made us take a step back, get our act together and coming back stronger. Ultimately, it is all about handling volumes and getting the customer, the right ticket at the right time.”

Bader is confident that in terms of flight bookings, Rehlat has the right product. “We are cracking the flights game in the Middle East and are now venturing into hotels too. But, we are not just looking for volume. We are confident that we have figured out how to match volumes with customer expectations,” he adds optimistically. The Rehlat team also has their own metrics to access their success and customer satisfaction.

Localisation was another key to building a successful product. Though Rehlat is available in English and Arabic, Bader is of the opinion that localisation is not just about language. It is about getting the right price and product for your customer at the right time. Secondly, giving customers options beyond the regular point A to B. Today, a traveller from Saudi Arabia will book a flight from Dubai to Mumbai so it is all about understanding your customer and their travelling patterns.

Being Grounded

Bader’s expansion plans are a slow and steady race. With a presence in Kuwait, Saudi and UAE, he wants to strengthen and grow the brand in existing markets before exploring further. “There are many Arabic-speaking countries on our list. Our objective is to make sure we get our product right in these countries,” he says.

Bader is of the view that localisation plays a very important role in payments options along with security. Rehlat.co has partnered with local payments companies like KNET in Kuwait and many other local partnerships in KSA and UAE. The company is also evaluating cash payments but not the traditional Cash-on-Delivery (CoD) option. The dislike for CoD was that it was offered initially but resulted in several non-payment issues. Bader is evaluating cash payment options at certain outlets which are convenient to customers.

Rehlat also puts a lot of focus on security. Bader adds, “Every OTA should ensure that their risk rules are set up properly which should be part of their operations. They should have a fraud section to flag off whether it is a risky transaction or asking for additional documents from customers or even handling chargeback. Companies today, need to be more proactive than reactive.”

Moving Ahead

Rehlat has witnessed a positive growth with transactions more than doubling in 2017 over 2016. In his view, Bader says, “It is not just mere transactions in terms of volume but also dollar value that matters. We are constantly working on methods where we can get more high-value transactions. Keeping these values in mind, we are growing at a fun pace but responsibly with actual returns. The returns are evident with a 20-fold increase since 2016 especially with expansion into KSA and UAE. We also have a substantial percentage of repeat users which is above average for this market.”

Rehlat also sees a lot of traction on mobile – be it the website or app. According to Bader, “Half our transactions come through our mobile website. Focusing on growing this segment, we are working on a lot of new things.”

Hotels are the next target for Bader and team. “This is something we are doing well. We have just started focusing on hotels but this can be a major player for us. Currently, we are working through suppliers who will always be our partners but we would consider eventually going direct also to hotels,” he adds.

eWallet (Karam)

The company has launched the region’s first loyalty programme – Karam – which is like a eWallet. This makes Rehlat the first OTA to launch such a programme.  All registered customers of Rehlat are eligible to use Ewallet or Karam on Rehlat. Currently, the Karam balance can be used only on flights but soon, customers will be able to use it on hotels too. Our customers can earn Karam balance through many methods such as refer and earn, deals with cash back, refunds and using Karam balance while Booking. The benefits of which are attractive offers, quick bookings, instant refunds and no payment failures.