Whether it is admiring the iconic sights, visiting slums or taking the train, India is ripe for exploration. Charlotte Cullinan talks to agents who took part in a Western & Oriental fam trip to glean their sales tips
The key to booking a successful trip to India lies in crafting adventures, advises agent Alison Hackett. “If you don’t set up experiences for clients they are going to miss out massively. It’s not a place to just sell a hotel and flights, as experiences are the way they will get the most out of their trip.”
The director of Travel Essence is speaking from experience, having enjoyed a 10-day fam with Western & Oriental in September. The itinerary was created by India product manager Nikhil Chhibber, and included memorable excursions. “It was curated with the aim of showcasing the diversity, contrasts and wow-factor offered by India,” he explains.
The group of eight agents started their journey in Mumbai, where agents experienced different sides of the city. “We went from the high-tech Oberoi Mumbai to seeing local history in a heritage tour, bustling markets and then the slum tour,” Hackett says. “It was all so enlightening.”
Among Hackett’s highlights was a tour of the sprawling Dharavi slum and visiting Dhobi Ghat – the largest open-air laundry in the world. “There were 5,000 people scrubbing clothes in concrete baths, hanging everything up and ironing with hot coals.”
She says these type of trips ensure clients are enthralled. “It’s through these excursions that you get into the Indian way of life, and really experience the hustle, bustle and vibrancy of the country. That’s what you want customers to see.”
Around 90% of Hackett’s customers are affluent families, and she says India is well suited to family holidays. Her last booking was for a family of six who toured the country in 2014. “They had an amazing trip, and even though they have travelled extensively they really were blown away,” she says. “I’d recommend India for children aged over 12.”
She stresses that India feels “very safe”, but suggests female clients take a shawl or cover-up to use in busy public areas. Numerous hotels also now offer floors exclusively for female travellers.
From Mumbai the group flew north-east to Jaipur, which impressed Cannon Travel consultant Jean Anderson. Alongside a tour of the Amber Fort Unesco World Heritage Site, a vintage car trip and an elephant ride, she recommends customers book an early morning hot air balloon trip. “It was an experience I will never forget – it was absolutely breathtaking. Viewing village life from the sky is something unique.”
For her shopaholic clients, Anderson suggests heading to Mumbai’s markets with a guide, however she also recommends Jaipur’s shops. “They’re well worth an afternoon visit. We only had 15 minutes but I still managed to buy three pairs of shoes and four scarves in one shop!”
After two busy days sightseeing in Jaipur the group relaxed in the Oberoi Rajvilas, which is crafted to emulate the city’s famous pink buildings, which were carved from sandstone in the 17th century. “The hotel is very central, but a real oasis,” Anderson recalls. “There’s lots of space and it feels tranquil, with a lovely pool and spa facilities, and the food is excellent.”
The group’s itinerary then took them to Shimla in the north-west Himalayas. The initial plan to ride on an exclusively chartered train on the Kalka-Shimla Railway was changed to a road transfer after a chartered train crashed on the line three days earlier, killing two British tourists. Chhibber explains: “The tragic incident is the first of its kind and is being investigated by local authorities.”
However, the group was able to take a short ride on the popular Toy Train during their time in Shimla. Helen Dooley, co-owner of More Than Travel, says the ride was a highlight: “The scenery is spectacular: there are villages built into the mountains. The architecture is very Himalayan, while Shimla is like a Victorian town, with stately homes and villas.”
While the rest of the group enjoyed a forest hike, Dooley took a city tour with a historian. It was Dooley’s first experience of the country. Previously she only made a “handful” of bookings to India, but she has since proposed it to several couples. She suggests a 10-night break to see the iconic sights, but says she could sell a six-week tour equally well. “However long a customer has, I could fill an itinerary with Western & Oriental.”
In Shimla the agents stayed in the Oberoi Wildflower Hall, which Worlds Apart Travel managing director Rod Gethins describes as “truly top class.” He adds: “The service was brilliant and the hotel has wonderful views. A real highlight is the outdoor hot pool overlooking the Himalayas.”
The final stop on the group’s itinerary was Delhi. While staying in The Oberoi, New Delhi, Gethins tested the services of a local tailor, who made him a pair of linen trousers. “They fit perfectly and the service was incredible. Hotels can also arrange for tailors to come to you.”
Insight from W&O product manager Nikhil Chhibber
Western & Oriental has promoted India for more than 20 years, with the trade accounting for nearly 70% of its bookings. Chhibber’s team regularly runs in-store training and supports local shows and client evenings run by agent partners.
He says: “India is not a destination for us, it is a passion. Our expertise, knowledge, passion and delivery on ground are our biggest USPs. The key is not to be an order taker, but to curate an experience.”
To reflect this focus on tailor-made, Western & Oriental has adopted a new tone for its 2016 India brochure. “Our previous brochures were divided by destination and were more itinerary-led, but now it’s more inspirational, and is broken up by themes including wildlife, culture and food. It’s a la carte India.”
All trips are private, and Chhibber says the diversity of India’s offering ensures there is enough to tempt customers back numerous times.
In September the operator launched long-weekend trips, which Chhibber says have already piqued the interest of travellers. “Since India has got tremendous connectivity and Delhi is only 45 mins more than flying to New York, or 90 mins more than Dubai, we are hoping it will only gain popularity.”
For the first time Chhibber has also received several last-minute bookings to India, following the launch of a simplified e-visa system this summer. He adds: “It will boost tourism massively, and will only make the destination more accessible.”
He recommends visiting between mid-September and mid-April to experience dry and warm weather across the majority of the country, however clients should expect fog and freezing temperatures in the north from mid-December to mid-January. April and May are often hot and humid, with the monsoon season in June and August.
Book it: The tailor-made itinerary the agents followed starts at £3,699pp based on two sharing, including Heathrow flights, private transfers, eight nights’ B&B accommodation and the activities.