The coronavirus pandemic has hit India hard for the second year in a row. After the heavy dent from 2020, India is battling the second wave of Covid-19 and many regions across the country have enforced lockdowns to contain the spread of the highly contagious and deadly virus. With restrictions in movement, the travel sector has been taking major blows repeatedly. But Savaari has been claiming that its one-way car rental service has seen an uptake during these difficult times. So we got in touch with Gaurav Aggarwal, CEO and Founder, Savaari Car Rentals to get his account on the real impact of the first and second wave of the pandemic. In addition to how Savaari is battling the issues with the new revelations that have come about from these harsh times.
How has the pandemic hit the travel and transport sector and Savaari during the second wave in comparison to the first?
The first and second waves were approximately spaced a year apart. The demand impact has been similar during both the waves, with travel being confined to essential/emergency needs only. Interestingly, the travel behaviours are in sharp contrast to each other.
During the first wave, the movement primarily consisted of people who were stranded in other cities to their hometowns as soon as the lockdown restrictions were eased. This was followed by a mass exodus of the working population from Tier-I cities back to their hometowns in smaller cities and villages either in search of alternate employment opportunities or the declaration of work-from-home in corporations on a semi-permanent basis.
On the other hand, the current travel demand comprises the reverse movement of people from smaller cities and towns to Tier-I and Tier-II cities in order to get access to better healthcare facilities for the treatment of their family members. Since the commencement of the vaccine drive, we are also receiving multiple bookings from smaller towns and villages to commute to the vaccination centres in the neighbouring cities.
The first wave of covid had countless restrictions on interstate travel – from the ambiguous and elaborate e-pass retrieval process to the individual state border restrictions. Interstate travel has been relatively simplified during the second wave, where, for most of the states, legitimate documents justifying the reason to travel and a negative RT-PCR report is required. However, air and train travel are more restricted compared to road travel even during the second wave.
Many projected that personal transport will witness a major uptake in comparison to ride-sharing/cab services or even public transport due to covid-19. How has that been for you?
A personal vehicle is indeed the safest mode of transport during these times. However, research indicates that only 2.2% of the Indian population own a car, implying the masses still rely on public transportation modes to undertake their necessary travel.
Car rentals come from a unique position of offering mobility that is of a non-shared and private nature (unlike buses, trains and flights) as well as PAN India connectivity (unlike one’s personal vehicle). It is therefore insulated from the demand apprehensions that other public transport services suffer from. Moreover, with door-to-door service, car rentals circumvent any need for commuters to be exposed to public spaces which pose the highest risk of infection spread. That being said, our focus has been to ensure that all demand is serviced with the best-in-class safety, hygiene and reliability standards.
We received multiple bookings from repeat customers since the onset of the second wave of covid. In fact, the number is as high as 35%, reaffirming customer faith in our services during these distressing times. Our Net Promoter Score (NPS) for the month of April is an industry-high number at 68% with a near-perfect fulfilment rate of 99.77%, indicative of the positive customer feedback.
What policies and protocols do you have in place for your drivers, employees and customers should they get infected?
We are ensuring our customers, support team and chauffeurs are well informed about the latest guidelines with respect to road travel. We provide a rich and up-to-date content pack to customers with the latest government advisory, pro-tips, clear protocols and safety measures that have been put into place.
Our driver partners are educated on the precautionary guidelines issued by the WHO. Only after intensive and rigorous training in personal and cab hygiene, the drivers are assigned trips. Drivers are required to wear facemasks, sanitise their hands regularly and distance themselves from customers as much as possible.
Under the training programme, our driver-partners are further advised on methods to reduce transmissibility. They ensure single points of contact to open doors for passengers, and do not handle or load luggage. We also disinfected the cabs thoroughly between each trip and every vehicle with a bottle of sanitiser for customer’s use.
For our customers, we mandate face masks and advise them to carry bedsheets to place on the seat. We additionally discourage sitting on the front passenger seat to maintain social distancing. We also introduced a COVID-19 Insurance Package last year for all vendors, driver-partners and customer which can be availed at a nominal fee.
With the second wave, the travel guidelines in India are state-specific and changing frequently. We are rigorously and regularly educating and training our operations and customer support teams with the latest state-wise pass-issuing guidelines. The teams are not only helping customers with the legitimate pass-related information but also handholding and assisting them throughout the process until they obtain one.
Due to the nature of the situation, you say that your one-way service has seen a major uptake. How has that fared for you and how do you tackle the nuances and complications of the service?
Automated and intelligent technology is the backbone to address the inefficiencies and challenges of one-way car rental services. The system we have in place ensures that vendor partners are compensated with extremely efficient bookings and the customers are shown the most affordable rates. On a real-time basis, our tech platform determines the complex route level optimisations to ensure that the customers constantly get discounted prices on routes where we already have cabs waiting.
The algorithms allocate the most optimal driver and vehicle to service that demand so that margins are maximised and cabs travelling back (idle kilometres) are minimised. Additionally, the platform also ensures ramp-up and ramp-down of inventory (cars and vendors) is hassle-free and demand-led. These optimisations are scaled across 2000+ cities and over 5 lakh routes in the country.
Moving forward, what other areas do you expect to see growth coming out of the pandemic situation?
With the past year’s pent up travel demand, 2021 was speculated to be the year of travel resumption. However, people’s travel plans were once again postponed by the surge in the second wave. Although the revival of leisure travel looks bleak in the next two months or so, there is general covid fatigue in the nation. There’s no denying that covid has impacted the mental health of people, both due to the loss of loved ones as well as prolonged confinement at homes.
Under such circumstances, travel is proven to be therapeutic. Hence, once India is better equipped in the healthcare infrastructure and the panic subsides, the pent up travel desire will slowly release in the form of short refreshing weekend getaways or simply a day out in one’s own city to cure the ‘cabin fever’.
With the vaccination drive taking place, once a larger fraction of the population gets inoculated, people will resume their elaborate travel plans. Albeit international travel restrictions and safety concerns will limit this to domestic travel, as it was seen after the first wave.
Hence, post the second wave, we see more travellers opting for shorter trips, staycations or city breaks for vacationing with their family and friends. The choice of destination will be largely determined by the distance from the hometown, seeing a shift from the traditionally popular holiday destinations to nearby, offbeat locations. Coming out of the pandemic, we foresee a swift rebound of the local tourism ecosystem.
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