Updated: Apr 26
Ujjwal Sehgal, Founder of SoftCloud and Director of Skylord Travel opens up about his love of technology, the heroics of travel agents and the talents of his nine-year-old daughter, who can build a travel website in less than a day.
Tell us about your path into the travel industry.
I've always had a keen interest in travel, with my parents founding Skylord Travel in 1983. I grew up around it; I'd always be in the office or helping my parents with work they brought home, so learnt the various aspects of the business growing up.
I have to admit, I never really saw myself joining the travel industry. I was always a bit of a technology geek; fascinated by how new technology worked and was built. Whilst other friends would be watching football, I'd be engrossed in ‘Tomorrow's World’ and either building or upgrading my PC.
But the more I learnt about travel the more I saw how interconnected the industry was with technology. Everything from keeping planes in the air to fare distribution, inventory and reservations. It always relied on technology that needed to work 24 hours a day, connecting hundreds of airlines with hundreds of thousands of travel agents around the world. All before the days of the internet and our current connected world.
After graduating university with a business computing degree, the more I thought about working the travel industry, the more it made sense. I had the experience and felt I could add something new to the business from a technology standpoint.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
As a father to two young kids (9 and 6yrs old respectively) most mornings are spent busy with them, doing school drop runs and the like. I also like to try and exercise before work three or four times a week, which is usually an outdoor run. But none of that happens until I've had at least one or two coffees to wake me up.
Pre-pandemic I'd then drive to the office, where most days were set up with meetings with our airline partners and suppliers. Skylord Travel works with over 50 carriers and it's important to have regular meetings to keep up with sales and plan marketing strategies for each, which keep us busy day-to-day. But as is this case with most of the travel industry, no two days are the same and there is always something new to work on.
Most days I'll try to be home in time for dinner with the family, but that doesn't always happen. One thing we all know about the travel industry is that we love events. So, on many evenings there will be something to attend after work. It can be tiring but it is also enjoyable and offers a great opportunity to network with old friends and new. I'm looking forward to the days when we can finally do that again.
Pandemic life really is quite different – just like most people, I'm now working home. The mornings are much the same (when the kids are in school), but meetings have been replaced with seemingly endless calls and video conferences.
Working from home during lockdown
After dinner it's bedtime for the kids. Then I'll spend time working on the new project, SoftCloud, where we are developing technology solutions for the travel industry, before catching up on some TV shows or a movie.
What do you think has changed the most during our time in the industry?
The biggest change by far has to be technology. I could talk for hours about all the advancements that have taken place and how they've helped us, and the industry as a whole, grow to the size it is today.
I think one of the biggest changes, that is now taken for granted, was the advent of the e-ticket. I still remember writing tickets by hand (for what felt like days), and what a relief it was when we had a ticket printer installed in each of the Skylord Travel offices. It transformed the industry; we went from having to print each ticket, package them up and post (or hand deliver) them to clients, to sending a confirmation by email. It meant that someone sitting in London could instantly issue a flight ticket for a client in Leeds. Or as is the case today, someone in Delhi issuing a ticket for a client right here in the UK.
Early on in his career with Skylord Travel
The use of the Internet and APIs to connect us and the reservation system also helped to revolutionise the way we and everyone else books travel. Whether it's hotel reservations or flight reservations, modern APIs now allow anyone to connect an online booking platform so that any type of journey can be booked seamlessly. Our customers, both B2C or B2B, can visit one of our websites and book their trip any time of the day, and they're always changing and adding new functionality to these APIs. It went from a simple search and book to now being able to search, book, view rich content, upsell, manage a booking and issue a ticket.
What are the greatest challenges you've seen so far, and where does COVID rank?
To date I can remember challenges from events like 9/11, other terror events, SARS and even the ash cloud. But as devastating as they were, from a business point of view they were a walk in the park compared to COVID. Those were relatively short-lived and, in most cases, quite region specific. The COVID pandemic is worldwide and has lasted far longer than anyone could have imagined.
There was a downturn in demand for travel post 9/11 and other events saw us providing date changes or helping clients rebook. COVID was the first time we’ve ever seen mass cancelations across the board, sales grinding to a halt and the nightmare of tracking customers around the world to keep them advised and rebooking where possible.
The pressure was really on, but our exceptional team at Skylord Travel really shone. To date we've processed over 30,000 COVID refunds with only a handful of complaints from our clients. The fruits of our labour are already showing, and since July 2020 we have had over 70 new travel agents sign-up and choose us as their supplier for travel products.
I've always said that whenever something big happens, the travel industry is always one of the first (and worst) to be hit, but fortunately it always bounces back. You just need to be able to weather the storm, and we're lucky as a business to be in a strong financial position. This comes from my father, the company chairman, who worked as a chartered accountant before he started the business. He has always ensured we have a strong foundation.
We may, on occasion, have to make certain budget cuts and streamline the business, but our clients and suppliers know that we're financially strong. It means they can rely on us to get through the tough times.
How have your parents influenced your own journey as an entrepreneur?
Both my parents have had a massive influence on my journey. A journey that I think is really just beginning. I’ve been lucky to witness first hand both the successes and when things don’t go as planned which I guess has somewhat given me a lifetime of experience before starting out.
Ujjwal's mother (far left) and father (far right) who founded Skylord Travel in 1983
Growing up in a household with entrepreneurs as parents I guess I never knew any different, with both parents in the business I always assumed that's what I would do. Not necessarily a travel business, but a business of my own. It's not because I thought it would be easy, in fact it was far from it. But I saw the rewarding side of it all, yes you had to be the person ultimately responsible for things going wrong but for taking those risks you also gained the maximum reward when things were going well.
Even though both my parents taught me the importance of hard work they also taught me the importance of maintaining a healthy social and family life. No matter how busy or stressed they were, they always had time for us growing us and I think that's had a huge influence on how I work. Some people complain that modern day technology has meant we never truly leave the office, I feel quite the opposite. I feel like I can now leave the office and spend more time with family, knowing that I can pick up an iPad or my phone quickly get something done without having to rush to the office which is what my parents would have had to do.
You founded SoftCloud in 2020. Tell us about that.
I've always had an interest in technology and over the years travel tech has become a real passion. I've learnt from past mistakes where we have relied on solutions that weren't quite ready, were overpriced or simply didn't work. Those mistakes cost us both time and money and it delayed some of our own plans. In most cases I found that many of the solution providers were developers or tech guys first and were trying to create solutions for an industry they had no experience of themselves.
I was talking to a friend, who also has a background in travel technology, and we were just comparing ideas and thoughts. We realised that there were hundreds, if not thousands of agents who still had no online presence. And many of those who did still had a static site, with no booking functionality. We engaged with countless travel agencies to better understand why this was; why in this modern age of the internet and smartphones they still didn't have an online presence.
The feedback was invaluable, and we quickly established it was fear of the unknown. Not knowing how to create a website or a booking engine; the fear of not knowing the costs of setting it all up; or the fear that they'll hire someone to do this who will ultimately take them for a ride and leave them with a website but no way of updating and managing it.
Have you found a way for travel agents to overcome those fears?
I think we did. We created a range of solutions that are feature-rich, easy to use, designed for travel agents by people who have worked in the industry and used cloud technology to keep costs down. We have also been transparent with our pricing model and make sure they know that we don't have any hidden charges to surprise them with down the line.
SoftCloud IBE - a travel website builder. This solution lets travel agents create their own bespoke travel website from scratch. We do all the heavy lifting in the back end - linking API's so customers can book flights, hotels and other travel products. Leaving the travel agents to do what they're good at; pulling together itineraries, creating offers, developing content and providing great service for their clients. With this solution, a travel agent with no prior website experience can create a site with their own look and feel. I tested it with my 9-year-old daughter, and she set up her own travel website in less than a day using the platform.
SoftCloud CCS and SoftCloud B2B - these solutions are designed to be used internally by travel agents or their own B2B clients. Using these tools, travel agents can send quotes, handle enquiries, create new bookings, manage all their bookings, send invoices, collect payments, run reports and so much more. They provide travel agents with feature rich tools to manage their own travel business and provide a great customer experience to their clients.
What does a typical SoftCloud customer look like?
The technology we've created has been designed to scale up, so it could work for travel agencies of all shapes and sizes. Also, we've designed all of our solutions to constantly evolve, so we're always taking on customer feedback to improve what we offer. We release a new update every month, each with additional features that can help travel agents grow their own businesses.
Right now, the typical SoftCloud customers are small to medium sized travel agents, those that have little or no online presence, those who want to upgrade what they currently have or those who want to save on costs but still have great technology powering their agency.
We're now fully live with 4 travel agents here in the UK, with 10 more sites in development, ready to go live later this month. We have a diverse range of customers, including flight specialists, hajj and umrah agents, small tour operators, airline consolidators and also those selling coach tours and UK breaks.
What role do you think travel agents will play in a post-COVID world?
I think independent travel agents have been the unsung heroes during COVID. I've seen first-hand how our team and many other travel agents have looked after their customers tirelessly throughout the pandemic, often whilst losing money at the same time. They've been available on the phone or by email; answering questions from worried and confused customers, unlike many of the big online agents who simply didn't respond to clients at all.
Not only that, but travel agents have also been the first line of defence in the wave of calls and potential chargebacks that airlines and hotel suppliers could have faced had all bookings been made directly. In many cases, there were agents providing advice to customers who had not even booked with them.
I'm hoping that both customers and suppliers appreciate and remember that post-COVID. I think it's up to agents themselves, the media and our trade bodies to champion the role travel agents played in helping customers throughout 2020 and 2021. When things are finally under control and travel begins to open up, I think customers will call on the agents that helped them during the pandemic. They'll call on them for advice on safe travel, on refund and rebooking policies and just so they know that they have someone to speak to when they need to.
Personally, I would advise all travel agents to gear up and make sure they are ready to help customers when the time comes. Use tools that are readily available, like WhatsApp for Business, to keep in touch with clients, or Travelport's COVID portal, to keep track of different policies and travel requirements.
How do you feel about the future of travel?
I'm optimistic. I obviously can't speak for everyone, but I can say that everyone I’ve spoken to since the first lockdown has said they cannot wait to travel again. Travel connects friends and family from around the world. It allows us to experience new cultures, visit sites we've only seen on TV and it helps us to relax & recharge our batteries.
On a minibreak in Venice, Italy
Businesses also rely on travel. I can't be the only person who's experiencing Zoom fatigue. We're all looking forward to that conference, or meeting, with other people face-to-face and the social element that comes with it.
Whether it is for leisure or business, everyone is itching to get away, the good thing is that the demand is still there. That hasn't gone away. It may take a little while to get there but eventually everyone will be travelling again and we'll all hear those beautiful words we've all missed "Hello. Welcome on board. This is your pilot speaking".
SoftCloud is offering UK travel agents a FREE travel website for up to 12months.
For more information, call 020 3500 255 or visit www.softcloudtec.com