Is 6,000 Cr TBO Quietly Building a Global Travel Unicorn from India?

Last Quarter, Travel Boutique Online (TBO) filed a DRHP to go public after registering an impressive 2X growth, touching INR 1051 crore in revenue with INR 137 crore in profit, and expanding globally 

Setting An Itinerary

TBO was co-founded by Ankush Nijhawan and Gaurav Bhatnagar.

In 2006, travel grew and changed both in India and abroad. From flight bookings to hotels, many players entered the space. OTAs backed by VCs, like Makemytrip, were quickly expanding.

As they continued building relationships in the ecosystem, they were advised to steer away from the B2C side. The guidance was that it was cluttered and were asked to look at the white space in the online B2B space.

TBO’s founders could see why this was a better strategy. Overnight, they became an online B2B travel platform. 

By 2007, the first ticket was booked on TBO’s platform.

TBO acted as a platform that brought travel suppliers like airlines and hotels together to sell their seat or room inventory to travel buyers.

Travel buyers were small brick-and-mortar agents or corporate agencies who placed orders on behalf of end customers or travellers.

Spoilt for choice between more than 700 airlines and over a million hotels, travel suppliers needed a way to distribute their inventory efficiently and increase revenues. 

In contrast, travel buyers required access to all this inventory per their customers’ travel plans. It was almost impossible for these travel buyers to connect and partner directly with many hotels and airlines.

As an aggregator between the travel supplier and buyer, TBO stepped in to solve this problem.

Speed Of Type

Being B2B-focused, TBO had the early mover advantage.

The company had the trust of their suppliers and buyers who understood their position as a partner and not a competitor.

What started as a 130-employee company serving 180 partners in 2005 over time grew to over 300 employees and included an overseas office in Dubai by 2012

Slowly and steadily, TBO created a niche for itself in the highly competitive space by focusing on its customers’ problems. 

Investors could see the TBO rocket was about to take off, and they wanted a seat. 

In April 2012, TBO raised its first round of funding to fuel its plans for global expansion.

Naspers picked up a 52% stake in the 6-year-old company, heralding a new era as a venture-funded startup. TBO was now a formidable player in the airline business, with an appetite for more.

The quest for growth and higher profitability led to 2 new focus areas – hotels and the overseas travel market.

Frequent Buyers

Air travel was a low-margin volume play for TBO.

It pocketed an average of ~2% on every transaction. On the other hand, given the scattered market, the hotel business promised a handsome return while being more challenging to scale.

Looking for a head start, TBO entered an exclusive tie-up with Amadeus, a Spanish multinational travel major. TBO would host its hotel inventory in the MENA region, a relatively untapped B2B market.

The partnership marked a tipping point for its fledgling international presence. TBO then replicated the model in every market where the latter had a presence.

Ankush and Gaurav deliberately positioned TBO as a synergistic enabler, rather than a disruptor, for both travel suppliers and buyers.

Airlines treated them as their extended distribution arm, enhancing their penetration in fast-growing, albeit smaller, markets. Similarly, hotels viewed them as natural collaborators in growing the size of the pie, and not as competition.

On the other hand, TBO’s offering allowed agents to digitise their operations, facilitating visibility to inventory and helping them unlock deals at par with larger players. The tech stack was critical in reducing information asymmetry and democratising access in the relationship-driven travel market.

Every successful association on the supply or demand side translated into disproportionate network effects for TBO as the intermediary platform.

Alongside the calibrated bets overseas, TBO’s domestic business was ripening. India’s young, aspirational, upwardly mobile population travelled often and farther, representing a progressively expanding market.

In less than five years since the inception of the hotel business, TBO became the Indian market leader for hotel inventory.

Beyond India, TBO now had a noticeable presence in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Eastern Europe and pockets in North America. The overall hotel business had grown to ~40% of the topline.

In 2018, TBO crossed the psychological mark of $1B in gross annual transaction value for the first time. The resounding success of the hotel business had validated the playbook of expanding the breadth of TBO’s services while consciously deepening the market for individual offerings.

Evidently, products centred on providing an experience were more valuable than ones built on utility. With renewed commitment and a hard-earned war chest, TBO diversified into sightseeing, car rentals and cruises.

New Arrivals

The Indian travel buyer market stood at $35.4B in 2019.

Travel management companies or travel agents accounted for 43% of the demand. Agents were expected to sustain their market share based on their ability to customise packages, service first-time travellers and cater to demand from tier 2 and 3 cities.

Taking stock of the market composition, TBO announced an industry-first B2A strategy at the Arabian Travel Mart. B2A stood for ‘Back 2 Agents’ or ‘Business 2 Agents’, acknowledging the trend of travellers going ‘back’ to agents for bookings and recognising agents as the most effective distribution and marketing channel for ‘business’.

Floated as a third alternative to B2C and B2B, B2A attributed travellers’ preference for agents to the cognitive overload associated with browsing travel websites, the residual trust deficit with online avenues and the absence of personal touch required for evolved travel needs. 

The latter part of the strategy viewed agents not just as a link between suppliers and end consumers but as solicitors of, and sounding boards for, all matters of travel and leisure.

TBO empowered its network of 47K agents by rolling out the Roamer App to facilitate communication between agents and their patrons even after the booking transaction. 

Imagine the friendly neighbouring travel agent fully in sync with your daily schedule, forewarning you of follies to avoid in a foreign land. and helping you make ad hoc changes to your itinerary, all on a WhatsApp-like interface.

It was intended to make the traveller-agent equation less sporadic and event-based and more amenable to repeat purchases.

On its part, TBO would help agents cross-sell and maintain stickiness across multi-year customer relationships, translating into sustained demand for the platform.

Similarly, TBO recognised that standalone agents often lost out to bigger peers in bagging corporate deals for want of proprietary tech infrastructure. To solve this pain point, it introduced Paxes, a self-booking corporate tool, enabling its loyal base to make a stronger base while bidding for RFPs.

Roamer and Paxes were free of cost for the agents, with no direct interaction between TBO and the end customers. The unwritten expectation was that agents would consolidate demand acquired from the platforms to purchase TBO’s inventory.

TBO thus created a symbiotic relationship with its agents, while leveraging them as the top of its  funnel.

TBO wanted to go even deeper in its relationships with travel agents.

Suite Deals

TBO rolled out Academy, a virtual learning platform with 100+ short courses. 

It was targeted at making the staff at travel agencies better informed, most of whom had never traveled abroad but were the closest to the travelers while they made their purchase decisions.

While operationally behind the scenes, TBO was one of the official partners of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup in England, making a mark at the global stage.

TBO was now active in 100 countries, employing people of 42 nationalities across offices in 26 countries, dealing in 22 currencies and offering services in 9 languages.

TBO was on a roll, and it did not go without notice.

Standard Chartered Private Equity, the PE arm of Standard Chartered Bank, acquired Naspers’ stake in TBO at an enterprise valuation of INR 300 Cr.

With a new investor, TBO focused on pilgrim tourism and honeymoon destinations for growth.

Given its dominant footprint in the Middle East, the Umrah market represented an ideal avenue for recurring demand. TBO then took the inorganic route to expedite the latter.

It acquired Island Hopper and Clickitbookit, two of the largest companies serving travelers to Mauritius, Maldives, Seychelles and Greek Isles, for INR 19 Cr.

TBO had perfected the template of learning what to build from the market and then using technology to enable its network of agents to evangelise and scale it quickly to spur repeat behavior.

 As long as there was travel, TBO could preempt, capture and monetise it sustainably, or so it seemed. Its plans appeared foolproof, its execution flawless.

A virus from China was about to change everything for TBO, travel and travellers worldwide.

The Covid pandemic upended human lives, forced nations into consecutive lockdowns, grounded aeroplanes and turned luxury hotels into zombie structures.

After a purple patch of a decade and a half, the law of averages finally seemed to catch up with TBO.

With the genesis of all its demand brought down to zilch, TBO’s operations were squarely hit, with revenue for the fiscal collapsing by ~75%.

Fight Or Flight

The travel sector was made irrelevant for more than a year during the pandemic. 

As with any industry – only the fittest seemed to survive and witnessed a massive rebound in growth once restrictions eased due to the reduction in the spread of the virus. 

TBO, having ridden out the pandemic, saw 2021 as one of its biggest years since its inception. 

TBO launched two new services at SATTE (South Asia’s Travel and Tourism Exchange) early in the year. Held after two years, the event largely focused on reviving India’s domestic and travel sector. 

TBO Cargo was launched as a facilitator for agents to negotiate the best prices to ship cargo via air and water. TBO Marine would cater to the niche market of the marine industry, enabling customers to swiftly and painlessly get access to global seaman fares. 

Both were meant to provide an all-around immaculate travel management service.  TBO would then strengthen its position as a market leader by acquiring Bengaluru-based Gemini Tours & Travels to function under its Island Hopper brand. 

Island Hopper was already seeing 100% year-over-year growth for the islands it served and had been the top supplier for resorts across the Maldives. Gemini would expand and cement TBO’s presence in the South India market while opening up new luxury hotel avenues in the Maldives. 

TBO would also enter a MoU with the Saudi Tourism Authority via its subsidiary This is a means to develop and promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination for religious and leisure travellers alike. 

The partnership would be key to fulfilling the Saudi Vision 2030 of 30M Umrah pilgrims and 100M visitors. As part of the deal, TBO would also leverage their e-learning platform, TBO Academy, to promote and raise awareness of Saudi Arabia as a luxury tourist destination. 

The following year would see a major TBO rebrand, as it crossed over 1M hotels and 100K buyers on its platform. A new brand name, TBO.COM, logo, and tagline – “Travel Simplified” would reflect the brand’s transition to a global travel distribution platform

The new identity would mark a significant moment in its journey as it aimed to further simplify the complex travel business and bring its extensive suite of services and products onto a single platform. 

TBO would also complete the acquisition of UK and Ireland-based Bookabed

The acquisition would provide a platform for TBO to enter the Irish market and double down on its UK presence. Bookabed, on the other hand, would be able to leverage TBO’s global API business to significantly scale up operations and take advantage of TBO academy to train and educate its agents and partners. 

Late 2022 would launch Paxes, a SaaS-based platform for travel management companies and corporations in India to upgrade their business travel experience. 

Paxes’ mobile-first corporate travel and self-booking solution would take advantage of the rapid, widespread digitisation during the pandemic to tap into the legacy business travel segment. 

Employees could manage their bookings, approvals, and support through the app, while corporates could leverage the inbuilt billing and invoicing services to simplify their operations greatly. 

As the world recovered from the global pandemic and countries opened their gates to travel and tourism again, TBO took essential steps in every direction to cement its position as the industry leader.

Feeling Continental

2023 would be no different.  

TBO strengthened on all fronts, following a technology-first approach to invest in innovations and offerings to simplify travel. 

In anticipation of the upcoming European travel season, TBO strengthened its European product offerings, adding more excursions and support for the extensive rail network. It would also optimise its inventory management and pricing tools to give travel partners across India the best possible options to attract customers

It would also complete the acquisition of Jumbonline, an online distribution subsidiary of Alpitour World, one of Europe’s largest tourism companies. 

Jumboline, an API distributor of products for wholesalers and tour operators, would give TBO access to over 120,000 hotels in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.

The year would also see TBO enter more strategic partnerships, albeit serving different purposes. 

The first would be with the Attraction World Group (AWG). Through this, TBO would enter the theme park and attractions space and offer customers access to world-famous brands such as Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, etc. 

The next would be with WebEngage, one of the leaders in marketing automation. 

The partnership would reinforce TBO’s technology-first approach. They would leverage WebEngage’s personalised engines and artificial intelligence capabilities to tailor services to agents in their B2A model and serve a more diverse range of travelers worldwide. 

As the year ended, TBO would cross INR 1,050Cr in operating revenue, a 118% increase from the previous year. Profits would register a 306% increase in the same period. 

On the back of this formidable growth, TBO would file for an IPO for the second time, determined to go through, having early withdrawn in 2021 due to the weak market conditions post the pandemic.

Future Voyage 

During a bull market, it’s common for promoters to take advantage of high tides by initiating an Initial Public Offering (IPO) through an offer-for-sale, aiming to capitalise on their investment. 

But that is not the case with TBO.

TBO aims to use the market upswing to generate fresh capital and direct it towards substantive growth. 

This strategy indicates the promoters’ confidence in the company’s prospects and their intention to scale up operations before considering selling a stake.

TBO has outlined a two-pronged strategy for expansion.

The first is to leverage data analytics. By analysing user searches and transactional data on their platform, TBO gains valuable insights into traveler behaviour, preferences, and trends. This intelligence enables suppliers to fine-tune their offerings, ensuring that they cater precisely to the needs of travellers with tailor-made promotions and services. 

The targeted application of data boosts customer satisfaction and enhances revenue efficiency, as evidenced by the revenue per supplier surge from INR 4.4 lakh in Fiscal 2021 to INR 13.66 lakh in 2023.

Growth of 44% on a per supplier basis, incredible by any stretch.

Moreover, TBO’s network is expanding, with monthly transacting buyers exceeding 25,000—a figure projected to surpass 30,000 within the next 12 to 15 months. 

This growth trajectory speaks volumes about the company’s market penetration and the robustness of its business model. The second strategy is to focus on inorganic growth.

This encompasses promotional activities and advertising, both domestically and internationally. 

Historically, the company allocated INR 30 crore over three years for such initiatives. With IPO proceeds, there’s a plan to increase the investment to ₹100 crore substantially. 

This significant boost in marketing expenditure is expected to yield a commensurate increase in visibility and market share. Acquisitions were also central to TBO’s growth blueprint. 

The company is eyeing acquisitions that strengthen its supply chain, geographical reach, and service spectrum. 

Potential targets include entities excelling in supplier aggregation, content creation, and advanced technologies like AI and ML. 

The aim is to construct an ecosystem that complements TBO’s current platform, thereby delivering enhanced value to buyers and suppliers.

Redefining Travel 

As the world witnesses a robust recovery in travel and tourism, TBO stands at the helm, driving innovation in a market poised to grow to an estimated $2.6T by 2027. 

This growth trajectory is underpinned by the changing travel habits of Gen Z, who are exploring beyond traditional destinations to seek ‘insta-worthy’ experiences, thus expanding the market opportunity for both suppliers and buyers within the travel sector​​.

As the travel landscape sees an influx of first-time travellers exploring novel destinations, TBO anticipates a surge in demand for its services. 

The company is strategically positioned to bridge the gap in a fragmented market, where a mere 1.2% of hotels globally are affiliated with top chains and ancillary segments like car rentals and sightseeing are predominantly populated by individual suppliers​​.

TBO’s strategic initiatives are geared towards capitalising on these growth trends by amplifying its platform’s value, developing targeted solutions, and leveraging data as a corporate currency.

Continuing to explore attractive inorganic growth opportunities, 

TBO is likely to invest in ancillary services and acquire businesses that complement and expand its current portfolio to strengthen its market position, offering a competitive edge in a fast-paced, innovation-driven industry​

The future of the travel sector, as envisioned by TBO, is one where technology and personalised experiences reign supreme. With a forward-looking strategy, TBO is positioning itself not just to adapt to the changing landscape of travel but to actively shape it, ensuring that both the company and its customers are at the forefront of the next era of global tourism.

Few may have heard of TBO, yet it has been resilient and kicking for almost 16 years. It is also a tech company, unlike expectations people have from legacy businesses. To build a B2B travel software company is something, to make it go global is another achievement altogether. 

As it heads into the horizon with an IPO looming, things could not be better looking for India’s potentially newest unicorn. 

Writing: Bhoomika, Abhinay, Nikhil, Parth, Raghav and Aviral Design: Omkar and Stability