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‘We have transformed from being an airport lounge access aggregator to an end-to-end technology solutions provider’

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The air travel industry has, in the recent past, been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic posing a significant challenge to the airport service sector including the lounge access aggregator industry.  In a recent interview Balaji Srinivasan, Executive Director, and Chief Technology Officer, DreamFolks shares how the first-mover advantage in the lounge access aggregator industry in India has enabled the company to become a dominant player in the industry with a share of over 80% in the domestic lounge access market in India

Tell us about the journey of DreamFolks Services and the idea of the origin

Srinivasan: DreamFolks is a dominant player and India’s largest airport service aggregator platform facilitating an enhanced airport experience to passengers leveraging a technology driven platform. We were the first to envision the business opportunities and growth potential of the airport services industry. Our Chairperson and Managing Director, Liberatha Peter Kallat, has been instrumental in incubating this industry. We came up with this unique business model, were the first mover, and have successfully maintained this position in the industry over the years.

We began effective operations in 2013 by facilitating lounge access services for the Consumers of Mastercard and, currently provide services to all the Card Networks operating in India including Visa, Mastercard, Diners/Discover and RuPay, and many of India’s prominent Card Issuers including ICICI Bank Limited, Axis Bank Limited, Kotak Mahindra Bank Limited, HDFC Bank Limited (in respect of debit card lounge program) and SBI Cards. Over the years, we have transformed from being an airport lounge access aggregator to an end-to-end technology solutions provider for designing and delivering services that enhance the airport experience. We have crafted our service proposition to provide Clients the option of offering a wide-ranging bouquet of Services to the Consumers. Currently, we facilitate Consumers’ access to a host of services: from door-step to the airport, within the airport, and again from the airport to the door-step at the destination.

DreamFolks’ technology platform enables end-users to access airport services via multiple channels such as bank-issued credit & debit cards / DreamFolks card / mobile app based access. We are the OEM providers of airport services to leading Indian banks and card networks. If you have used a lounge in India, especially complimentary access from a bank-issued card, you have probably already used our technology/service.

Our deep understanding of the industry and direct involvement with key clients and operators forms the bedrock of our business success. Our first-mover advantage in the lounge access aggregator industry in India has enabled us to become a dominant player in the industry with a share of over 80% in the domestic lounge access market in India. We have an asset-light business model that integrates global card networks operating in India, credit card and debit card issuers and other corporate clients, in India, including airline companies with various airport lounge operators and other airport related service providers. All of these interconnections and facilitation is done seamlessly through a unified technology platform. Put simply, we facilitate consumers’ access to the airport related services like Lounges, Food and Beverage, Spa, Meet and Assist, Airport Transfer, Transit Hotels/Nap Room access, and Baggage Transfer.

Our dominance is underpinned by facilitating access to 100% of the 50 lounges currently operational in India, and a market share of over 95% of all India issued credit card and debit card based access to airport lounges in Fiscal 2020. Further, as at December 31, 2021 through our partnerships with other service providers, we have a global footprint extending to 121 countries spanning across the globe including India.

How has the pandemic impacted your business and how have you been recovered so far?

Srinivasan: The air travel industry has, in the recent past, been buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic, much like many other industries. Our business operations also suffered disruptions in the period between March 2020 and March 2021, due to the subsequent lockdowns to mitigate the spread of the virus.  However, the global aviation industry has been quick to recover. This holds good for the Indian domestic market also; with few Indian Tier-2 and Tier-3 airports managing to surpass the pre-COVID traffic numbers. Mass vaccination drives, softer travel restrictions and use of digital and electronic tools to gauge the susceptibility of an individual to the pandemic are contributing to increased tourism volume and easing up of border restrictions.

The summer schedule of international flights from India resumed on 27 March 2022. It is also expected that the Global air travel passengers would increase to 3.4 billion in the year 2022, as per a Frost & Sullivan industry report. Anticipating these optimistic trends, we expect favourable demand for airport services driven by increased consumer awareness and demand for better services at the airport. This shall assist in the complete normalisation of business due to the opening up of lounges and will unfold growth opportunities for airport lounge operators and the travel & tourism industry as a whole. After a gap of two years, as passengers start flying globally in a world yet to recover from the pandemic and geopolitical tensions, it will take some time before achieving normalcy. However, DreamFolks is poised and ready to make all the journeys hassle-free, comfortable and seamless by facilitating access to all airport-related services.

How is technology changing the dynamics of the airport service sector during the pandemic?

Srinivasan: Technology will continue to be critical to the aviation sector’s recovery and future development. Rapid digitization, enabled by the implementation and development of new technologies, will contribute to developing a more efficient, cost-effective and robust aviation system. Digital transformation of airport services has impacted both internal processes as well as the passenger journey. Infusion of technology has enabled process optimization, enhanced revenue stream, new business models, and customized customer experience.

Airport lounges are also keeping pace with technological developments to offer comfort, efficiency, luxury, and ease of convenience to millions of flying and in-transit passengers. Lounges are not meant just to keep loyal frequent travelers comfortable but have also become an important marketing tool to attract and retain new cardmembers. There is huge potential through big data and data science to help airlines and airports alike to get closer to customers than ever before, establishing patterns in passenger behaviour and thus better tailoring services to accommodate them.

At Dreamfolks, we too are ramping up our technology prowess and digitizing our services rapidly. DreamFolks acts as a vital link for banks, card networks, and a diverse set of enterprise set-ups for their credit & debit card sales and customer engagement programs. As a dominant tech-driven player with 100% lounge coverage in India, our technology offers solutions through multiple channels such as issuer card / digital card / DreamFolks card / mobile app based access, tracking live benefits on each card. One of our initiatives has been to update our technology platform for consumers so that they are able to use DreamFolks platform to purchase additional visits over and above the benefits available on their credit cards or debit cards and get access to lounges and other services. Integration with the platform also enables the consumers to track the benefits available across their various credit cards and debit cards, using either the card provider’s or card network’s app/website or the DreamFolks app. This robust proprietary technology has been a crucial element in the company’s ability to ramp up business in an asset-light manner by introducing increasing levels of automation and, thereby, simplifying transactional and process aspects for the card providers/banking partners, lounge service providers & end-users.

What are some of the business challenges?

Srinivasan: Since most of our revenue is derived directly from the use of the various services at airports by passengers, we are, therefore, reliant on the air travel industry for our business. The air travel industry has, in the recent past, been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic posing a significant challenge for DreamFolks.  Further, the travel industry is also generally affected by various factors such as increase in the fuel price, government policies applicable to, to the airline industry, failure of airlines, etc. Accordingly, any downturn in the travel industry, in general, and in the air travel industry could affects our results of operations and our financial condition. However, it is well-known that whenever global travel and aviation has witnessed key disruptions (such as the Gulf War, the SARS outbreak of 2003, or the Financial Crisis of 2008), the industry has been quick to recover in the past. So, we are well-prepared, especially with the resumption of international flights in order to capitalize on the anticipated bounce-back. Also, client relationships are the core of our business. Our ability to grow our business requires us to retain and expand the breadth of services availed of by our existing clients and expanding our client base in parallel. Our constant endeavour is to nurture every client relationship to ensure that it translates into long term association. Finally, since our business model is completely tech-driven and asset-light, it provides a layer of insulation in industry downturns.

Tell us about the role of AI and analytics in improving business efficiency and customer experiences. Any use case of new technologies such as bots, block chain, please share.

Srinivasan: The continued improvement of our platform is paramount to our customer experience which leads to an increased usage of services, driving our ability to attract and retain clients, and generate revenues. As our business continues to scale up, it is essential to improve the operating efficiency of our technology platform to maintain our competitive edge. We intend to continue to invest prudently in further developing and applying advanced technologies in the fields of programming tools and languages, automated proactive fault identification and correction in the field, data matching, data filtering, data predicting, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, machine learning systems and other database technologies to enhance the functionalities and customer experience of our platform.

Can you explain the unified technology platform?

Srinivasan: DreamFolks’ business model has a strong focus on technology. Our technology platform is aimed at ensuring that all entities on or availing of our platform i.e., client, lounge operators and consumers, have a seamless & ‘hassle-free’ experience. Our platform addresses aspects such as benefits calculation and accounting, provides real time visibility of transactions to clients and consumers.

Our platform includes connectors and application programming interfaces (API) which facilitate integration with client systems, or with any hybrid access modes depending on client’s preference. We also have an entire set of APIs and solutions to cater to non-BFS clients where access vouchers can be issued by clients to the consumers.

DreamFolks platform enables customisation of services for our clients to their end customers. Options include campaigns to provide benefits to identified set of end-users. It also enables creation of differentiated benefit tiers within the same card program, group and individual based benefits, support for guests and supplementary card-members, permitting end-users to pay for services in real time or settle pursuant to card statements, purchase credits, allow clubbing of benefits across multiple cards of consumers, ease the discovery of lounges and other services. The platform also provides clients the option to run usage and spend-based campaigns for their users. We leverage our configuration-driven extendible platform with solution templates for flexibility, reliability and customization, to provide solutions for multiple access models.

To summarize, our tech platform is a one-stop solution for all airport-related services and helps in management of the entitlements of cardholders resulting in ease for the networks/issuer banks & easy reconciliation. This enables our Clients to provide value added services to the consumers as part of their customer engagement and loyalty management programmes, thereby creating ancillary revenue opportunities for them. Our bespoke Airport solution reduces common industry pain points for integration, deployment, ongoing support and minimizes fraud and abuse. Our product is PCI DSS compliant as we process card data. It supports different kinds of billing models i.e., prepaid, real-time payment, and post-paid. ​

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