He refused to throw in the towel, instead decided to go places

Chennai: The road to this Rs 100 crore travel company began from the pavement outside the US consulate in Chennai. That was where a Class VIII dropout from Thiruchendur landed up in 1981. The 26-year-old used to be paid `2 to spread a towel on the pavement and spend the night there to reserve a space for visa seekers, who were served on a ‘first come, first served’ basis in those days.
“While on the job as a towel spreader, I ran into travel agents near the embassy canvassing for air tickets with successful visa aspirants heading to the US. The agents got a commission of 9% of the ticket cost. Soon I approached a travel agency that offered me a similar commission for every ticket booked through them. I passed on 5% as discount to the travelers and attracted more customers by providing the cheapest air tickets to the US,” recalls VKT Balan, chairman and managing director of Madura Travel Service (P) Ltd. His company is now worth Rs 100 crore and growing.
He soon set up a 100 sq ft office at Mannady in north Chennai with his savings of `10,000 offering assistance to international travelers to get passports, visas, vaccination certificates and flight tickets. He later shifted his base to Kenneth Lane in Egmore. “Initially, I was not comfortable conversing in English and could not even understand the difference between arrival and departure,” he says.
But such constraints did not stop him. That was the time Sri Lankan Tamils ​​were moving abroad in hordes and settling in Australia, Europe and Canada. Many Indian Tamils ​​too were heading to the US for lucrative IT jobs. The company saw an emerging business opportunity and decided to conduct ‘star night’ shows with leading musicians and Tamil film stars in these countries.
“Till the late 1980s, Tamil cultural shows abroad were confined to hosting stage plays and light music in Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia with performers from Tamil Nadu. We expanded it to Europe, US, Canada and Australia featuring leading artists from Kollywood and Bollywood and conducted more than 300 such shows,” says Balan. He was later awarded the ‘Kalaimamani’ award by the state government.
Balan recalls how a popular Tamil film director headed to Canada via Frankfurt found his passport missing when he landed in the German city. The director reached out to Madura Travels in a panic. Even as Balan was contacting the airline concerned, he got a call from customs officials at Chennai airport saying one of his clients had left behind his passport. Balan managed to send it to Frankfurt with pilots of an airline the next day.
This personal touch is what has kept the company afloat when so many big names in the business have collapsed in recent years with the advent of online booking. Madura Travels now gets 90% of its revenue from tourism packages. It has cashed in on the trend since the early 2000s of Tamils ​​going on foreign vacations.
Balan believes reliable travel agencies will survive. “We follow our customers like their shadow throughout their travel. A travel agent’s job does not end with booking tickets, but continues till the customers return home. That’s why we offer 24/7 support 365 days. We also offer a Tamil-speaking guide for group tours anywhere in the world and provide South Indian cuisine. Can you expect the same when you make bookings online,” he asks.
Despite having served three million customers, the company has no plans to expand beyond Chennai. “The situation is not conducive to opening new branches or expanding our business in other cities,” says Balan.
“I started my career from the platform and even today if someone offers me food on the pavement, I will happily sit and eat,” signs off the 69 year-old doyen of the city’s travel trade.

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