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The rise of India’s luxury homestay segment post-COVID

In the post-COVID era of domestic travel, homestays offer all the comforts of a hotel with the added security of privacy and seclusion at a time when social distancing has become the new buzzword. Traveldine chats with Devendra Parulekar, Founder, SaffronStays, about the potential for the segment and thriving through innovation.

2020 saw an increase in the popularity of homestays as travellers sought nearby getaways that allowed for social distancing. What was the market like for homestays in India pre-COVID and how has it changed post-COVID?

Devendra Parulekar, Founder, SaffronStays. (Photo: Courtesy SaffronStays)

If we were to compare our 2019 number of new users to that in 2020 once the unlock began, we saw a 115% jump. These numbers shot up due to the change in the way people looked at private villas; when compared to hotels, they are now considered safer due to the constant sanitisation, enough gap between two bookings to sanitise a space and the certainty in knowing that there are no outsiders.

Add to this, you have the whole space to yourself. Unlike hotels, where you can’t use the pool, are confined to your room alone, and have to step out for buffet breakfast/meals, you have access to all the home amenities, have social spaces to bond in and you don’t have to share the space with outsiders.

Most of these villas are at drive-to distances from Mumbai and Pune. While at the start, we saw families opting for it, the demand has now expanded to celebrations and corporates, too. People want to have intimate celebrations against naturally picturesque backdrops, and we provide end-to-end services for that. In fact, we have already hosted milestone birthdays, weddings and anniversaries so far. When it comes to corporates, people want to break free from the work from home concept, even if for a bit. And our homes are perfect for day events and overnight stays for small to medium-sized teams.

Pre-COVID, vacation homes were at an awareness stage; post-COVID, they have graduated as the preferred choice for all the above reasons. The demand for them is here to stay.

Homestays do not have the advantage of scale that hotels have in terms of operations. What challenges did you face in preparing your properties and regaining guests’ trust post-COVID?

SaffronStays Alibaug
SaffronStays reopened its homes in a staggered manner after incorporating COVID-19 protocols. (Photo: Courtesy SaffronStays)

A lot of people who had never looked at private vacation homes as an option for accommodation started opting for them because unlike hotels, they did not have any shared spaces. The reopening of our homes was a combination of people, process, and technology. When I say people, it meant getting our people completely aware and sensitised to the fact that we are in very different times.

When I speak of processes, I speak of laying down all the processes we are undertaking—such as the procurement of the sanitisation chemicals, equipment or masks and gloves; the procedures that we will undertake at the time of booking, at the time of check-in, while preparing food, and so on. Once we had these two in place, we trained our onsite staff on all these processes. We applied technology to the hilt. For instance, we sent a Universal URL to the guests that allowed contactless check-in, had a contactless thermometer for temperature checks and relied on online payments completely.

Knowing very well that I’m a small brand and don’t have million-dollar funding behind me to spare, we didn’t launch all homes together but in a staggered manner as per the region and the home and homeowner’s readiness. 

What are the current challenges for the luxury homestay segment in India?

One of the biggest challenges that this segment faces is the high GST rates (18%). Because of this, guests are tempted to pay in cash to unscrupulous operators.  

Are there any changes you’d like to see from the government to boost the segment?

I’m looking forward to simpler and easier licensing norms; I would love to have a single-window registration process for it.

Other infrastructural changes like clean, hygienic paid toilets every few kilometres on highways will make road travel a lot safer and more convenient for women travellers. Also, bringing down the GST rates to 12% minus any slabs will really help the segment, especially after what it went through during the lockdown.

What do you feel makes a homestay stand out from the rest? How can they thrive when competing with established hotels?

When compared to a 5-star, our villas have a story, unique experiences and touchpoints. While we aim to match up to the 5-star certainty, we are different from them in a way that there are no standardisations. The 12th and 13th floors of a sea-facing 5-star hotel will offer you the same view. However, our two villas in Karjat, for example, are very different from each other. Similarly, unlike room service with a standard menu, our caretakers surprise guests with their food specialties.

What is your strategy for SaffronStays in the coming months?

We want to focus all our energies on acquiring homes in Maharashtra. Apart from this, our focus is on celebrations—big and small. For instance, destination weddings have been popular for quite some time now. Post-COVID, they’re still popular; just that the group size is smaller and the venue is a drive away.

The introduction of the Ro-Pax ferry services has made it easier for Mumbaikars to go to Alibaug or even drive down to several nearby spots such as Lonavala, Khandala, Karjat, Kamshet, Panchgani, and Mahabaleshwar that are between two and four hours from Mumbai and Pune. This has led to a shift in the way people are planning their weddings, and other special celebrations. They are on the lookout for venues that will make up for the smaller guestlist— untouched locations, natural set-ups, those warm fuzzy feels, and a celebration to remember.

The Verandah at Panchgani offers spectacular valley views. (Photo: Courtesy SaffronStays)

We realised early on that our true assets weren’t just our rooms and villas, but everything around them, including the 12-acre estates, the beach homes, the gardens, and the magical backdrops, all of which are ideal for celebrations. Considering that intimate celebrations will rule the roost for a while, apart from holidays, people are looking for spaces for milestone birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and pre-wedding functions, too. From cocktails to mehendi, haldi, and weddings, a private villa for one’s D-Day is not a startling suggestion anymore.

How about a fully serviced vacation home that overlooks the whole of Alibaug? Or a cocktail party at a beach-facing home? A charming ‘less-is-more’ set-up at a colonial estate in Mahabaleshwar, or your shaadi mandap with the glistening lake as a backdrop in Kamshet? At our homes, guests can make their dream come true with picturesque views and Pinterest-like decor. We also look that end-to-end guest requirements are met with, be it decor, gorgeous set-ups, or catering, flower and sound arrangements.

What is your take on the trend of workcations and staycations that have arisen post-COVID? Have you introduced any packages that cater to these trends at SaffronStays?

We were big on workations post-COVID-19, when Mission Unlock began. Guests had booked our private villas across Maharashtra for weeks and even months together. However, with things easing out, the demand has modified and we’ve seen a gradual rise in demand for our corporate vertical, which caters to offsites and other corporate events. We’d initially launched it last year and had seen a phenomenal response for it. Post-COVID, the demand for corporate getaways changed to workations and has now come back to it.

Are there any new SaffronStays properties on the horizon?

We launch anywhere between 10-15 homes in a month, and we are at it.