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Feel at Home

While luxe hotels offer standardised services, homestays are about privacy, and experience.
Amit Damani | Print Edition: October 21, 2018
Feel at Home

There is perhaps no portmanteau that holds as much promise as 'getaway'. It is simple, elegant, and communicates its core message precisely. But that's not the only reason why I feel this word merits special attention. It has a certain symbolism, which implies a break away from the monotony of life, an escape from everyday realities. You can be anyone for the duration of a getaway, do things you wouldn't usually do. Remember the Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone-starrer Tamasha?

The limitlessness that the concept of a getaway holds appeals to the new generation of travellers across the world. As a result, it is becoming an integral part of today's fast-paced life. And, since its boundaries are only limited by one's imagination, there has been an increasing demand for luxury getaways in the last couple of years, both in India and abroad.

However, new-age consumers don't just demand luxury and convenience. They also crave novelty. They want unique and exclusive experiences with close friends and family to reminisce and share with others in their peer groups, be it their colleagues or their extended friend circles. This is something that luxury hotels cannot provide. The standardisation of services makes your experience similar to anyone else's. It's nothing to write home about.

'Home' is disrupting the luxury hospitality sector. My first encounter with luxury homestays was at an early age, thanks to my grandfather. Advised by his doctors to periodically get away from the hustle-bustle of Mumbai on account of his deteriorating health, he bought a home in Khandala. Ours being a joint family, there was a continuous stream of people visiting the property for the first four-five years, for weekends or during holidays.

Things changed when my grandfather passed away. Our Khandala property's use began dropping as everyone became involved in their own lives. Soon, instead of being a place that attracted someone or the other all the time, the property became something we visited once every three or four months. These visits inevitably coincided with the routine checking up on the staff at the property, or initiating some maintenance work. My grandmother made special trips to Khandala just to maintain the house.

What I really wanted to do was make the management, maintenance, and security of the property completely hassle-free for my grandmother, in addition to taking care of staff management. I wanted to do it in a completely professional manner, because managing a luxury home with four bedrooms, multiple guestrooms, staff quarters, and a big lawn is not something that I could trust a layperson to do satisfactorily. And we managed to do it. We converted the property into a luxurious homestay and started renting to families who were looking for a private place for a holiday retreat. Priced at Rs 20,000 a night, the Khandala house started becoming popular through word-of-mouth. More and more people began booking it for short weekend trips. With a steady stream of guests visiting throughout the year, the house soon began to take care of itself.

It was then that it struck me: if I could do this for my grandmother, what's stopping me from doing it for others who face a similar challenge? I knew several people who had luxurious second homes in places like Alibaug, Karjat, and Goa, but were too involved with their professional responsibilities to take care of these properties. Some were even staying abroad, and therefore couldn't make frequent trips to India just to manage their properties.

With growing spending power, consumers' need for greater privacy and exclusivity has become a more prominent factor in their choice of accommodation. Anyone who's taken a weekend getaway with friends or family members to celebrate an event, a birthday, or an anniversary knows the kind of challenges faced when staying at a hotel. There is little to no privacy, and the flexibility to do whatever one wants is also absent.

Luxury homestays, on the other hand, allow you to celebrate special occasions with groups of more than 6 and up to 30 without any trouble. They provide all the amenities that a luxury hotel can provide, and more. Many luxury homestays have on-demand chefs, in-house theatres, yoga bays, mini bars, gyms, and infinity swimming pools. These amenities, unlike hotels, can be accessed by guests any time they want. Some are located near recreational areas such as golf courses or tennis courts, providing guests with the option of enjoying a leisurely swing or two should they fancy it.

Several luxury homestays are also pet-friendly, allowing people who prefer to travel with their pets to care for their favourite companions, even on vacations. The array of choices, flexibility, and convenience is what a hotel stay cannot cater to. This is why, even after paying a premium price - sometimes over Rs 35,000 per night - a growing number of people are choosing to book homestays.

Another thing that sets luxury homestays apart is the uniqueness that every homestay offers. Hotels operate on certain standardised parameters, while every home has something unique or different about it. Depending on where it is situated and how it is designed, a luxury homestay can offer unique experiences. Some properties are located close to vineyards and are particularly well-suited for 'spirited' wine connoisseurs to sample local offerings. Others overlooking scenic vistas and beautiful landscapes are perfect for nature enthusiasts. And each property has a certain history and emotion associated with it, like our Khandala house. These factors create a unique ambience, delivering differentiated experiences to guests. This, more and more, is what is driving the popularity of luxury homestays in India.

International travellers opting for homestays in India are also on the rise. The number of foreign tourists visiting the country is expected to increase significantly over the next five years, growing at a healthy clip of over 7% year-on-year to cross 11.3 million by 2020. Curious to know more about the locales and locals, these travellers want to soak up as many stories as our diverse land has to offer.

The current slump the country's real estate market is going through is also contributing to the growth of the luxury homestay segment. Builders and investors are looking to generate revenues from their unutilised assets, instead of leaving them empty and deteriorating in value. These lavish properties have inbuilt facilities, which gives them an advantage as a homestay option. Real estate companies understand that the homestay market can become a significant segment on its own, which is why some real estate players from Maharashtra, Goa, Pondicherry and even Shimla are seeking management expertise for their luxury properties and to handhold them through this market. Revenue from this has even helped some real estate players clear their inventories and bring the returns on investment in the right margin.

Amit Damani is co-founder of Vista Rooms

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