The recent years have seen the growth of homestays in India as travellers look to connect with the local culture through unique experiences. To meet the increasing demand, the government is also partnering with new players to improve homestay facilities in Tier II and Tier III cities By Saloni Bhatia
The ministry of tourism’s scheme for approval and registration of bed and breakfast and homestay establishments in the country is in many ways redefining the hospitality segment. A homestay offers the opportunity for a cultural exchange that enhances a traveller’s experience in a new country. The concept, which is voluntary in nature, has successfully penetrated in Tier II and Tier III cities in India as home owners are listing their properties on multiple online portals and partnering with the state governments.
The industry trends have changed as travel agents now prefer to book homestays than the conventional hotels for the travellers. MoT realises the potential of the market and had listed specific guidelines for the owners to follow. But the success of online platforms has changed the ball game altogether. The expanse of listings on these portals has given travellers the opportunity to pick a house of their choice and experience a city beyond rigid itineraries.
One of the growing platforms in the space is the Bangaluru based Stayzilla.com with more than 55,000 stay options across 4,500 towns in the country. The platform connects travellers and home owners for a unique stay experience and has already tied up with five state tourism boards to promote the concept. Ankit Rastogi, vice president, marketplace, Stayzilla, informs, “We have already signed MoUs with the governments of Punjab, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and are in the process of partnering with more. We have connected with 8,000 homestays across 100 odd destinations including small villages in pristine destinations.”
Room crunch situation
During every long weekend the places around the city are packed and the hoteliers who do not entertain last minute bookings. “Stayzilla made a conscious effort to look into the room crunch situation as supply becomes a big constraint for tourism in the country. Building of hotels take time and investment while creating a homestay becomes an economy enabler,” mentions Rastogi.
Hemendra Lal Shah, who owns a three bedroom homestay in Darjeeling, associated with Stayzilla a year ago. He says, “I listed with the company about a year ago and the overall experience has been quite encouraging. It has been wonderful meeting different people from various parts of the world and getting a chance to host them as our guests. I personally go and collect them from nearby areas so they don’t have trouble finding the place. There is home cooked food in the morning and comfortable spaces like the lounge and open garden to enjoy the serenity of the place.” Shah’s Eza homestay is one of the 142 homestays listed in Darjeeling. Shah is a retired bank official who recently installed Wi-Fi for his guests and also plans to open a basic gym facility along with parking space for his future guests. He adds, “It is important to make constant upgrades in order to cater to the new guests.”
The government’s involvement
Punjab state tourism recently tied up with Stayzilla to promote and create awareness for homestays in the region. This is the fourth state to tie up with the online homestay aggregator to market its homestay properties collectively. Navjyot P S Randhawa, director – tourism, culture affairs, archaeology, museums and archives, Punjab states, “We should have signed this contract much earlier but the state was not ready for it. There were comparatively no homestays back then but now we are growing at a 30 per cent rate every year. The brand is already doing promotions with its marketing plans in place and will continue to participate in internationals shows together.”
The rules of economy apply to these homestays and when one sees a neighbour making money then eventually they are enticed to be a part of the scheme. “However, the best promotion is done through word of mouth and has been the most beneficial,” informs Randhawa. Matched with farmstays and tourist huts the state now has about 100 homestays to offer.
State governments are also taking initiatives to make sure responsible tourism reaches various destinations. Kerala Tourism is setting up a Responsible Tourism (RT) classification system for all accommodation units in the state. Dr Venu, principal secretary, Kerala Tourism, informs, “We intend to take Responsible Tourism to more destinations given the success of this participatory approach model, where the local communities are included as stakeholders and empowered economically through tourism activity that focuses on both cultural and ecological conservation. As a part of the sustainability initiative, we have put in place an RT classification system for accommodation units and are bringing all hotels and resorts under this. The classification system for home stays has also been re-modified in tune with RT principles.”
It is important to retain the credibility of a host as there are certain security perceptions in the mind of travellers. Every homestay owner undergoes checks by either the state tourism boards or private companies listing them. The ministry has also laid down certain guidelines to be followed by the homestay owners. Under the Incredible India Bed and Breakfast and Homestay Scheme, facilities are to be categorised as Silver and Gold. The regional classification committee then inspects the place based on the facilities and services offered. Once the standards are cleared then the place is offered as a homestay under the scheme. But according to the scheme, the establishment will be given only in those cases where the owner/ promoter of the establishment along with his/ her family is physically residing in the same establishment and letting out minimum one room and maximum six rooms (12 beds). There is no provision to grant financial assistance under the scheme for approval and registration of Incredible India Bed and Breakfast/ Homestay Establishments of MoT.
Guesthouser, started in the year 2000, was one of the initial companies to start listing homestays in India. The brand has now successfully penetrated into 2,200 cities majorly across Tier II and Tier III locations with a growing international presence. Dhruv Sharma, co-founder, Guesthouser.com, comments, “There was a massive parallel supply created next to the hotels in every city, but the only issue was of their activeness and visibility. We are the only company in India that have gone this deep with their supply reach in Tier II and Tier III cities where these homestays are of actual importance. By creating a supply in this manner one can easily
contribute to the regional economy.”
Searching and evaluating a place is one of the most difficult tasks as the platform is blamed post a bad review. To avoid such situations, it is essential to follow a rigorous process of checking. Sharma adds, “We have a dedicated team who look for places available. This is followed by the business development team doing its research and justify if it is worth a listing. Then the photography team takes over to click some pictures which can help list the properties and give a complete outlook to the guest. But, in order to maintain a dedicated relationship with the hosts we have an in-house team who make regular calls to the owners so they are updated with the small changes that can improve their listings. Through the penetration of smartphone technology, hosts are also looking at an opportunity to be available online and that is where we help them.”
Enabling a host
Stayzilla organises a seminar at the regional level in order to make the owner aware about the platform and then there are continuous efforts to market the destination by the brand. “We also promote a host based on their occupation and make it a comfortable stay for the guests in case they wish to indulge in conversations with the hosts. It becomes important to connect the people of interest together so they have a pleasant stay,” adds Rastogi.
In a country like India, where some places do not have proper internet connection, it becomes difficult to stay connected. He mentions, “We have the mobile app which is the only one in the country to keep you connected offline as well. In case you enter a remote area with no internet connection , you shall still be able to get information through SMS.”
Elaborating on building owner relations, Sharma states, “We have good relations with the hosts in terms of technology immersions. The Host Immersion team talks to the hosts to update their calendars and use the app to improve the experience. The education curve is still a bit steep in the country and we are slowly moving forward to enabling more people to adopt technology. Importance of educating a host is that it helps them to understand the changes on the platform. Once they improve their listing, they are able to attract more customers. In fact, some of the guests even extend to make renovations in their houses before season time to attract the travellers.”
The local connect
N S Rathore, owner, Balunda House, runs a private homestay in the city of Udaipur. The five bedroom property is a gold category homestay verified under the Ministry of Tourism Homestay scheme. Talking about why he planned to make his home a homestay, he says, “I had built the property but was unable to maintain it since it has some traditional antiques and furniture, so I decided to turn it into a homestay 15 years ago. We host around 100-150 domestic and international guests every year.”
“While the online portals help in promoting the place, they often misquote the price which lands the owner into a problem. The concept has been in Rajasthan over the years, but they are not being properly sold. Indians are still hesitant to the concept while Europeans are keen on living in homestays. This is the main reason why major travel agents are now shifting their base to homestay accommodations than hotel rooms. It is also important to have a member of the family living at the property as mentioned under the MoT scheme,” adds Rathor.
The Padmini Haveli in the Chittorgarh Palace is run by Parvati and Sudhir Sukhwal. Opened in 2012, the six room property is already registered in the silver category under the MoT scheme by the government. Parvati informs, “The property views that overlook the temples and palaces attract major clients. We are already listed in a French guidebook, which is considered as the Bible for international travel along with TripAdvisor. The majority of guests are international, coming from Canada, Belgium and French speaking countries.” As hosts, they are well versed with French and English and also take their guests on local tours.
Eric David, owner, of Zina Cottages, has converted his 50 year old property to a five bedroom homestay near Munnar. The property is 2.5 km from the main city and enjoys pristine views of a tea plantation. The cottage also has a strong online presence with listings across portals like Guesthouser, Lonely Planet and Kerela Tourism. On his association with Guesthouser, Eric states, “I listed with the portal about 1.5 years ago and have seen wonderful results. Majority of the bookings are domestic travellers who make booking in advance. Since the cottage is the only property exactly in the middle of the plantation, the guests enjoy a quiet time when on vacation here.” Guests can also go for tea plantation tours.