The thrills of a home away from home

Written by Ambica Gulati

No hustle-bustle, no boundaries, no formalities, just a cosy, relaxing place like home, sans the daily chores. “Resorts and hotels are good, but homestays have that personalised touch and they always give the holiday a special feel,” says Pooja Prasad, cultural affairs advisor with the Embassy of Mexico in India. “More so, when you decide to take a holiday to an off-beat place—there is fresh food, clean beds, the local experience, tranquility, exotic views.” And this is why when taking off with friends to the lesser known village of Hallan, near Manali in Himachal Pradesh, she booked at PossiVille. The website shows that this homestay has dormitories and rooms, grows its own fruits and vegetables. The volunteer programme includes gardening, artistic creations and more.

Going by Prasad’s experience, homestays are lucrative with affordable rates, home-cooked food, local and unique experiences, better localities and for the environmentally conscious ones, there is lower carbon footprint. Homestays are also advantageous for students studying outside their home towns or abroad. Homestay owners call it a true blue ‘athithi devo bhava’ (Guest is god) experience. Nishiraj A Baruah, who owns ‘Homestay by the Tea Garden’ in Dibrugarh, says: “Most important is to get the basics right: clean linen and bathroom, nice home food and happy service.”

As reported by travelnewsdigest.in, the World Travel Trade & Tourism Council has listed India as the seventh largest travel and tourism economy in the world. “Overall, the total contribution of the sector to the economy was INR 15.2 trillion (USD234 billion) in 2017. This forecast aims to more than double to INR 32 trillion (USD492 billion) by 2028,” it said in a 2018 report. “World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) India will employ around 10 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector by 2028.” This is precisely why the government has special guidelines for bed and breakfast units and homestay establishments. The main objective “is to provide a clean and affordable place for foreigners and domestic tourists alike including an opportunity for foreign tourists to stay with an Indian family to experience Indian customs and traditions and relish authentic Indian customs.”

While opening a homestay is probably a dream for many, sustaining it over a long period requires some skills.  “Homestays are a lot about relationship management. Be friends with your guests. Most people like to come back to a place they are familiar with. My helpers are happy, friendly and chilled out folks like me, which is why we get repeat guests,” explains Baruah.

Certified training might not be the absolute necessity, but a natural inclination towards hospitality helps. “I probably inherited this from my parents. I have always loved having friends and guests over. A good host has to be caring and sensitive enough to know every little detail about the guests. Sometimes I volunteer to pick up their luggage and have even picked them up from the airport. Everything isn’t about money in homestays, unlike hotels, where they will charge you for every little extra.”

Like Baruah, Kunal Sharma too did not have any classroom training on running a homestay. But driven by passion and love for the mountains, he recently opened a homestay called G Villas in Manali. “I fell in love with the idea of staying in a cottage during a trip to Bhimtal in 2016. Back in Delhi, I did a lot of research and discovered that Manali did not have many homestays.” And now he hosts guests along with his wife Mansi and 11-month-old son Aadyat.

Location plays a crucial role too. “We are located in Simsa Village, considered really posh in Manali. Actor Kangana Ranuat’s luxurious cottage is in the same tranquil neighbourhood and visible from all our rooms. Every room offers a view of the snow-capped mountains, apple orchards and picturesque landscape,” adds Sharma.

Baruah’s homestay is just 3km away from the congested zone of Dibrugarh, making it a quieter and greener option. A native to the place, he left his journalism job in Delhi to redesign his parental home, “The house faces a tea garden and has a fantastic view. I designed the top floor to open the premises to guests.”

Commenting on pricing and running a homestay, Baruah got a first hand experience during his long Delhi stay. “A friend had a 4-bedroom house in Noida’s plush Sector 15A. She was always travelling for work but paid a huge rent. Then we checked out the guidelines at Airbnb and listed an extra bedroom there, pricing it for Rs 1500 per night.” That’s where he also learned about the analytics tool ‘Smart Price’ which he uses to campare prices of hotels and other accommodation around. Online Tour Operators like MakeMyTrip are other places he tracks pricing on. “Initially, it’s better to start at a lower price. Once reviews and trust is established, it becomes easier.”

However, nothing ever comes without challenges. For newbie owners, loyal customers are important. “Our home was always the pivotal point for hosting family get-togethers. My mom did the cooking and dad entertained. Every time I cook chicken for my guests, I still call my mom for her secret recipe. I always want to replicate the home experience with my guests,” says Sharma.

As compared to a hotel or resort, a homestay is usually more economically viable for tourists. “The best part about a homestay is one is not worried about the fixed rent that hotels and resorts need to pay. So, the price of accommodation decreases. We are able to offer a beautiful experience, give 24X7 room service, provide a doctor on call, parking facilities, home-cooked food,” adds Sharma.

There are good days and there are bad days. There are good guests and there are difficult ones. “It’s a part and parcel of the industry. We have made many friends who are like family now. We stay humble and behave patiently with all the guests. Word of mouth is the game changer here. Everyone wants to feel special and homestays do offer that feeling, good reviews follow and business carries on.”

Baruah steps in with perks when he find the staff hassled by the guests. “Normally I am tolerant, but there are times when guests expect too much. However much you give them, it’s less. I normally step in, offer them a drink, ask them about their work, offer a traditional gift, and slowly they become happier.”

Where the future is headed, both owners are unanimous in their approach.  The travellers are looking for unique yet authentic experiences, and the hospitality sector is continually reinventing itself to meet these expectations. “Guests know they are staying in somebody’s home and don’t expect 5-star facilities. They are chilled out, don’t expect fancy food, most are happy with simple dal-chawal-sabzi. They often do their own things, are less fussy, have a creative bent of mind. And if they aren’t chilled out, they become one once they stay at a homestay,” smiles Baruah.

Sharma firmly opines. “Foreign tourists prefer to stay at a homestay as it is so much safer and reliable living with the owner.”  Assimilating the experience, Baruah asserts that “once you stay in a homestay, you will be addicted. You won’t be able to stay anywhere else”.

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