When Karma Sonam Pulger, 29, a lawyer practising in Mumbai, returned home to Gangtok to be with his mother, he started missing the vibrant, diverse conversations he routinely had in Mumbai. As a substitute, Pulger opened up the family’s extra three-bedroom apartment for travellers recently, listing it on several lodging rental sites such Stayzilla, Guesthouser and Airbnb. There, book-lover Pulger displayed his two interests, Ayn Rand novels and pets. “I foresee many conversations with all varieties of travellers over the nettle soup or the Sikkimese butter tea that my mother makes,” he says.
Pulger is one of thousands of homestay and bed & breakfast hosts who are making this the Indian vacationer’s moment in time. In turn, technology-driven rental aggregators are classifying such “alternate stays” not just by location but by interest, fuelling an explosion of travel and adventure.
For instance, in Bangalore, the variety and quirkiness of options could blow the traveller’s mind. Hosts’ interests range from the mundane — yoga, baking and abstract art — to the unusual (American sitcom Friends) to the downright eccentric: knitting. In Jodhpur, a fervent bachata Latin dancing buff, a Ghulam Ali ghazal fan and a gardening enthusiast are hosting travellers. In Amritsar, residents passionate about wildlife photography, Kishore Kumar songs, startups and the guitar want to room guests. In Wayanad, Kerala, hosts come with such obsessions as novel writing, Art of Living meditation and mountain biking.
The “alternate stay” revolution, so called because it is more informal than regular hotels and branded serviced apartments, is opening up an unprecedented breadth and array of choices for travelers. Are you an IIT alum? Another IIT alum is happy to welcome you into his home in Bangalore. Are you a Beatles fan? A Jodhpur host has room for you. Are you a senior citizen, a “strict” vegetarian, a Rotarian or a pet lover? However offbeat the interest, a host out there can tick that particular box for you.
“It is as simple as whipping out your smartphone, firing up the app and browsing the interests of home stay hosts,” says Yogendra Vasupal, CEO and co-founder of Stayzilla, an online marketplace for hotels and alternate stays with a particular focus on the latter. Stayzilla is India’s biggest player in the “alternate stays” segment and offers 60,000 such rooms across the country. That is 9,000 hosts offering up the extra rooms in their home, an annexe, a holiday home or a serviced apartment or even a second home. Over a third of the rooms booked on Stayzilla are “alternate stays”. That the fraction is up from 15 per cent in October signals a boom.
Just as well because the Indian traveller faces a huge shortage of stay options — some estimate a shortage of one million rooms. Creating hotel rooms to fulfil this demand is expensive and time-consuming. But alternate stays could fill the gap. “There is a lot of unoccupied real estate in India in the form of second homes in India’s metros, homes in native towns and so on,” says Vasupal, whose goal is to match every unoccupied unit with a traveller. “Indians hoard gold and real estate and this addiction is coming in very useful,” he says.
The options are enticing not just for the guests but also for the hosts who can put their vacant rooms and homes to good use. By bonding with strangers with common interests, retired army officers, housewives and seniors are getting a new lease of life as well as an additional income. Homeowners from Guwahati to Kargil to Pondicherry are listing out their homes and interests.
Hosted stays bring diversity into the system, says Kavi Krut, chief growth officer at branded hotels network, OYO Rooms. OYO does not offer alternate stays but Krut says the value proposition is strong. “Nextgen Indian travellers are looking for diverse experiences such as matching their interest with the host’s.”
In Bangalore, host Anitha Ramachandra, a rose farmer and a Kannada book publisher, is listed on Stayzilla. She is very particular about the guests she is willing to accommodate in the extra bedroom in her modern apartment in the traditional Malleshwaram area of the city. She will accept only those whose interests align with hers — barbecuing and reading — and technology helps her filter out the rest. “I got along so well with some guests that we still talk about books on WhatsApp,” says Ramachandra explaining that the benefits go beyond immediate conversations. “My family and I have visited two of our guests in Simla and Guwahati and stayed in their homes.”