Community kitchens, buzzing lounges, like-minded companions and bunker beds — if you’re travelling alone, places like Zostel and Jugaad offer an experience no hotel can provide. By Rashmi Rajagopal & Ryan Peppin
Armed with a few clothes and a toothbrush, AK Shardul from Bengaluru set out to discover the North, when he took a sabbatical earlier this year. Buses were his mode of transportation and hostels and homestays, his means of accommodation. Incidentally, this 29-year-old is joined by an army of youngsters who are taking weekend trips and backpacking holidays within the country. “India is seeing more youngsters travel to get to know their country better, and hostels provide a safe, hygienic, exploration-oriented stay,” says Pallavi Agarwal, co-founder of Stops Hostels which launched in 2014. And given that even families are choosing multiple weekend trips over one big holiday, Hari Nair, founder and CEO of travel information portal, Holiday IQ, feels that informal accommodations are gaining popularity. “I prefer hostels to B&Bs because you get an opportunity to interact with a lot of interesting people from all over the world. It’s a nice experience, especially if you’re travelling alone and need company,” shares Hruthika Charan, product marketing manager at Freshdesk, Chennai.
For Sudhir Gaikwad, an investment banker at Jones Lang Lasalle, Pune, hostels are all about informal networking. “I’ve met guys from Australia, America and Singapore in hostels and it’s enriching to interact with people from such diverse nationalities,” he says, and Tia Raina, internal communications and marketing manager at IBM, Bengaluru, agrees. “Having stayed at hostels in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I can say that it’s a very eye-opening experience that adds value to your holiday,” she says. It’s not just backpackers who recommend hostels. “I travel extensively on work and am a regular at JW Marriott, Holiday Inn and Lemon Tree, but hostels offer an environment that none of these chains can. I’ve recommended them to many of my colleagues,” says Harsh Rawal, head of operations, Diebold, Mumbai. It’s no wonder that angel investors have been showing interest in Indian hostels (Zostel raised `5 crore last year and are expecting more soon). With the founder and CEO of Stayzilla, Yogendra Vasupal observing that city backpackers and women travelling alone will opt for hostels this year, we check out the most popular addresses in the country.
Vedanta Wake up!
Rishabh Gupta and Aadil Muscatwala toured Australia for over two months, living out of hostels quite similar to their own. That was in 2009. This duo, who were both schoolmates and roommates in New York (where Gupta worked as an engineer at Deloitte Consulting and Muscatwala as an investment banker at Merill Lynch), have stayed in more than 100 hostels and it’s their experiences there that have gone into the making of Vedanta Wake up!, their four-year-old chain operating in Kochi, Alleppey, Thekkady, Varkala, Kovalam and Kanyakumari. But why are their hostels so closely located? “The strategy of growth for Vedanta Wake up! has always been to grow in clusters so that we can maximize the guests’ experience by offering packages and providing a customised travel experience,” shares Gupta, who reveals that their hostels are designed specifically for Indian travellers. “Indians account for over 90 per cent of all bookings at Vedanta Wake up! At 500 bucks a night, we offer our guests the opportunity to experience a social environment like never before. We organise walking tours in the city, yoga sessions, bar crawls, movie nights, live music, etc — at no extra cost,” he shares, adding that they provide clean hot water throughout the day, air conditioning, free WiFi, clean linen, toiletries, a sumptuous breakfast, security and most importantly, spotless housekeeping, with their top level management recruited either from IIM or IIT, and the on-ground staff given professional-level training by their in-house team. With no plans to set up outside the country they are working towards exhausting Indian travel destinations. “Our mission is to do multiple properties in over 100 towns and cities within the next two years,” reveals Gupta, who adds that they are funded by a few investors.
Judging by the success of Zostel, the brainchild of Abhishek Bhutra, Akhil Malik, Chetan Singh, Dharamveer Singh Chouhan, Paavan Nanda, Siddharth Janghu and Tarun Tiwari, too many cooks don’t really spoil the broth. “Four of us were from IIM Calcutta, two from IIT Bhubaneswar and one from Management Development Institute, Gurgaon,” Nanda shares. Their initial investment of `20 lakh (from their own pockets in 2013) went into setting up a hostel each in Jodhpur and Jaipur. “India is full of youth who want to explore new places. The idea was to give them quality accommodation at affordable prices. A Zostel is not only a place to come and stay, but also to socialise and travel together,” he says. Zostels organise pub crawls, food walks and karaoke sessions, while their community kitchens and common spaces act as forums for interaction. And through the Zostel Passport, which you get on checking in, you accumulate points for free breakfasts, stays, etc. With eight Zostels in the country, the founders are in talks with Tiger Global for funding, and plan to set up 40 more in the next two months, with plans to go international in four months. Ironically, these friends participated in several competitions to win money to start Zostel. “Our biggest win was the Richard Ivey Businessman Competition in Canada. We would walk to the venue in -22° temperatures, to save cash. It paid off when we won $20,000,” he recalls.
With just one hostel in Delhi’s RK Puram and plans in place to expand to popular tourist destinations like Agra and Jaipur (and two other off-beat locations in India), Jugaad is fast rising in popularity among the young crowd. Founded by R Vasudev, Udit Hooda and Manish Tokas, the place is strictly for solo backpackers and unavailable to families. “Vasu and I have been running a travel company, Travel Sense, that works with international tourists planning their travel in India and we wanted to do something in the hospitality industry. Hostels seemed like a nice point of entry as we had both stayed in them while travelling in Europe, and agreed that they were needed in India,” explains Hooda. Tokas, the third partner, is a real estate expert. The property is spread across 2,400 sq ft, with four dorms, one double room and a lounge area on the fourth floor. It can house a total of 32 guests and has a roof top cafe that offers a view of the Delhi skyline. “The building also has a co-working space and gym which guests can use at preferred prices,” reveals Hooda. Barely two months old, the trio is tapping into online mediums for marketing, with positive response from the age group between 18 and 35. “There are no loyalty programmes yet, but there have been situations where we make some allowances for customers. There was a guest who had previously stayed with us and needed to stop over for a few hours. We let her stay without any charge,” Hooda shares. Entirely self-funded, Hooda says they will seek the help of investors when they come up with concrete plans to take their hostel outside Delhi.
Our youth want to travel and explore new places. A Zostel is not only a place to come and stay but also to socialise and travel together
— Paavan Nanda, Zostel
Started by couples Amit and Bijal Bavishi Baid, Reema and Siddarth Choudhary, and their friend Abhishek Kumar — CrashPad The Hostotel was born out of the sheer need to create something different, in November 2014. “We wanted to offer something as clean as a hotel room and as cheerful as a hostel,” begins Bijal. Located in Jaipur and Jodhpur, their hostels have traditional Indian decor that appeals to both foreign and domestic travellers. With dorm and private rooms on offer, Bijal shares that they see an average of 1,500 guests a year, with events like the Jaipur Lit Fest and Diwali drawing a crowd. Besides the basic necessities, Bijal says that board games, and Bollywood and pizza nights are quite a hit with foreigners. “We even had a group of Americans, who were staying at the Taj in Delhi, shift to experience the hostel life,” reveals Bijal. The partners are looking out for investors, as they plan to open up in Udaipur and Kajhuraho by the end of the year. Plans are to set up in places like Hampi, Agra, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, though timelines are yet to be decided. Bijal also shares that the advantage of running a hostel is being able to interact with travellers from all over the world and share travel experiences. With caretakers-cum-cooks with a degree from reputed colleges in each hostel, basic culinary needs are met. CrashPad offers a choice of private and bunker rooms and one can find four-poster beds in the private rooms and wooden or metal bunker beds in the dorms and, at CrashPad Jodhpur, guests can also opt for a village safari, which is one of their USPs.
We came across several interesting hostels in Europe and were convinced we had to start our own hostel in India,” begins Pallavi Agarwal, the co-founder of Stops Hostels, located in Varanasi and Delhi. She and her husband, Pankaj Parwanda, quit cushy corporate jobs to set up their own venture in January 2014. “Pankaj was working with Ericsson while I was pursuing a career in consumer behaviour research,” she informs. The activities conducted at their properties are designed to facilitate offline social networking and exploration. They boast cozy common spaces with WiFi, free communal breakfasts and chai time, with walking tours and other events ranging from cooking classes to movie nights and pub crawls organised by their in-house team. The Delhi hostel also has a bar, The Nursery, besides a large movie room. “These help us get people out of their rooms and motivate them to plan their day exploring the city together,” explains Agarwal, adding that their average check in is about 50 a day. One of the attractions of their Varanasi property is the tent rooms they set up during winter. Agarwal hopes to give back to the community where their hostels are located and hence hires only local staff, who are then trained by the founders themselves. “We do whatever it takes to train them — from English classes to being physically present to show them the ropes in the early months,” shares Agarwal, who plans to set up in places like Kolkata, Mumbai, Darjeeling and Shillong, and is on the lookout for investors.