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Published on: Aug. 9, 2021, 12:14 p.m.
The new vacation-goers
  • L’Attitude villa - SaffronStays

By Arzoo Dina

If you’ve been planning a getaway close to home, chances are you’ve been looking up vacation villas within driving distance of your city. With the pandemic having definitively changed how people live and work, it’s now also influencing how they holiday. And vacation home rentals are turning out to be the favoured escape. 

For space-starved city folks, the idea of booking a private villa, equipped with staff and caretakers, freshly-cooked food, the appeal of working remotely, coupled with curated experiences that you may otherwise not get at a hotel, has got them making the switch to private villas over a traditional hotel stay. This could be anywhere from a weekend getaway to a month or longer. And, for the players in the industry, who manage these holiday homes, it couldn’t have come at a better time. 

“The pandemic has really been a watershed moment for us,” says Devendra Parulekar, founder, SaffronStays, which launched operations in 2015 (initially as an aggregator) managing holiday homes largely across Maharashtra, as well as popular leisure destinations in Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and other states. 

“There was always a demand for holiday home rentals; however, the pandemic has just accelerated this momentum.” What demonetisation did for digital payments, the pandemic has done for us, he notes. Parulekar feels that, with hotels you end up sharing public spaces, such as the swimming pool or gym, and adhering to mask mandates. “People don’t want that added stress, when they’re on a holiday. And, hiring a villa makes sense for all these reasons. Not to mention, the kind of privacy you get with a villa is unrivalled.”

Take the last couple of months, for instance. After India witnessed its second wave of Covid-19, followed by an ease in restrictions, villas in destinations near Mumbai, such as Lonavala, Karjat, Mahabaleshwar, Alibaug and those in Northern and Southern India in destinations like Kasauli, Manali, Mussoorie, Kodaikanal, Coonoor and others, have been perpetually booked out. 

  • Glasshouse 91, Alibaug - Lohono Stays by Isprava

Lohono Stays by Isprava, a high-end holiday home rental company launched in 2019, which is backed by the Godrej Family Office, Anand Piramal and the Burmans of Dabur, is seeing occupancy levels of over 93 per cent at most of its properties. For Vista Rooms, which was launched in 2015 – a range of holiday homes, from luxury to cosy getaways – occupancy on weekdays (pre-pandemic) would typically be about 20 per cent. This has now gone up to 50 per cent, while weekends witness occupancy levels of over 95 per cent. 

“What you get with a villa experience like ours is unlike a hotel stay in many ways,” points out Dhimaan Shah, co-founder & COO, Lohono Stays by Isprava. “Be it twice-a-day turn-down service, a dedicated concierge to help with your requests, breakfast as you like, as also incredibly designed houses in great locations, Lohono Stays typically caters to the affluent traveller, with clientele ranging from HNIs to celebrities.” 

“People don’t want a vanilla holiday anymore,” adds Shah. For instance, if you’re planning a landmark celebration in Goa, our concierge service can scout the local music scene and get together a live band performance, arrange for a cruise on the Mandovi River, set up a live barbecue at the villa, rope in mixologists for personalised cocktails or even arrange for a high-tea spread atop a hill after a day of trekking, he notes. 

Typically, working on a revenue-share business model with villa owners, Lohono Stays has about 350 luxury properties on its platform globally (largely across South East Asia), out of which 100 are in India. The company is now looking to grow the business over 150 per cent by the end of 2021-22. “We will be close to 250 villas in India by the end of this fiscal,” says Shah. Lohono stays also rents out villas built by its parent company, Isprava, a luxury home developer in destinations like Goa, Alibaug and the Nilgiris.

  • Tall Silver Coorg - Vista Rooms

Here to stay

Amit Damani, one of the trio who co-founded Vista Rooms, says that some interesting trends have emerged, in the way the guests book a holiday home now. “Increasingly, we’re seeing that properties are becoming the destination,” says Damani. People are being driven by what a certain property offers rather than the holiday destination itself. “So, we’re seeing bookings for farm stays go up, or those where nature is a focal point. This could mean living on an organic farm, where you can pluck your own veggies or fruits and whip up a meal, or a private coffee estate to soak in the whole experience. And these needn’t be in popular tourist spots,” he explains. 

Vista Rooms has a network of over 400 villas in its inventory in leisure destinations spread out over Maharashtra, Goa, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The company is looking to scale this to 600 villas by the end of 2021-22, targeting revenues of Rs100 crore. 

SaffronStays, which has an inventory of about 150 villas, has forayed into the ultra-luxury villa segment with XSeries, a niche curation of luxury villas, with all the bells and whistles – say, private helipads to infinity pools, trained chefs and mini movie theatres. The average price per night for these villas is about Rs1 lakh. 

Parulekar says they are bullish about growth, clocking revenues of Rs3 crore a month and doubling that in the coming year. The company’s business model ranges from revenue-share to lease & licence, as also management contracts. 

Despite the surge in demand for holiday homes and a strong potential for growth, the market isn’t without its challenges. The biggest one perhaps is how demand for these holiday homes is outstripping supply. Homeowners, who were once difficult to convince to lease out their villas, are coming round to recognising the potential value of monetising their second homes.

  • Foresta By The Lake, Kamshet

In fact, it’s how players like Vista Rooms and SaffronStays got into this space in the first place. For Damani, it was about utilising their 25-year-old family home in Lonavala, which would often lie unused. “It led us to think about creating a hospitality brand that showcased these homes, at a time when there wasn’t an organised way of booking such villas,” he confides. 

For Parulekar, it was a personal stay at a colonial bungalow in Fort Kochi, Kerala, some 20 years ago that made him to eventually quit his corporate job and look at how he could democratise a private villa experience. While, for Shah, it was a passion for beautiful homes and building a design-led development company, along with his brother that led him into this space. 

Will vacation villa rentals then be the catalyst that changes the face of the hospitality industry? Well, it’s certainly a step forward, they believe.

  • Paris Villa, Kasauli

Hotel chains eye this segment

This market is also seeing interest from hotel chains such as The Indian Hotels Company Ltd (IHCL), which launched amã Stays & Trails in 2019, a curated collection of heritage bungalows, guesthouses and homestays located in popular tourist destinations across the country. The brand started with about nine bungalows in Coorg and Chikmagalur in partnership with Tata Coffee, giving guests an immersive experience of living amidst and exploring lush coffee plantations, sampling local cuisine and other offbeat activities.

Fast forward to today, and amã Stays & Trails has expanded to 44 heritage bungalows and villas in destinations such as Goa, Kodaikanal, Alappuzha, Alibaug, Lonavala, Thiruvananthapuram, among others with another 14 under development. Most recently, they have added seven heritage tea planters’ bungalows in the mist-covered hills of Munnar to their portfolio.

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