Shailza Dasgupta had always aspired to make a difference in people’s lives. After having spent over a decade in the corporate world, including Google and McKinsey & Company, she decided to launch a startup in something that was challenging.
Travel was her passion, and she would often write for publications including National Geographic Traveler and The Hindu. So, it was not a surprise when she ventured twice into startups in the travel and tourism space.
In April 2017, Shailza, along with her friend Vinod Verma, a travel photographer, founded Homestays of India (HOI) with five homestays in Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh. In less than three years, the Delhi-based startup has onboarded more than 110 homestays across 21 states in India, while targeting more.
“During our travels, we realized there are many small family-run homestays in remote regions that solely rely on walk-in guests. There is no dedicated platform to showcase these homestays where they can get the required visibility,” Shailza recollects.
Before that, in 2010, she had founded Chalo Let’s Go, a startup which designed and coordinated travel packages for tourists. It ran successfully for a few years. Meanwhile, Homestays of India started taking off. Shailza wanted to give her full attention to the new startup and shut down Chalo Let’s Go.
Homestays: The Face of Real India
Owing to the duo’s travel profiles, both Shailza and Vinod had a vast network of people running homestays, from whom they could understand the challenges and subsequently devise solutions. After research, they created a simple platform that provided homestays with an online presence and connected them to travelers looking for unique cultural experiences.
Shailza elaborates, “Travel trends are changing, and people want unique experiential stays. Homestays give an opportunity to experience the local culture, traditions and the taste of India's rich cuisine. Homestay owners host their spaces in many different ways, which makes each experience unique.”
According to her, besides tourists, families also choose HOI to spend quality time during their children’s summer/ winter vacations. “Staying with another local family and following their traditions and culture is a good exposure for kids. If it’s a farm stay, they get introduced to farm activities like organic farming, cow milking, fruit plucking etc.,” she says.
HOI’s customers also include retired couples, students, research scholars from foreign universities, solo travelers, and writers looking for quiet, safe places , and foreigners who want to experience Indian culture. “We also plan to offer HOI trips to travelers very soon for unique experiences in unexplored destinations,” Shailza adds.
Promoting Responsible Tourism
The startup also trains hosts in various aspects of hospitality, such as handling guests, basic English speaking, maintaining hygiene, homestay management and adopting eco-friendly practices.
For instance, homes registered on HOI do not use plastic in any form, including packaged snacks, and offer home-made alternatives. Besides, HOI encourages homestay owners to use solar energy and implement water harvesting, that is supported by many state governments. “We also encourage tourists to use electricity and water responsibly and use local transport so the local economy can benefit in the long term,” adds Shailza.
Guests’ feedback is also sought regularly and improvement efforts are made accordingly. To help homestay owners deal with challenges like difficult customers, bad feedback etc., the startup organizes regular problem-solving sessions by industry experts. Meetups and trips are also held for hosts to share their experiences.
Additionally, HOI also conducts health workshops to train hosts in using blood pressure meters, thermometers, glucometers etc. to handle health emergencies, as hospitals are often 50-60km away from rural areas and hilltops. Every house registered on HOI has emergency medical kits and youngsters are taught how to use it.
Women Empowerment at Grassroots Level
Shailza notes that most users choose HOI since hosts are families and not individuals. “It lends a sense of security to solo travelers, especially women.”
She adds that when HOI brings a home on board, female members of the owners’ families are encouraged to be actively involved in managing the homestays and handling finances so that they are financially independent. She cites the example of Beena Dangwal, who was a house-wife in Sunkiya village near Mukteshwar, a tourist destination in Uttarakhand.
“Beena was extremely shy when we first met her. But with our training along with her husband’s support and encouragement , Beena’s personality has changed entirely. She is now the village sarpanch and has even gotten other women to join HOI,” Shailza says proudly The team also counsels the menfolk about the long-term benefits of an alternative income and women’s financial independence.
Major work is being done in Sunkiya, where HOI has created a ‘Sustainable Community Homestay Village’ model. The programme aims to onboard a minimum of five houses in the same locality, all converted into homestays so that larger groups of up to 20 people can stay in them. “ We plan to replicate this model in 30 villages this year,” Shailza adds.
HOI also trains local youths of the area in tourism activities like being trekking guides, handicrafts, cookery etc. so they are employed in the village itself. Shailza hopes this will plug migration to metro cities in search of jobs.
(Edited by Priyam Nayak)