Debashish Biswas sits across the glass-walled cubicle of his north Kolkata office, one cannot ignore the bright logos of online aggregators like Cleartrip and TripAdvisor, adorning the thick, transparent glass.
The tourism industry in the picturesque mountains of north Bengal and neighbouring Sikkim is doing exceedingly well and the fragrant, dark red tea that Biswas sips is from Darjeeling. His group of budget hotels is doing brisk business and is housing guests even during the off season, thanks to online tour operators. He says that tea estates have designed a new kind of tourism, where tourists are put up in luxuriously designed British-era bungalows of the tea gardens. Travellers can get involved in the daily activities of the tea garden and spend a quiet weekend amidst the green slopes of these estates. The tourism industry in India is fast evolving with numerous such experiments transforming the sector.
The reason behind the popularity of these mountain destinations dotting north Bengal and Sikkim is the pristine beauty of nature this region offers. Amalendu Biswas, who co-owns Biswas Group of Hotels along with Debashish Biswas, informs BE, “The tourism sector is booming in north Bengal and Sikkim. Its growth is completely based on the inflow of various segments of tourists, who are increasingly exploring this region and are attracted by its natural beauty.”
Industry leaders confirm that the Indian tourism sector is growing, riding on the increasing disposable income of a segment of the population. Budget hotel companies like Biswas’ are banking on this growth. However, he also points out, “Travelling as a trend has also reached lower income groups. Saving a small portion of monthly income for a yearly family trip is quite common among that section as well.” This section is also an emerging market for budget hotel groups.
Budget hotels in north Bengal and Sikkim have their share of challenges. Amalendu Biswas says, “Running these hotels successfully requires a lot of time. The presence of the owners is almost mandatory in the properties.” It takes almost five years for a hotel to turn around and start making profits.
Maintaining the fleet of staff is another challenge. Most of the staff need to be taken from the plains, especially the cook as touring families prefer to have their own cuisine.
But maintaining this fleet the year round is a challenge as it cuts way the margins. Biswas explains, “We have tourists for approximately 90 days. The properties in remote locations have a lesser share of full occupancy. But maintaining the service crew for the whole year is often a financial burden.” Many hoteliers have turned to three month contracts for majority of the service personnel catering to the tourist season. However, with the online players providing a flow of tourists the year round, these budget hotels are facing another crisis. They need to have staff stationed throughout the year, which is a tricky proposition as the money generated from this is insufficient.
Another persisting problem of budget hotel owners in this region is lease disputes. Avijit Dutta, who owns the Paradise Group of Hotels, says, “All my eight properties in north Bengal are leased. I have entered into a contract with landowners of each property separately.” He also informs that these contracts are often biased towards the land owners. If any hotel starts making good money, it is quite usual for the landowner to demand an out-of-contract hike in the booking fee. Government regulations pertaining to ownership of tribal land often act as an impediment to hotel owners wishing to procure land in these mountain destinations.
The internet, which has opened several opportunities for this segment of economy hotels, has also brought in its share of complications. Amalendu Biswas informs BE, “The industry is highly transparent these days. Additionally, the expectation of the consumers is continuously spiralling. They are now demanding more and more facilities for our price segment. In our highly competitive market, we have to continuously upgrade our services.” In case of budget hotels, the availability of view is not the most important factor. Most of the demands from customers pertain to cleanliness of rooms and toilets, clean linen and availability of complimentary breakfast and packaged drinking water. He states, “Customers seem to have taken the services and facilities provided by online giants like Oyo as yardsticks of budget hotels.”
Improvisation and emerging strategies
Budget hotel owners are adapting to the rapidly changing tourism sector and are designing a host of new strategies to explore the market. Kedar Gupta, Founder, Hammocks Huts Holidays, a Kolkata-based company, says, “What we must clearly understand is that we are in the sector of leisure tourism. It is different from medical tourism or pilgrimage tourism. People are paying to have a good time and relax.” The owners of budget hotels are keeping in mind the factor of leisure as they design newer strategies. Gupta informed, “The customer base is rapidly evolving. They now prefer the local flavour of the destination.”
Cashing on this emerging trend, Gupta’s company is redesigning their properties and tweaking their services. Their newly acquired properly in Kolakham, near Darjeeling, West Bengal, is a homestay. Guests can stay in this two storied wooden property and relish the local cuisine prepared by the landlord’s family. Similarly, their property in Shantiniketan, West Bengal, is an experiment to promote village tourism. Gupta says that they have trained the tribal villagers to fit in in the service department. They also serve tribal cuisine to guests. He says, “Our experiment with tweaking the menu seems to be working. We have switched to serving traditional parched rice with milk instead of cornflakes and our customers seem to have taken to it.”
Budget hotel owners are also exploring newer locations to establish new properties. They are operating jointly with landowners and online as well as offline portals for promotion of these off-beat destinations. Biswas explains, “These destinations are generally shortlisted keeping a two hour driving radius from established tourist destinations. We must keep in mind that our typical customer base will not avail the service of a committed vehicle throughout the tour and would depend on pickup and drop formats.”
Budget hotel owners are also exploring travel options associated with group tours, school tours, and corporate tours to keep their lean season going. Special discounts for corporate booking and bulk booking are being offered. Hotel owners are also taking their products and services online. Biswas informs, “There is lot of traffic that is directed to our websites from online providers and our websites need to be up to the mark.”
The growth in the tourism sector in India will create opportunities for this segment of hotels. Online connectivity is promoting these hotels to a wider array of customers. Budget hotels are fast upgrading themselves and are servicing a cross segment of customers. Intelligent improvisation and fast upgradation hold the key to their success.