Who would have thought that a time would come when people would be paranoid about taking a vacation? But that’s the harsh reality of the times we are living, or rather surviving.
A number of concerns are preventing people from travelling right now: the duration of their travel, using public transport, coming in close contact with crowds, sharing common spaces with strangers, the health and hygiene of the staff and the place they will be staying at, and much more. Until there’s a vaccine for the virus, we will have to learn to coexist with it. How long, after all, will you not step out for work? Or not travel, for that matter.
The need for safety and hygiene has become very important right now. This is where private vacation homes come into the picture. The hospitality industry is seeing a growing trend of private vacation homes at drive-to distances, where the risk of contamination is less.
Adhering to the highest standards of hygiene and making the most of this time, SaffronStays, known for their network of more than 175 private vacation homes across the country, has come up with a set of standard operative procedures for all their stakeholders.
We caught up with SaffronStays founder Devendra Parulekar for an exclusive interview on the challenges that his company faces and the road ahead for the hospitality sector.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
1. How is Saffron Stays ensuring safety for its guests?
We are following protocols that are safe, implementable and make sense. For instance, we are serving only hot, home-cooked meals with fresh ingredients sourced from the garden, or the local market. All fruits and veggies are thoroughly washed with potassium permanganate diluted with water. We are giving FOSTAC training to our staff, as well as continuous training for hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette. A zero-contact approach is being followed for check-ins. We are also keeping a 24 hour gap between two bookings, and e-passes and COVID-negative certificates are a must for our guests.
Earlier, we used to give out our vacation villas to different families or groups but now we are allowing only one family per villa. Rooms and other spaces (as well as items like remote controls and switchboards) are being regularly cleaned and sanitised, .
What was your strategy for reopening during the lockdown?
We didn't waste a single day. From procuring all the required chemicals, cleaners, sanitisers and thermometers to training our staff at our propertied, we've been quite busy. We trained our staff through Zoom calls, PowerPoint presentations and WhatsApp videos. We have also done extensive technology deployment at our private villas and made sure they match our clients’ requirements.
Are you adapting/tweaking things while you go along? What are the issues coming up?
We are changing our methods every day. The biggest challenge that we are facing today is that of uncertainty. The major issue is the unpredictable nature of reopening and re-closing of destinations. For instance, a certain destination that had reopened yesterday would be closed again next week. Getting e-passes for our staff is also difficult.
There’s also a lack of coordination between the centre, the state governments and the gram panchayats, and it gets very difficult for us to keep navigating between the three. Most of our vacation homes are in villages and we have to convince panchayats to allow us to host guests. They understand that we are generating employment opportunities for the village folk. It’s a give and take relationship.
We are seeing an increased interest in workatations and staycations. Why do you think some people are looking for long-term stays right now? What facilities are you providing for executives and professionals who are looking for long-term working vacations?
People are bored of working from home, tired of cooking their own meals and could definitely use some fresh air. Given that work-from-home and e-learning are going to be the new normal, we have opened up our homes for long-term stays. If one can work from home, it is obvious that they can also work from a vacation home in Khandala, Alibaug, Ooty or Goa. People may opt to stay at a vacation home for a month and work from there. Imagine taking a midday break with a stroll in the garden or a dip in your private pool post a long, hectic day of work! Evenings can be reserved for some downtime, and spending time with family. The response has been tremendous. People need some pampering and they are willing to move to a private vacation home for a month to do that. Just recently, one of our clients has booked one of our homes in Alibaug for a duration of three months.
5. Can you take us through your various workation models and rental plans?
Our short-term staycation plan caters to people who only want to enjoy a lovely vacation with their family without having to bother about their work. They can take a 3 day/5 day/7 day all-inclusive package. As far as our long-term workation packages are concerned, these are for a minimum of one month in one home. One can choose from any of our fully-serviced, COVID-ready private villas that are 2-3 hours from the city for a relaxed stay amidst nature. These work-friendly and pet-friendly homes have WiFi, and equipped corners for Zoom calls. For this, we are making provisions for uninterrupted internet connections. Guests cannot leave the property for the first 14 days of their stay. They must also carry a valid e-pass and a valid doctor's certificate.
How has travel changed after the pandemic and how is your company adapting to the changes? What are clients looking for? What has been the major changes in consumer behaviour?
The trend that we are noticing in India is that the last thing that will recover will be international holidays. Business travel will also be severely impacted. Leisure travel will see an upswing, and a very quick one. But people will want to avoid crowded public spaces, and want to drive to the destination. So the destination will have to be nearby. Even if I drive down to a destination, I would like to avoid other families. With that in mind, private home rentals will really take off in the months to come. The wealthy people who had scheduled their summer vacations abroad are desperately in need of a holiday. You will now find smaller groups of people travelling together. Earlier, we used to host groups of four to five families at our homes but now only one or two families would prefer travelling together. Corporates will take out small teams for off-sites. We have also been getting many inquiries for weddings in November and December. People are looking to hire private villas to host small (50 people) weddings.
How are private villas safer than flagship hotels?
In hotels, you have so many different families and guests that you can’t tell who is infected and who’s not. You may not want to use the bar, or the swimming pool etc. A private villa on the other hand is inherently safer. A hotel room can be claustrophobic after a while, but if you have a villa to yourself, you are not isolated in one corner. We are marrying the best practices of five star hotels with the privacy of a villa. We are ensuring the same level of safety and hygiene that a flagship hotel chain would have. And we have been getting calls from some of the top industrialists of the country remote controls and switch boardsto book our villas.
How has the pandemic affected your business? What is your strategy for the rest of the year 2020?
Our revenues went to zero and we had to cancel as many as 500 to 600 bookings for the summer. We are leveraging several methods to retain our top talent because we don’t want to be left without staff by the time business recovers. We are also giving our clients the option to reschedule and the good thing is that most of them have taken that option. We had to deduct salaries. Some of our migrant staff went back home, and don’t plan to return any time soon. We’ve used the lockdown period to increase supply because we knew that when we reopen, there will be an increased demand for private vacation homes. There has been a 20 percent increase in our number of homes. While demand takes its own time to pick up, our strategy will be to work on our supply and have more villas.
What is the biggest challenge for the hospitality sector today and how can the industry ensure travellers that their safety will not be compromised?
The biggest challenge for the hospitality sector today is uncertainty. We can’t force anyone to travel but we can definitely assure them that the industry is taking all safety measures. And we have to make them aware of this. Also, let me tell you that the demand is huge and our call centres are receiving hundreds of calls every day. The real problem, however, lies at the district authority level. Authorities need to start allowing people to travel and leave it to their choice, now that we all have a fair idea about how to deal with the pandemic and stay safe.