No one can deny that when OYO Rooms launched in 2013, it was a watershed moment for the Indian—and, it could be argued, even the world—hospitality industry. At long last, India’s heaving, and uneven, population of unbranded budget hotels and guesthouses were going to be standardised under a single umbrella while being able to tap into the larger market that the hotel aggregator would provide them access to. For the guest, the OYO tag would ensure that certain quality benchmarks would be adhered to. At a time when there was no guarantee that if you booked a budget hotel in India, you would get clean sheets or a decent bathroom—or indeed have your booking honoured—this was nothing short of revolutionary.
Even more interesting was the story of its founder, Ritesh Agarwal, who wasn’t even 20 at the time. He was also a college dropout, which made him eligible for the Thiel Fellowship and gave him an opportunity to develop OYO. Since the launch, OYO has diversified into a bunch of sub-brands. There’s OYO Home, India’s maiden home management system, for staycations; SilverKey, executive stays that cater to the corporate traveller; Palette Resorts for leisure vacations; and Collection O, the newest category under OYO’s hotel portfolio, for the discerning business traveller. Also new is OYO LIFE, targeted at millennials and young professionals in search of fully managed homes on long-term rentals, at affordable prices.
But the one I was really curious about was OYO Townhouse, the neighbourhood hotel for millennial travellers offering ‘premium economy’ accommodations. Unlike OYO Rooms, Townhouses are managed by OYO itself. Launched in January 2017, there are already over a hundred of them across 16 cities. Since each Townhouse is unique and proudly hyper-local, I wasn’t sure if the one I visited would be representative of the brand. So I tossed a coin, and settled on OYO Townhouse 011 Esplanade in Kolkata.
I landed at the Sudder Street establishment late in the evening, a magical time in a magical place. Kolkata’s backpacker quarter was buzzing with activity, and seemed to have poshed up since I last visited. The smart Townhouse fit right into its ’hood.
Smart is a word you’ll hear a lot at Townhouse. The guestbook in my room made liberal use of it. Townhouse, it seems, is built on six layers of innovation: Smarter Rooms, Smarter Spaces, Smarter Menus, Smarter Buildings, Smarter Service and Smarter Locations. By ‘Smarter Rooms’, for instance, they mean accommodation that is ‘configured for maximum comfort and convenience, offering guests the comfort of a home, the utility of an office, and the fun of a mall.’
When I spoke to Ankit Tandon, Chief Operating Officer, Operated Business, OYO Hotels & Homes, he told me that OYO Townhouse is India’s largest mid-market boutique hotel brand. He added: “The friendly neighbourhood hotel’, is a unique combination of a hotel, home, merchandise store and café.” Appropriately for a brand targeted at millennials—and, let’s not forget, created by one—you communicate with them mostly through an app.
Tandon makes it sound like a paradigm shift: “OYO Townhouse breaks away from decades-old hotel industry templates, where new-age systems and services have replaced the older, wasteful conventions of the past. Every single element at OYO Townhouse—from the breakfast menu to the booking process—has been re-engineered to deliver higher quality and better value...OYO engages with top quality engineers, designers, technical experts and leverages innovative technology to design and build visually appealing living spaces and offer the best customer experience.” My Townhouse room as well as the public spaces certainly looked upbeat, and were replete with refreshing design elements. A caricature next to the bed looked suspiciously like the founder.
The in-room dining menu offered an impressive range of choices. Usually, this is where hotels fleece you, but OYO’s pricing was reasonable. And the laundry rates? They were so good, had I known them earlier, I would have brought my dirty laundry from home and gotten it laundered here. No, really.
The room tariff too is a steal and the key differentiator, given the price-sensitive band of the market it operates in. (Although, this seems to have earned the ire of at least some of their partners, according to recent media reports.) Breakfast is included, but at this price point, don’t expect a lavish gourmet spread.
Execution remains a challenge. For a self-operated property, the room should have been better maintained. It’s early days though. With a valuation of $10 billion and a footprint in several countries and continents, this unicorn has just about growing up.
The hotel accomodates 29 rooms.