Nothing says Indian hospitality more than a cup of hot tea, and a homemade meal rounded off with something sweet. And nobody knows this better than TS Negi, who has been hosting travellers at his cottage in picturesque Manali. Negi, who has had his property listed on GuestHouser –India’s largest vacation rental portal– for over two years now is also happy to regale his guests with tales of the local culture and traditions to provide that completely immersive holiday experience. And it is this kind of personalised attention that makes a holiday memorable and distinct from the commonplace one-size-fits all packages that one is usually subject to.
With over 135,000 properties in 2,200 locations, and still growing, it is perhaps difficult to fathom that the properties listed on GuestHouser were sourced through an actual physical search. Factor in the cultural, linguistic, and geographic diversity of a country like India, and the sheer magnitude of the exercise becomes obvious.
“There were so many interesting stories that came out of the physical search for suitable properties. Our scouts looked for homes in places like Kashmir, Nagaland and Goa and we found that there was no one approach that worked. It was really a game of localising and understanding how each place works and what works in each place,” says Dhruv Sharma, Founder of GuestHouser.
The team started by listing all types of accommodation available in a particular location. For instance, in Goa, they listed villas, apartments, cottages, treehouses, and small boutique home stays. They put all the supply online, and used an experimental marketing budget to understand customers’ choices. “We hyper learned what the customers’ preference was in these places, and where users really wanted to stay. Using that we actually channeled our search in each place and contracted more of the same type of supply,” says Dhruv.
And they made some surprising discoveries. For instance, they learned that in Goa, the most sought after accommodation was not a villa, but a two-bedroom apartment in Calangute with a shared pool. “It was interesting because what you were getting at a budget of Rs 900-1,500 was two bedrooms, a living room, and a shared pool. While it might be nice to get a villa and private pool for around Rs 6,000, what we found was that people were just really looking for a place where they could crash at night and hang out during the day in the living room and by the pool, and that became our hottest selling product,” he adds.
To find out what actually worked when it came to people’s preferences, the GuestHouser team targeted a sample audience via Google, social media, Facebook and then built a heterogeneous demand before narrowing down on what worked based on demographics. In Goa, for example, they found that it was mainly friends and couples travelling together. “We very quickly learned who was travelling where and picked out supply that worked based on their requirement. In terms of the mechanism of figuring out what actually worked, we used some data visualisation tools and our own internal dashboards, and that allowed us to gain some intelligent and unexpected insights,” says Dhruv.
He also says that in addition to the academic and theoretical side of discovering patterns, the physical crawl and legwork become a whole other problem to solve. “We were visiting local agents, who had this very offline supply that they knew about. Sometimes it meant going from door to door and from chowkidaar to chowkidaar.” To simplify the process, the team even built an offline app that allowed the scout to drop a pin, shoot a quick picture, and write down the host’s details so that the team could contact them and educate them about GuestHouser.
“We had 100 members in our team working with this offline discovery app, and the reason I call it that is because it literally worked offline. So many of the places that we went to, especially in Kashmir and the hills, and even parts of Goa, had no 3G or even Edge network. This app allowed you to take all of this information and sync and transmit the information the moment there was a connection to data. We built the app about five to six months into launching GuestHouser, and that helped us scale and organise our efforts even more. Communicating with the scout over email was very tedious, and being bootstrapped and with limited management, having the app really helped,” says Dhruv.
However, network connectivity was only one of the challenges the team faced. In Nagaland where language was a barrier, they had to use someone familiar with the area to contract relevant supply.
“We chose Vicky, who is from Nagaland. He connected with the locals, and in the 15 days that he spent there, he got us over 100 exclusive listings! He also helped the hosts understand the online portal, and created email addresses for many of them, who did not have an email account. So, he not only got business, he even spread some digital literacy along the way!” says Dhruv.
“In places like Kashmir, in addition to challenges with data there was a lot of difficult terrain to navigate and we found some true entrepreneurial local talent that was resilient to help us there,” he adds.
In the south, the whole the culture of communication was different and having a local scout really helped. “Finding new areas to explore here was also an exercise, especially since most of the supply was offline. Today, we have over 1,000 houseboats in Alappuzha, in addition to properties in Madikeri, Munnar, Kodagu, and a number of different places,” says Dhruv.
The physical crawl also greatly helped in convincing hosts who were transacting online for the first time. “They usually got people to stay through agents whom they knew, so they always had a point of contact. To have someone completely anonymous come and stay in their house was a new experience for them. These apprehensions about having a stranger who had transacted online come and stay were allayed by relationship managers,” said Dhruv.
“Compared to the west, the eastern world is very relationship driven. Even in businesses, you build trust through relationships and your long-term success depends on how well you manage these relationships. So, we assigned relationship managers to our hosts who would be there in their time of need to help deal with everything, from an early check in to pre-payment or a customer who is creating a ruckus.”
For a lot of hosts, it was their first online transaction. They didn’t understand how you could instantly start getting business without negotiating with someone for hours on the phone and building a long-term relationship. It was a fundamental disruption in their lives. “There were instances where they were apprehensive about transacting online, but most of the time, we were positively received,” he says.
The team had some great experiences during the offline search. “I went with a Business Development Manager to an elderly lady’s house near Candolim in Goa. She contracted with us in the morning and already got her first transaction by mid-afternoon. So, she insisted on making us this Goan prawn curry with rice for dinner,” recollects Dhruv.
Human connections form the basis of businesses like these. Dhruv says that a single bad review can spread like wildfire and ruin the credibility of the brand. He adds that while they’ve been blessed with a fairly pleasant community on GuestHouser, and despite being an online business, should there be any aspect that requires attention, the relationship manager is just a call away.