Curated Travel for the New Age Itchy Feet
Background: Why and How did I develop a keen interest in traveling and why I chose to write on this? To begin with, I have been passionate about exploring new places since forever, but my interest deepened in traveling when I joined EY as an assurance (Statutory Audit Intern) in 2014. Due to the requirements of my work, I had to be constantly on the move, traveling to client locations in various cities and towns and sometimes even unconventional places like tea gardens in hills, sugar mills on plains and even most humble homes in villages (this was due courtesy some NBFC client) and witnessing first-hand these places with the daily life and moments and they have been etched in my memory. There are innumerable unexpected and unexplainable things one gets to see when traveling. This is when I started brainstorming the possibilities of having a startup which specifically caters to the needs of modern age machine slaves who would want to break away from the monotony of their mechanistic lives and seek to see something new — something about which they wont read in their course/work books and also not discover easily on regular travel portals which are constantly reinventing luxury in the realm of traveling and painting the best possible pictures of the most commonly known destinations and tour packages. Almost all travel portal seem to be offering similar services with very less differentiation except for pricing of packages at times.
Why Curated? Undoubtedly, most travellers visit new places to see new things and move from location A to B. But there is an emerging section of people who are willing to turn the hourglass many times to be able to understand the culture, the ethos and to be able to relate with the place where they travel. These are experiential travellers. A recently released TripAdvisor’s worldwide travel trend report corroborates this shift. The iconic sites like Eiffel Tower of Paris and Sagrada Família of Barcelona remain wildly popular with travellers, but experiential categories such as skip-the-line historical experiences, food tours, bike tours to reach unchartered territories deep within the mountain ranges etc have skyrocketed, with year-on-year growth figures ranging from 50–125%.
Infact, many professionals such as MBAs, Doctors, CAs have started giving up their full time jobs/professions so as to start some curated travel company, which offers and excellent lucrative alternate career, away from the regular 9–5, or rather the truth be told, 9–9 jobs. The services they offer usually include fun activities which help in developing camaraderie between unrelated and unknown fellow travellers and therefore in addition to the travelling opportunities, their clients also look forward to the immense networking opportunities. Interestingly, sometimes people also develop long-term relationships with their fellow travellers!
The USP: The profile of clients booking such experiences is the key differentiator. The average age of a person making a travel booking on online travel platforms is 35. However, users of such experiential travel are majorly within the age bracket of 20–28, an age group where the responsibilities and need to lead a settled (read: domesticated life) as per societal expectations is low and hence, they are free to travel at will. But at the same time, since the overall disposable income of this user group is usually limited, they are budget-oriented travellers. Since, all of it has come down to having an experience of a lifetime, agents are setting up new itineraries which include remote villages & hamlets, along-with the less travelled pathways — something that is both exciting and unique — striking the right notes with the youth and since these otherwise unchartered places offer only standard accommodation and other facilities, it does not create a hole in the pockets of the budget conscious individual traveller.
Service Providers: These can be classified into three categories:
1) Independent trip masters: They are catering to small and medium groups of travellers and since such trip masters are Independent, they can arrange only one trip at a time. Example: The Thumping Nomad is a sole proprietorship firm started by a Doctor by the name Akash Gupta for conducting bike tours for bike enthusiasts. Since Mr. Akash is the only person in his firm, he has to physically travel to each location where he conducts his tours, inspect the bikes which he obtains on rent through his local tie ups and then proceed on the trip with his clients. To give a context, after returning to Delhi post a bike tour from Ladakh, he needs to travel himself to Siliguri, a town in North Bengal from where he conducts a bike tour into Bhutan.
2) Niche Travel Group: These are formed by collaboration of like-minded trip masters who come together to combine the best of their unique bouquet of activities and routes for mutual benefits and they can cater to small, medium and large group of travellers at multi-locations at same time due to their team size and streamlined processes, optimised resources and tie-ups. Example: “This Guy on His Own Trip” which was started originally by one individual, ie, Neeraj Narayanan aka Captain Nero who earned his masters from MICA, Ahmedabad and was growing in his corporate career when he thought of quitting and starting this venture. Now many trip masters working under this brand which has been abbreviated as OHOT — “On His Own Trip” and complement his work. The trips are about a lot more than just seeing a place. There is a strong emphasis on bonding. Even though the trips are professionally organized, the ambience they claim to create resembles a group of friends travelling together despite the reality that they are a bunch of strangers who met recently.
3) Regular Platforms and Travel Agencies: These have now incorporated a new section of experiential and curated travel in their platforms. Example: Cleartrip curates over 15,000 hyper-local activities across a spectrum of options like events, car & bike rentals, adventure sports, indoor games, excursions, boating & cruising, wildlife, etc. The activities are divided into categories such as adventure (scuba diving, trekking), tours (photography, food), outdoors (biking, horse-riding), indoor (mystery games, pottery workshop,), and wellness (spa treatments). Even homestay major Airbnb has started Airbnb Trips, which is a people-powered platform, bringing together a community of local experts to share insights about a place to help travellers feel as if they belong to the places they go to. It also helps to diversify tourism away from the busy centres, putting unique cultural nuances and activities and traditions in the limelight. In Delhi, for instance, Airbnb trips offers unique experiences like understanding the journey of a couture ensemble with celebrity designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil at their Delhi workshop, or learning Arabic calligraphy from Abdur Rehman, one of the few authentic calligraphers of Old Delhi.
The Reach: Major growth is fuelled by word of mouth which comes from the amazing experiences the travellers co-create amongst themselves courtesy, these unique travel startups. Photo Sharing platforms such as Instagram is extensively used to drive user traffic both through sponsored posts and by tagging individual travellers so that their contacts can navigate to the page of such startups when the tags flash. Sometimes, live talk shows, Q&A or else AMA sessions are arranged by the hosts of such trips who interact with both present and past trippers, and this is live streamed so that potential customers get instant and genuine testimonials of the trippers and also they can make more informed choice. Since this concept dwells on the backbone of a community concept, especially amongst the emerging working middle class, they also visit large corporate parks in major cities to create awareness about their unique offerings.
Room for More? Now the point where I began, can I have my own startup in this space or is it already overcrowded? My immediate priority is to become financially independent and hence I need to join the rat race. But honestly, the example I keep in my life as a reference point is the fact that when say twenty garment shops can run close to each other and yet all are able to manage decent business in their unique capacities in any city in India, why cant this space have more people in it? Especially the fact that such services need to be personalised make it all the more indispensable due to some automation technology. Moreover, as more and more youth becomes part of the formal workforce with the increase in level of higher education, I believe the demand of such experiential travel will only go up given the rise in the income levels and also the fact that people have a need to build a vibrant and diverse network for themselves and due to the limitations of the work environment in their offices, the diversity in their peer group is often restricted and hence this concept of travel, meet and gel well will go a long way ahead. I am positive for a consolidation phase in this space and who knows, even I could drive it!