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How this Gurugram experiential travel startup wants to change your vacations with ‘Unhotels’

Sujata Sangwan ( )

Rising aspirations and growing bank balances have put travel on everyone’s to-do list these days. But regular is passé, and people want their travels to be bespoke. Enter Gurugram-based The Unhotel Co, a new-age “experiences company” that offers tailor-made journeys, handpicked accommodation, and is committed to including local nuances to satisfy your wanderlust.


“In a world of instant and discount-driven travel solutions, there is a need for premium transformational journeys. There is a niche for gourmet travel where people are looking for handcrafted trips, from culinary to culture, and are willing to pay a premium for it! That's how and why Unhotel was born,” says Manish Sinha, CEO, The Unhotel Co.

Founded by husband-wife duo Manish Sinha and Shilpi Singh in 2016, the travel startup is a firm believer in the power of stories – of people, places, culture, and art – and offers offbeat accommodation, uncommon trips and treks, and immersive events to the premium domestic audience and a new generation of global travellers. 


Manish Sinha, CEO, The Unhotel Co


“We love to collaborate; everyone we will ever meet knows something we don’t. We are aiming to be a planet-positive company. Everything we do should give back more to the planet than we take away. We are obsessed with people along with an ROI number, and we make promises we can keep!” Manish says.

Why Unhotel?

“In a world of cookie-cutter hotel experiences, we wanted to celebrate the uncommon and the offbeat. That’s why we named it Unhotel; for an unlike-a-hotel kind of experience,” Manish tells YourStory.


“What this means is that we go beyond the destination and the itinerary; we focus on the authentic story of the place, the people, the monuments, the culture, and the food,” he adds.


Today, The Unhotel Co claims to be a rapidly growing business with dedicated verticals. These include #Reclaimmyspace, focused on trips and treks specially designed for women; #Unlearn, a playful and outdoorsy school vertical to mash up travel and learning outside the rigid boundaries of a classroom; and #Unbound, a corporate vertical for creative off-sites outside boxed office spaces.


It also runs #Hues, an LGBTI immersive travel vertical in collaboration with Pride Circle, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm that offers a holistic suite of expertise, experience and approach to fostering LGBTI inclusion at workplaces in India.

The founding team 

The Founders, Manish Sinha and Shilpi Singh, have had very different career paths and worldviews. As business partners, their journey commenced when they started their first B&B, Cinnamon Stays, in 2010, and running it successfully for the last 10 years. 


Manish is an advertising veteran. His first career was as a strategic planner giving brand direction and communication strategy at JWT, Ogilvy, Mudra, Leo Burnett, handling clients from FMCG to Telecom. He was also in the initial founding team of one of the biggest hospitality brands in the world, OYO. 


Through The Unhotel Co, he aims to change the playbook of experiential travel in the country, and is looking after new product development, strategic partnerships, finance, and story-led marketing.


Shilpi Singh, Co-founder, The Unhotel Co

Shilpi is an executive coach, diversity and inclusion thought leader, and an accomplished trainer. She has worked at Ogilvy and IMG in the HR departments. She has been instrumental in spearheading the women verticals/initiatives of The Unhotel Co, and looks after sales, operations, and HR.


The startup has a total team of 18 people spread across management, sales, operations, marketing, content, and research roles.

The Unhotel USP

The startup puts together trips that can't be Googled or found on travel aggregators.  “Uncommon travel with personalised attention and unique storytelling is our USP,” Manish says.


The Unhotel Co experiences are based on heritage and diversity that India has to offer - the wildlife, Ayurveda, yoga and mindfulness, adventure for regular people (not hard-core adventure seekers), plush family reunions, nature-based kids’ vacations, glamping, voluntourism, and other concept vacations. 


“We capture the local and authentic in our experiences,” Manish says.


The experiences range from renting an island, endangered bird trails in the North East, home-in-a-village vacations, sustainable safaris, goat village trek holidays, food trails, book vacations, and mindfulness journeys. All these are curated by domain experts and special interest groups.


“The selection is based on the heritage/offbeat character of the hotel, the quality of the hosts, the cuisine, their ability to create local authentic experiences. We look for hidden gems not totally exposed on mass OTAs, and follow it up with personal visits and audit. We charge 20 percent of room bookings from hotels on our platform,” Manish says. 

Some of the company’s Unhotels include The Barnhouse near Mukteshwar; Sanctuary in the Hills, Jilling; Call of the Wild, Kanha; Retreat by the River, Rishikesh; The Island Bliss, Alleppey; and The Tea Escape, Palampur.

The target audience 

The Unhotel Co’s target audience is the discerning, well-heeled traveller looking for local and authentic experiences, as opposed to a checklist of monuments.


“While our domestic research team is spread across India and continues unearthing new stories, our globally-spread international research team has begun international trips - a vertical that we plan to take to the same, if not higher, level over the next two years,” Manish says.


The startup presently caters to the top 10 cities in the country, with Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, and Chennai being top markets.

Current outlook and the future 

Started with an investment of Rs 10 lakh initially, The Unhotel Co is self-funded till now and claims to be profitable from year one. The startup claims to have grown by 38 percent and 26 percent respectively in its first two years (2017-18 and 2018-19) of operations.


As of 2019, the company has on-boarded more than 60 Unhotels, and planned more than 100 unique travel experiences. It has also partnered with dozens of corporates, freelance artists, not-for-profit schools like Sahpathi (an early childhood and primary education programme that aims to bridge the learning deficit in India), and StriveOn (a mobile app-based company that creates location-aware interactive engagements). 


“We have a small but steadily growing base of customers with a 50 percent repeat rate. Instagram and email marketing apart from word-of-mouth and inter-city travel meetups are the main ways in which we reach out to potential customers. We primarily have B2C customers. Corporates are currently a small part of our business,” Manish says.

 “Going forward, our estimate is that we have a user base of 100,000 discerning travellers,” he adds.


“We are open to long-term strategic investors, especially from the travel domain. We have most of the critical ingredients and leadership. The right kind of patient capital can create a very valuable company,” Manish says. 


He adds that there are no major funded startups who are approaching the market “like we are doing. Internationally, Black Tomato is a good benchmark. 


According to a report released by Google and Bain & Company, the Indian traveller will spend an eye-popping $136 billion on travel by 2021. Of that, $65 billion will be on experiences, shopping, and food. 

 

“So, it's a very big opportunity. We also cater to the top end of the 10 million (and growing) inbound tourists. The current focus on domestic infrastructure, aviation etc will further boost sales of offbeat places and experiences. So, as far as The Unhotel Co and experiential travel domain is concerned, we are at the right place, at the right time,” Manish says.



(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)