Mechanical engineer Chirag Bansal has always been a travel enthusiast. During his two-and-a-half-year stint as product manager at data and analysis platform Trefis, 26-year-old Chirag never missed an opportunity to travel. “My workplace was pretty flexible. I left for the mountains every time I got an opportunity and worked from there,” he adds.
After his CAT exams in December 2017, Chirag left to explore Chitkul, a quiet village in Himachal Pradesh, near the Indo-China border.
“I spent hours talking to the hotel owner. There was not much investment involved and it did not seem risky. My desire to always do something in the mountains was finally getting fulfilled,” Chirag says.
After a lot of research and conversations, Chirag convinced his sister, Nidhi Bansal (29) to join him in this venture. In March 2018, they leased a place in Chitkul. The siblings collaborated with a group of artists, Delhi Street Art, to start their project.
“We sponsored their trip and they painted graffiti across the village and our property. We were open for travellers by April 2018,” Chirag says.
What started as a mere passion project, is now a full-fledged experiential-living business. LivingStone Stays collaborates with property owners and gets them into a marketing contract to renovate these spaces, brand them, and exclusively market them on holiday booking platforms such as Airbnb, MakeMyTrip, Booking.com, and Agoda.
From beginning their venture at 12,000 feet in Chitkul, the startup has expanded to Karjat, Maharashtra. Within a year, the duo has managed to bring 13 properties under their umbrella.
Building to scale
With help from their family, Chirag and Nidhi invested Rs 10 lakh into their first property.
“Within the first three months, we generated revenue equal to our investment,” Chirag says.
However, this was not the kind of return Chirag was expecting. He wanted to build a scalable business.
With further market research, the duo realised that there were pain points that needed to be solved.
“Alternate and off-beat accommodations in exotic locations that are owned by locals are often not fully marketed,” he adds.
Chandigarh-based LivingStone is aiming to solve that problem.Since leasing properties did not seem to be very scalable, Chirag and Nidhi came up with the plan where they would get into contracts with the property owners. Their second stay in Karjat was the first such property, which they rolled out in December 2018.
Chirag, who is currently pursuing an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, says he won't apply for college placements after his graduation in 2020. He would continue with his venture full time. His sister and business partner, Nidhi, has completed her MTech from IIT-Delhi and currently works as a senior consultant at CRISIL.
Chirag handles the on-boarding of partners and the finances in the startupwhole , Nidhi manages sales and operations. LivingStonehas two more team members: an experience curator and a salesperson.
LivingStone reaches out to property owners for collaborations. They often get references from existing property owners as well. “We add experiential elements to the property to enrich our guests’ experiences,” Chirag says.
The startup then does a photo shoot of the property before listing on booking platforms.
“We market these properties using channels like our website, social media pages, and list them on booking platforms through our network of travel agents and by collaborating with micro-influencers. All customer support required in reservations and payments is also handled by our team,” Chirag says.
There are no upfront costs for property owners. However, for every booking, LivingStone receives about 20 to 30 percent commission. Payment is transferred to the property owner after LivingStone deducts its margin.
LivingStone provides unique experiential stays, including tree houses, wooden chalets in an apple orchard, vacation homes, and farmhouses. Its stays range from Rs 500 per night and go up to Rs 12,000 per night.
These stays are currently present in three states- Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh, and have so far recorded more than 1,000 bookings. According to Chirag, LivingStone’s monthly revenue has jumped by 300 percent in the first 10 months.
“We are targeting Rs 12 crore by next year," Chirag adds.
Market overview and way ahead
According to IBEF, the Indian travel and tourism sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP is expected to increase from $234.03 billion in 2017 to $492.21 billion in 2028.
Broadly, LivingStone competes with all travel startups, including MakeMyTrip and Cleartrip. The startup also directly competes with other tourist stays such as Pahadi House, Grassroutes, Eclogin, India Untravelled, Vista Rooms, and V Resorts.
“We are targeting a huge market that’s not just limited to luxury or budget stays. We are focusing on experiential and unique stays, and that sets us apart,” Chirag says.
Moreover, according to a recent study conducted by Booking.com, Indian travellers are now increasingly preferring alternative accommodation.
Going ahead, LivingStone is planning to raise investments of up to Rs 7 crore to reach its goal of 200 properties within a year.
“Our biggest challenge is to attract talent. It is very difficult to hire good talent when they are not paid to their potential. It is one of the main reasons for raising investments,” Chirag says.
(Edited by Suman Singh)