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How SaffronStays changed weekend getaways with vacation homes

Co-founder Devendra Parulekar speaks to Lounge on building a hospitality business of weekend getaways, one spectacular villa at a time

Devendra Parulekar, Co-founder, SaffronStays (Illustration by Priya Kuriyan)

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There is a scene in the web series Made In Heaven where the plush office of the lead characters comes under scrutiny as unnecessary expense by a business partner, the gangster Jauhari, played by Vijay Raaz. It irks the fragile ego of the primary investor, the snobbish industrialist Adil Khanna, portrayed by Jim Sarbh. But Jauhari is spot on: The upkeep of the office is eating into the profits of the wedding planning company.

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A business with a premium offering need not have the luxury tag in its day-to-day operations, and Devendra Parulekar, the 45-year-old co-founder of SaffronStays, knows that. The hospitality company helps curate spectacular vacation homes—with pools, vintage furniture and uninterrupted views of green vistas—for relaxing getaways from cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru. These are in sharp contrast to their Mumbai office, located in an old building. The whitewashed walls with tubelights and minimum furniture are utilitarian at best. There are workstations—not cabins—with piles of files and a conference room that seats about eight people.

On the day of the interview, Devendra ushers me into the conference room that he jokingly refers to as the war zone. There is a half-eaten packet of Parle G biscuits on the table. He points out: “Look at our office. Frugal, right? Our houses need to be fancy; the guests won’t come to the office.”

Devendra and his wife, Tejas, first came up with the idea for their company soon after their wedding in 2001, when Tejas’ father, who was with the Tata Group, gifted them a two-night stay at a Tata Tea directors’ guest house in Fort Kochi. The colonial-style bungalow, Victory Dawn, was meant only for director-level employees of Tata Tea. The hospitality of the staff—and delicious fish curry—won them over and left them wondering why the experience should be limited to a select few.

SaffronStays began taking shape in 2013 as they self-funded the initial capital of 1 crore. Tejas, a chartered accountant who had worked with ICICI for several years, quit to begin focusing on the startup but it wasn’t till 2016 that Devendra joined the business full-time. By then, they had made sure they had paid off their home loan and built a four-year financial safety net. They had to be both penny-wise and technologically smart—“We have a frugal way of running our business,” Devendra repeats.

“Initially, we wanted to copy Airbnb,” he says. To create a network of home-stays in India, they launched the Travel Ninja Program, recruiting, on a project basis, about 10 travel bloggers who were tasked with visiting remote corners to help compile a list of 2,000 verified homes, with the contact details of owners, photographs and content needed for their digital platform.

For six months, Devendra, who had assembled a 250-member cybersecurity team at the global professional service network Ernst & Young, toiled nights to learn coding and build the platform from scratch. He had hired coders but they proved to be inept, and the digital product failed thrice before launch. Devendra says he was quite adept at hacking. “This means I knew how to break things but didn’t know how to build.” While learning to code for SaffronStays, he also learnt to build.

But when they went live on the website, there were no takers: “Ek rupaiye ka sale nahin hua (there was no sale at all),” rues Devendra. The reason, he believes, was that they were trying to emulate Airbnb at a time when nobody knew about them.

Eleven months later, they were ready to shut shop when a phone call changed their fortunes. A Parsi gentleman contacted them, persuading them to take on a bungalow that was about a two-hour drive from Mumbai, in the small hill station of Matheran. He mentioned he had another home in London that he had given to the luxury home-stay company onefinestay, which also maintained it. Devendra hesitated, they were not in the business of running homes. But the gentleman persisted: “He had a strong instinct that I would do it.” Tejas visited the colonial-style bungalow and called him: “‘Listen, even if I have to be the caretaker of this home, let’s do it.’ I said—chalo, let’s give it a shot.”

The couple helped restore the century-old bungalow, created a “fancy” home-stay and started running that one property. “We saw superb uptake and the demand for it shot through the roof. With that, we found our mojo,” exclaims Devendra, snapping his fingers triumphantly.

House number one was a success—and the business took off formally in 2015. To add to their portfolio, they had to seek out properties and convince homeowners. “I realised it was easier to convince my father-in-law to part with his daughter than to persuade rich guys to part with their homes,” he confesses.

The couple persisted, finding ways to hustle. For instance, if they needed to target Lonavala—a top spot for weekend getaways for Mumbaikars—they would identify certain locations and villas through Google Earth. Then they would send teams to knock on the doors of those bungalows and leave business cards. They would try to look for the owner on social media, mostly LinkedIn, begin a conversation and explain the proposition. Gradually, they began to make headway.

“Whatever money we make, 30% comes to us and 70% goes to the homeowner. The homeowner would pay for expenses like staff salaries and utilities and is left with 40-45%. We ensure that our commissions are structured in such a way that the homeowner is left with at least this much,” explains Devendra. They manage the properties for three-five years, helping homeowners to hire staff if needed, deciding pricing and considering the expertise of the local cook for the menu to lend that authentic touch. Their F&B team trains the staff to ensure food standards.

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Today, SaffronStays runs 150 premium to luxury home-stays in Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. They have ambitious plans to expand to the north, to tourist spots like Dehradun, Mussoorie and Kashmir, and in the south, to places like Coorg, Ooty and Kochi. “Earlier, we would get one home in two-three months, now we sign on 12 homes on a monthly basis.” When they started out, the tariff per night for a room was 5,000-6,000; it’s now 15,000 on average, with meals.

In 2018, the fund management company Sixth Sense Ventures pumped in 19 crore. Today, SaffronStays’ revenue stands at 3-5 crore a month, including commissions to homeowners, and they are planning a fund-raise of $10 million (around 76 crore). The business has been seeing robust growth year-on-year: 35% in 2018-19; 100% in 2019-20; 165% in 2020-21—in fact, they broke even in 2020, despite the pandemic and five months of complete inactivity.

This growth foregrounds the changing trends of India’s travel industry. In a Mint story published last month, Deep Kalra, chief executive officer of MakeMyTrip, said, “Home-stays have been a silver lining of the pandemic cloud.” Minimum to no exposure to crowds, a retreat in nature and luxurious amenities were enough to draw people to beautiful homes away from the hustle and bustle of cities. Before the lockdown in 2020, they had even introduced corporate packages for off-sites with small groups, or celebrations like a milestone birthday.

Devendra is now quick to list their criteria for a private vacation home. The location has to be spectacular, the utilities and furniture top of the line—“everything that you can’t have in your apartment, you should have in your vacation villa, like four-poster beds,” he notes. The property needs to have a pool; they noticed that demand falls by 80% if there is no pool. They have started asking homeowners to build pools, and the trend has picked up in cold hill stations too. “Apart from this, a water component, whether it’s a river, lake or sea, is important. If there’s a home with a pool and a sea view, you are sorted.” Guests also look for pet-friendliness.

Last but not least, the food needs to be delicious. During the pandemic, SaffronStays hired out-of-job restaurant chefs to train the staff who cook in their villas. “Now, a maushi (a colloquial Marathi term for domestic help) can bake a pizza, make a pasta or put together a raw papaya salad,” he says.

The model proved so popular that in 2020, despite the pandemic, the demand for home-stays outstripped supply. That has changed. For, apart from new homes in pristine locations, they have adjusted their positioning and started curating villas in gated communities in holiday locations. These are priced slightly lower, at 8,000-9,000 per night with meals. “Earlier, we did not take on these properties, but somewhere we had to make changes. It’s a different market and price point but good food and the experience is guaranteed. We have acknowledged the business realities and adjusted our positioning—from complete luxury to affordable luxury—but the wider customer will say that they stayed in a villa.”

By next December, Devendra aims to increase the business tenfold, both in terms of number of homes and revenue. Over the next five years, as the market matures, he hopes SaffronStays will be managing 5,000 private vacation villas in the country and expanding to foreign shores—fulfilling the aspiration of staying in a dream home, even if it’s just for a weekend.

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