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Now rent a suite in a royal palace

As home-sharing holiday rentals embrace luxury, royal stays, castles, designer homes and private islands become de rigueur

The library at the Belgadia Palace
The library at the Belgadia Palace (Photo: Airbnb India)

On a cool December evening in Gurugram, Pankaj and Manjusha Jain were chatting happily as they entered the elevator of their high-rise residential building. It took a moment or two before they realized that the elevator hadn’t moved at all.

The Gudliya Suite at the City Palace in Jaipur
The Gudliya Suite at the City Palace in Jaipur (Photo: Airbnb India)

“Neither of us had pressed the button," Pankaj, 53, laughs. “We were so spoilt after just 24 hours at the Gudliya Suite (at the City Palace of Jaipur). The room was stunning, with its own pool and spa, and a butler took care of absolutely everything for us!"

The Jains had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with an overnight stay at one of Airbnb India’s newest high-end offerings: a chance to live like a maharaja, hosted by the former royal family of Jaipur. The experience is pricey, at $8,000 (around 5.7 lakh) a night. Proceeds go to the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation, a not-for-profit that supports rural women and artisans in Rajasthan. Till 31 December, the room is available for $1,000 for the night, with Airbnb making a contribution to the foundation to make up the difference.

Padmanabh Singh of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur
Padmanabh Singh of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur (Photo: Airbnb India)

The home-sharing economy got a facelift this year, with luxury making its presence firmly felt in the rapidly growing segment. From the first royal hosts to the addition of Airbnb Luxe, a platform focusing specifically on very high-end listings, the world’s largest accommodation-sharing website embraced luxury whole-heartedly. Home-grown brand SaffronStays, which lists high-end private homes available for holiday rental, saw its bookings quadruple between December 2018 and the same month this year.

“It was just quite something else," Pankaj says, describing his stay. “It wasn’t just about the opulent surroundings, great food and thoughtful service, which were great. But to sleep surrounded by all that history, in a place that has hosted the likes of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, was just wow."

This desire to have experiences that are “something else" is fuelling rapid change in the home-sharing economy. As home-sharing veterans and former couch-surfers grow older and more affluent, they are demanding more high-end options from their favourite holiday accommodation booking services.

Globally, several home-sharing websites are focusing entirely on luxury. Canadian website Luxury Retreats was acquired by Airbnb in 2017, and its listings now sit under Airbnb Luxe. OneFineStay, which moved under the Accor umbrella in 2016, has grown rapidly and is now present in 43 cities worldwide, with a strong presence in the Caribbean. Targeted at those who love architecture, PlansMatter is building an inventory of homes built by famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Peter Zumthor and Studio Saxe.

According to Devendra Parulekar, co-founder of SaffronStays, which launched in 2015 as “an Airbnb of India" but quickly moved to maintaining a small, tightly curated inventory of “private homes of the rich and the famous", there is a massive demand for high-end accommodation options. “We stumbled upon an unmet demand that has only grown over the years, and dramatically so in the past year. From hosting 2,500 guests in December 2018, we have grown to 10,000 in December 2019, and our forecast for the same period in 2020 is close to 25,000," he says.

SaffronStays focuses entirely on travellers from Mumbai and Pune, with about 120 of its 175 listings within Maharashtra. Others are in places like Kasauli, Shimla, Palampur, Chail, where consumers from this market travel. “We want to stay focused because we work hard with the owners of the private homes to ensure consistently high standards of hospitality, hygiene, food," Parulekar adds.

Representatives of Airbnb Luxe visit each property and run through a 300-point checklist before it is added as a listing. Currently, there are none from India.

Shoba Mohan, found of RARE, a firm that handles marketing and sales for small concept hotels around India, many of them private homes, explains. “The moment you start charging top dollar, everything has to be of exceptional standards. You would be surprised by how many people tell me the bed wasn’t made properly. It doesn’t matter if this is a small property with three rooms and that’s why there is a premium charge for it," she says. RARE mentors the properties it represents, as well as providing a platform for the property owners to share best practices.

Asked about his favourite among SaffronStay’s 175 listings, Parulekar instantly recommends L’Attitude, which he says represents the evolving definition of luxury he subscribes to. “Travellers who opt to stay in high-end private homes instead of hotels aren’t looking for Italian marble or 8-inch mattresses. They want privacy, to have the place to themselves and not share a pool with 50 other people. They want visual ownership, to know that this view, for the time that I am here, is entirely mine. And they want certainty that everything will work as promised." L’Attitude in Kamshet, Maharashtra, is a three-room property overlooking Andre Dam. “When I am there," Parulekar says, “I feel like I own the lake."

The Victorian-era Belgadia Palace in Odisha is located on a forested hilltop
The Victorian-era Belgadia Palace in Odisha is located on a forested hilltop (Photo: Rare India)

When people travel to a private home, they are often attracted by the way the home represents the owners’ personalities, or because they find the owners interesting and want to interact with them, says Mohan. As an example, she talks about the Bera Safari Lodge in Jawai, Rajasthan. “The lodge is very popular because of its owner Shatrunjay Pratap, a talented photographer and conservationist who has immense knowledge about the region’s leopards." Located close to the Jawai Dam, the property has five cottages with private sit-outs. Parulekar also mentions Belgadia Palace in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, home of the erstwhile Bhanja royal family.

In a year when the sharing economy has grown massively—with owners of designer clothes and handbags, superbikes and more, making them available for rental—the segment’s oldest poster child, holiday rentals, has charted a new course. With surveys indicating that more and more travellers seek luxury options on their holidays, it’s a direction that seems bound to see the sector continue to flourish.

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