How a dilapidated historical building was converted into a comfortable & luxurious homestay - Gratitude
#boutiquehomestay - 52, Rue Romain Rolland, Pondicherry
YC - What is your background? What motivated you to start the company and what is it all about?
Sid - The origin is that my mother (Jyoti Saikia) was looking for a place to think about retiring in the future in Pondicherry, all the places she found were not very nice, and then on an unrelated stop, she walked into the courtyard of a dilapidated house on #52 Rue Romain Rolland. While the house looked very little like it does today, there was an ambience of peace and serenity that spoke to her. But the place needed A LOT of work. She partnered with her long-time friend Kakoli Banerjee to start the project, then enlisted the help of Ajit Koujalgi of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Heritage) to restore the house in as historically accurate a manner as possible. Its high columns, wide arches, the inner courtyard, the madras terrace roof, all come together to give it a stature that truly befits a heritage structure. The painstaking restoration work took over 4 years, details can be found here (http://gratitudeheritage.in/Architecture.html).
These days many people buy old houses, demolish them and rebuild in a ‘heritage-style but our love and dedication to it mean we are one of a few Category II Heritage homes that are available to stay in and is certified by the Vieilles Maisons Françaises.
The original idea wasn’t to be a business per se, but more of a home for Jyoti and Kakoli with extra rooms to be let out to guests. The irony is that neither of them actually ended up retiring to live there and I (Siddarth) came on board to help turn the place into a bonafide hospitality business. Today, I run Gratitude while Kakoli runs our sister property called Kariappa House. Jyoti is still in Delhi and refuses to retire but comes to visit every few months.
YC - Could you please share with our readers about your core team and their roles:
Sid - The core team is the three partners, Kakoli, Jyoti and Siddarth. Kakoli and Siddarth are the active managing partners on the property.
YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?
Sid - (1) We run a pretty lean ship so other than having a local assistant manager to manage the Front Desk we kind of have to do everything ourselves. From maintenance, utilities, sales, marketing etc, so there’s no real typical day at the office. I live on the property so the office and home are the same which has made the ‘working-from-home rather easy. During the peak seasons the main focus on ensuring the guest’s experience, from interacting with them during breakfasts to working with our staff and maintaining the high standards we have set. During the off-seasons, maintenance takes up a fair bit of time as it is a 200-year old building and takes a lot of love and care to keep it looking pretty. Other than that it is the usual sales/marketing work, working with special clients who want to host weddings, film shoots, yoga groups or other large bookings that have requirements that need special attention.
(2) The one constant is I always spend a lot of time talking to and training our staff, who are all long-term (not seasonal). Many of them come from underprivileged backgrounds and may not have received the best education etc, but I fundamentally believe that everyone has the capacity to learn and grow, particularly if someone is willing to invest in their growth. We invest in our long-term staff because their happiness also ensures the guest’s happiness. It’s a real reward to us when a TripAdvisor or AirBnB review mentions our cook Shanthi, or our assistant-manager Saranya by name in how much they contribute to our guests’ experience.
YC - Have you used social media platforms to promote your products or services? Which channels have been very effective for your business? Which marketing channels have been super flops for your business?
Sid - Instagram has been big for us, Facebook a little less so, TripAdvisor was very important for foreign guests. When the pandemic hit, our client demographic shifted dramatically. Before we were ~90% foreign guests and of course that shut down completely with COVID-19. What we realised was that our domestic guests had a far different profile than our foreign guests, they were 10-15 years younger on average, much more technologically savvy, more likely to book through online platforms than traditional travel agents etc. So in that regard focusing on AirBnB and Instagram really helped us pivot and market more directly to domestic guests.
Outside of that, we have had a lot of great coverage from traditional media, whether Conde Nast’s magazines, Nat Geo or the BBC which did the 4th season of their hit UK television show “The Real Marigold Hotel” in Pondicherry and were hosted at Gratitude.
YC - What according to you is the USP of your product or service, for which your customers come back to you?
Sid - The first impression would be the visual aesthetic of the architecture and interior design, but the structure is only the shell. What gives Gratitude its true essence is the quiet joy and peace that gives this home a healing atmosphere. It is rare to find a place of quietude inviting one to contemplation, an inner journey without compromising on comfort. All our staff are long-term and trained to be hospitable but never intrusive.
To put it more simply, Gratitude offers a genuine feeling of home but with the comforts and luxury of a boutique hotel, all wrapped within a beautiful space and a unique serene ambience that guests keep coming back for.
YC -Can you elaborate on the challenges you faced in promoting your business?
Sid - Trying to find the right channels for the right clientele. The house is built around an internal courtyard, so if we get guests that are inconsiderate to others or have different priorities then the whole ambience of Gratitude is lost. For example, we only allow children under 12 if the parents contact us by email/phone and show that they understand the type of place we are. We’ve had to find ways of discouraging the “party crowd” that comes to Pondicherry from the nearby cities for the lower alcohol rates.
So being able to promote to the largest possible demographic while still maintaining our USP is a constant challenge.
YC - Do you use any tools or software to manage your business? Is there any problem in your day to day operations that you wish could be solved with the help of software?
Sid - We use a channel manager and central reservation software for our booking from different sources. Other than that not much other than publicly available productivity software like Google Keep/Tasks/Calendar etc to manage maintenance and other tasks.
YC - What is the current traction? Can you share some numbers on your order volume, number of customers and revenue?
Sid - Given the pandemic and the hit on the hospitality industry, we have managed fairly well all things considered. We have managed to successfully pivot from a primarily foreign demographic to a local one, targeting the three cities of Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore to leverage the more local travel options that are available due to pandemic restrictions. We’ve had around 50% occupancy rate averaged out, which is lower than traditional years but given the circumstances is much better than what we had projected at the beginning of the pandemic.
YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.
“Be flexible but only to a point, never compromise on your core USP/ethos. Keep the focus on the problem you are trying to solve, it’s easy to lose that when thinking about the solution or execution of that solution. Invest in people, they are your greatest resource.”
Website - https://www.gratitudeheritage.in/
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