How Aly Rashid launched the brand Jehan Numa Wilderness - A boutique collection of jungle lodges & camps.
#glamping - Raini Pani, Sohagpur - Madhya Pradesh - 461771. Book on RARE India
YC - Tell us about your background - educational, personal & professional? Would also love to hear about your family?
Aly - I was brought up in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. I am a 13th generation Bhopali, my direct ancestor Dost Mohammed Khan founded the princely state of Bhopal in 1708. Ever since then my family has been involved with the city’s evolution and immersed in its culture and heritage. My great grandfather, General Obaidullah Khan was the elder brother to the last Nawab of Bhopal. He was a man of great taste and vision and built the Jehan Numa Palace, which is now run as a 5-star heritage hotel by my family.
In 2009, Reni Pani was our second hotel and our first foray into wildlife tourism, this activity was led by my father who along with his brother founded the company – Jehan Numa Palace Hotel Pvt Ltd. I took over the job of running the jungle lodge and initiated our second wilderness property Bori Safari Lodge. At this time, I launched the brand Jehan Numa Wilderness, as an umbrella for the wilderness properties under the company.
My education was in a boarding school in Ooty, and I have done my bachelor honours in Economics and Industrial Relations from the University of Toronto in Canada. I am married with two kids, aged 3 and 6, and our children have also spent considerable time in the forest especially at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge.
YC - What motivated you to become an entrepreneur – especially as a hotelier?
Aly - As I have outlined above, I am a second-generation hotelier. Our company was founded by my father and his brother in 1983. My interest primarily lay in wildlife and adventure, and this is something I always wanted to be involved in more than hotels. Growing up in Madhya Pradesh, gave us a perfect platform to explore the wilderness. I have one brother, and I remember as children all our leisure time was spent exploring the wild with my father.
Bhopali’s have a great affinity to the outdoors, with sport hunting being a leisure activity of our ancestors and wildlife viewing, conservation and adventure taking precedence in our generation and the one preceding us. This background and upbringing instilled a love for nature and when my family forayed into wildlife lodges, I thought it was a perfect time to contribute and merge passion and profession.
YC - Starting something unique or creating a niche is always challenging, what challenges did you face in your early days?
Aly - Our company was new to wildlife tourism and we decided to open a lodge in a brand-new destination. Our vision was to provide an experience where guests could explore the wilderness and not just chase tigers. Satpura was a lesser-known park, it did not provide high chances of seeing a tiger and therefore was not an easy sell. But the park was dear to us. As a family we had spent days on end in the park, I was barely 3 or 4 years old when I visited this park first and ever since then it has become a second home. This affinity to the park inspired me to think out of the box and develop a tourism model that was different to what was generally available in other parks.
Since tiger sightings were not that high, we focused on the total wilderness experience. We worked with the forest department to offer non-motorized safaris like walking safaris, canoeing, camping etc that were more engaging for tourists. We started night safari in Satpura, which was not on offer anywhere else, and of course, offered the standard jeep safaris. This afforded a diverse range of experiences for guests and enabled them to immerse themselves in the landscape. Initially, this was the biggest challenge, to convince people to explore differently. Wildlife enthusiasts were so used to the standard tiger tourism, that it was difficult to break them out of this. But now these efforts have paid off, and our patrons come to us for this different experience.
YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?
Aly - The best part is that my office is either the jungle or home, so I do not really work out of an office. As an owner of a small collection of hotels, the job profile is quite diversified and I am involved with almost all the operating departments at the lodges. This industry is very personalized, so during the season, I spent most of my time at the lodges. Till 2020, we only operated Reni Pani, and my nuclear family and I lived there. I have lived at Reni Pani for almost 10 years, welcoming guests, hosting them and being a trained naturalist, also guiding them on safari.
Now with two lodges, I spend time between the two places hosting those guests who I know well and some who may request for me to be there to guide them. So, my typical day is quite unpredictable, sometimes I could be on back-to-back safaris with guests and other times I could be working from our library or lounge from a computer addressing administrative matters, sales, marketing, finance and the like. A perpetual workation if it were…
YC - Do you use social media platforms (like Instagram, Facebook etc) to promote your camp? Which channels have been very effective for your business?
Aly -Yes, we do use social media for marketing our camps and we are quite active on Facebook - @JehanNumaWilderness and Instagram - jehannumawilderness. These platforms play a good role in keeping in touch with guests who have visited us. But since our ticket size is high, conversion from such platforms is not really what we aim for and quite honestly it is difficult to achieve. What works best for us in terms of marketing is a good old word of mouth. Since what we offer is niche and off the beaten track, personal referrals are the most powerful way of marketing.
YC - What are your views on personally managed travel partners like RARE India and others OTA’s like AirBnB, Makemytrip.com, Booking.com etc?
Aly -RARE is a brilliant platform for us to do our marketing. The RARE ethos promotes owner run and driven small and boutique hotels. The way RARE operates, with the promotor’s involvement is very similar to how we operate as well. The focus of RARE is also on conscious luxury and sustainability and these are our values too. We do not get much business from OTA like MakeMyTrip or Booking.com as these platforms are more suited for standard format hotels, where guests can easily buy a room night.
We do not sell rooms',“ we offer and sell experiences”. For this, the customer is much more comfortable having a phone call or an email conversation with our sales team to obtain accurate information on what is possible for them during their visit. The best time to see a particular bird, or the best time to photograph leopards, or the season to camp and witness the flowering season are details that can only be personally communicated and it is rare to find such niche information on the internet or on an OTA platform.
YC - How do you manage expenses, typically what percentage do you allocate for marketing & sales, day to day operations and property renovations and enhancements?
Aly - Jungle Lodges run on a low-cost model maximizing local employment with only a very few senior staff like the manager and naturalist who come from outside. So, salary costs are relatively low. Food is also served as a fixed meal plan and large buffets etc are not offered. Essentially the focus is on experience rather than the typical service-oriented hospitality. This itself helps us save costs. We set aside about 2.5% of revenues on sales and marketing and 5-10% (depending on requirement) on renovations and enhancements.
YC - Our readers would love to know the best time during the year to visit your camp and why?
Aly -There is no real best time to visit the jungle, as each time has its speciality. The post-monsoon months of October and November are great to see the forest lush green, the rivers full of water, butterflies, dragonflies and also herpetofauna. The winter is nice to experience crisp weather and the rutting of certain species of deer. Peak summer is the best for large cats. The monsoon (although we remain closed then) is also a great time for herpetofauna and greenery.
But as tourists who would like to see a mix of birds and mammals, I would suggest February / March as the best time to visit Satpura. The weather is neither too cold nor too hot. The forest has thinned enough for mammal visibility to be good and the migratory birds are still around to see them in large numbers. So, if I was to pick one time of year for a general wildlife tourist to get an overall experience of Satpura it would be February / March.
YC - A memorable trip is a combination of a great stay + lip-smacking food and unique experiences - what are the unique experiences around your area which travellers must explore?
Aly - Satpura is known for its walking safaris, this is something everyone must do over here. The canoeing activity is also brilliant, soundless and a great way of observing birds that come to the backwaters surrounding the park. A visit to churn, which is in the heart of the park, is also a great experience, as the density of wildlife is high there and tourist numbers are quite low. We also offer a unique and one-of-a-kind mobile camping expedition which is a must-try for those who are adventurous and want to experience glamping. Night drives are also offered uniquely in Satpura and are a must-try for those who want to see rare nocturnal species of animals.
YC - How is your hotel attractive to Indian domestic travellers and what are the interest points for foreign travellers?
Aly - As long as guests are interested in exploring the wilderness, our lodges are well suited for them, whether they are from India or abroad. We have a good mix of Indian and inbound business, with almost an equal mix of Indians and foreigners coming to us. We are quite flexible at our lodges and a diverse group of people can enjoy our nature-based experiences.
YC - Industry experts these days are talking a lot about sustainable and regenerative travel, what are your views on it and how are you contributing to the same?
Aly - We are propagators of sustainable travel and practices. We have developed a model of tourism that promotes a non-motorized way of exploring the wilderness. Our lodges are small key, well spread out and are in spaces that afford a great deal of biodiversity. Reni Pani especially was a degraded forest 10 years ago, and with protection, now is a thriving microhabitat with an array of wildlife visiting including large mammals like sloth bear, leopards, wild dogs and much more. Although Bori Safari Lodge is located close to a village, we are regenerating a healthy ecosystem here for microfauna and developing a butterfly park that will attract up to 70 species of indigenous butterflies.
We procure locally, employ locals and believe in promoting local experiences including cultural and culinary experiences. We also have standard operating practices in places like responsible waste disposal and usage of renewable energy. We also work closely with the local community and support the village school as well as the forest department in conservation initiatives. These and other initiatives have been certified and recognized by the TOFTigers PUG Audit, which is a well renowned sustainable tourism criteria certification.
YC - COVID 19 has immensely affected the tourism sector, how are you coping with it and what would you suggest to your fellow camp owners?
Aly - Yes, COVID-19 has severely impacted the tourism sector, especially inbound tourism which is non-existent at the moment. Domestic tourism especially from driving distance source markets has recovered quite fast and has provided some amount of cushion and business stability in 2020-21. But in our sector, especially operating in rural areas, it is better to be safe than sorry. All our staff are local and medical facilities are not good near our lodges, so till the situation is stabilized, we feel it is better to be conservative and play the waiting game till conditions are absolutely safe to operate. We did operate between the 1st and 2nd wave but post 2nd wave we have closed our lodges till October.
YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.
Aly - I think India has a lot of scope for sustainable tourism, but we still are far behind in the way we model and promote it. India is the 6th most bio-diverse country in the world, but we rank nowhere in the sustainable and eco-friendly tourism index. The major reason is that we have modelled this incorrectly. Our focus is on very few wilderness areas, and within these wilderness areas, government policy permits only limited spaces to be explored. This has led to overcrowding in these spaces, degradation, poor tourism practices and bottleneck tourism in small areas. As we progress, it will be imperative to change this model.
The government needs to address its policy and permit larger areas for tourism, with stricter sustainability criteria for lodge and tour operators so that the operations are financially and ecologically sustainable. This will enable larger areas under tourism, higher value and lower volume and footprint. We as entrepreneurs need to explore new destinations for wilderness tourism and also think beyond the protected area tourism model to unprotected wilderness spaces where low impact and high-value tourism experiences can be offered to discerning travellers. High value and low environmental impact tourism will not only be financially sustainable for the operators but also ecologically sustainable. Tourism in lesser-known areas will also lead to a larger scale positive impact in terms of job generation in rural areas leading to conservation.
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