How Anu & Ram set up Mela Kothi-The Chambal Safari Lodge, winner of Tripadvisor Travelers' choice award, without having any experience in the hospitality industry.

#homestay - GPS Coordinates: 26.8725° N, 78.5642° E

YC - What is your background? What motivated you to start and what is it all about?

Anu - I studied Environment Management at the University of London, and my husband Ram Pratap an engineer from IIT. We were both building our professional careers, living busy city lives, hankering for the countryside and the great outdoors, and desperately looking out for options that would unchain us from our desks.

In 1999, after the birth of our first and only child, we decided to quit our jobs and move back to our ancestral farm to try our hand at various sustainable development options. Alongside the farmland, we also inherited a large tract of degraded land and the derelict old Mela Kothi. We set about re-wilding a 35-acre parcel of this degraded patch and restoring and renovating the old Kothi. Twenty-one years on it is now a mini forest of indigenous trees, providing refuge to over 200 species of birds, reptiles, & small mammals. And, the ruined old Kothi, rechristened Mela Kothi-The Chambal Safari Lodge, is an award-winning eco-lodge attracting discerning visitors from around the world.

YC - Could you please share with our readers what is your current team size and their roles?

We have a team of 30, with responsibilities based on qualifications and training, divided between the lodge and the safari operations. The majority of the team are members of the local community and have acquired skills through workshops and on-the-job training, rising to positions of responsibility within the team, including a professionally trained chef, a talented young baker, and specialist naturalists/guides.

YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?

Anu - As a founder, with a well-trained and qualified team, my role now is primarily limited to overseeing affairs and keeping an eye on quality control. We decided early on to empower our team members, enabling them to take responsibility for their areas of work and to coordinate with one another to ensure smooth day-to-day operations of the lodge and the safaris. 

Our major role is in the sales and marketing of Chambal Safari. We do not have any agencies representing us and manage all our sales & marketing through our own office in London, as well as through meetings with the DMCs in India. This has allowed us to build personal relationships with our business providers, and ensure better control over the guest movement to our property.

A typical day ‘at the office’ involves stepping out into the main garden with our laptops in hand, answering emails, engaging with guests, and enjoying the fruits of 21 years of labor.

YC - Have you used social media platforms to promote your boutique homestay? Which channels have been very effective for your business? Which marketing channels have been super flops for your business?

Anu - We have very little social media presence, with intermittent posts on Facebook and Instagram. Instagram has gathered some traction, but by far the best publicity has been word of mouth.

YC - What according to you is the USP of your boutique homestay, for which your customers come back to you?

Anu - The easy laidback vibe combined with wide-open spaces, excellent farm-to-table food, unique wildlife safaris, and immersive cultural excursions, alongside warm, friendly hospitality.

YC - Can you elaborate on the challenges you faced in promoting your boutique homestay? What are your views on platforms like Airbnb, RareIndia, Booking.com, etc?

Anu - Chambal as a brand is one that everyone has heard of, and very rarely associated with tourism! As first movers in seeking to build brand Chambal, highlighting its unique natural, cultural and historical heritage, we faced a veritable barrage of hurdles. This was compounded by the fact that we were fairly clueless about the tourism industry, with no experience in hospitality or in sales & marketing. Realizing that none of the DMC’s we approached in Agra or Delhi wanted to touch us with a barge pole and that we had no hope of generating any business through them, we began our marketing direct to the FTO’s based in London.

It started with a trickle, with many an obstacle being thrown in our path, but through perseverance and sustained marketing efforts, we have managed to place Chambal on the international tourism map.

Platforms such as Airbnb and Booking.com are a good way to increase the digital footprint and do generate some bookings. However, for smaller properties, such as ours, it can be difficult to filter and set guest expectations with a central/online reservation system. Platforms like RareIndia, with their curated and selected offerings, and targeted marketing support are a good option for properties starting out and looking for a larger audience.

YC - How are you coping with COVID 19, what would you suggest to your fellow boutique homestay owners?

Anu - First and foremost we are following all the protocols as advised (and revised) by the government. 

With independent accommodation units spread over 35 acres of grounds, we do find it is easier for us to maintain social distancing and sanitization protocols than it is for properties with single structures and centralized facilities, such as air-conditioning.

We have been advising all our potential guests of the revised protocols and expected code of conduct with regard to mask-wearing, social distancing, and sanitization through email communication prior to booking confirmation. This has helped us set expectations and protect potential guests as well as our team and the local community.

The key is, to be honest, and transparent. Sharing information, and following through with the protocols in ensuring guest well-being goes a long way in building confidence, leading to further word-of-mouth publicity and bookings.

YC - How do you manage expenses, typically what percentage do you allocate for marketing & sales, day-to-day operations, and property renovations and enhancements?

Anu - Varies year on year, but typically day-to-day operations and annual maintenance and upgrades form the largest chunk of the expenditure. 

YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.

Anu -

“Believe in yourself and persevere. “

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