How Husna-Tara Prakash nurtured Glenburn Tea Estate and Boutique Hotel into a heavenly retreat that offers a wholesome experience
#boutiquehomestay - Near Singritan, Darjeeling, West Bengal - 734101 - Book On RARE India
YC - What is your background? What motivated you to start and what is it all about?
Husna-Tara Prakash - I grew up with the best of both worlds, living in England, and studying in India as my parents wanted to expose me to our roots while growing up. My 6 years at Welham Girls School in Dehradun were the best of my life and shaped me into becoming an independent, confident free thinker that led me back to the UK for a couple of academic degrees at Cambridge University and a gap year between school and college. As I backpacked around the world exploring life before mobile phones and emails existed, I also fell in love with my tea planter husband, and that’s what led me back to India at the age of 25, to Calcutta, Bengal and a world of tea that I was soon to immerse myself in. I am a science teacher by profession but have now stumbled, fairly deeply, into the world of hospitality.
The “tea estate experience” we have created, was inspired by the vineyards of Europe and other parts of the world, where visitors observe the wine-making process, taste the wine and then shop for wine, local crafts and produce. We found the whole experience educational and interesting and were inspired to open our own tea estate for tourists who may be interested in knowing about how a tea leaf makes it to their teacup. At that time we were living on a tea estate in Kerala, where Gods’ Own Country was only just beginning to become the famous brand it is today.
We ended up selling that estate, but soon we took over Glenburn in Darjeeling. A month before Glenburn landed in our lap, I didn’t even know that Mount Kanchenjunga was this magnificent mountain in Bengal, and when a friend from England asked to see the Himalayas, we flew to Delhi and took her up to Mussourie, as those were the only Himalayas I knew.
Glenburn is a heavenly little plantation retreat that lies on a hillock above the banks of the River Rungeet, high in the Himalayas, overlooked by the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain range. Its 1,600 acres comprise forest, rivers, tea fields and an amazing local community.
On my first visit to Glenburn, I decided this was the spot for such an experience. It was simply the most heavenly place. In addition to the “tea experience,” we could also offer the guests a “walking” experience, and Glenburn remains one of the few destinations in India where you can walk all day and return to luxury at night. We grow our own fresh herbs, spices and many fruit and vegetables, making the experience a “foodie” one as well, with an emphasis on using local ingredients to create delicious and unique menus.
The initial idea took about a year to materialise. On a chance encounter, Bronwyn Latif – an interior designer based in Delhi - found herself at Glenburn and fell in love with the place, too. Before we knew it, we had fallen right into a complete restoration of the main bungalow of the estate. Our aim was to restore it to its original grandeur. Layers and layers of paint and plywood covered the beauty of the house as if each manager’s wife wanted to contribute in some way to its splendour. We would not have got very far without Bronwyn's amazing energy and passion as far as restoration and innovative ideas go.
In 2002 The Burra Bungalow was lovingly restored, whilst retaining the style of a colonial planters' bungalow. With 1000 acres of private forest, and two rivers running through the estate, is a wonderfully peaceful place to stay and offers a unique holiday experience.
In 2008 we added 4 more rooms at Glenburn as part of The Water Lily Bungalow. Perched on the edge of the hill in front of The Burra Bungalow, all rooms have stunning views, including Darjeeling Town up on one hill and, of course, the Kanchenjunga Range straight ahead. We have sourced antique furniture for all the rooms, as well as some old Burma teak for the flooring. Restored old cast iron window frames with arched skylights shape the 9 foot high windows in each room. The small balconies just outside each of these large windows are perfect for enjoying the magnificent views all around.
Glenburn has pioneered the art of tea tourism in a unique and exemplary manner over a period of 20 years, maintaining our high standards and excellent guest reviews on Tripadvisor and other platforms. In 2004, just a few years into the renovation of our first bungalow, our “hotel”, which started with only 4 rooms, we were included in the Tatler Guide to the best 101 hotels in the world. By 2018 we were awarded the Best Luxury Hill Resort in India, and our proudest award was in 2020 when we received the Gold Award for the Most Responsible Hotel in India.
So guests started coming to Glenburn, a few started asking me about Calcutta. I had never really been interested in History. But when I had to answer questions, I knew I had to explore the city. I asked my family and friends. 12 years ago, no one had heard of St John’s Church, where one of my guests said her great grandparents were married. One local resident I asked, didn’t even know if you could go inside Victoria Memorial. People go there to walk, she said. So I asked around, outside my own circle. Discovered an amazing man called Manish Chakravarty who had put together a heritage walk of Dalhousie Square taking into account the architecture of the buildings, and asked him to show my guests this city. The problem was that he only did this on a Sunday, and of course, tourists don’t only visit on a Sunday. So I had to find someone else who could do it any day of the week. We had a group of journalists visiting who wanted a lecture on history. We hired the amazing Dr Rudrangshu Mukherjee to give a short talk at The Bengal club, and I was personally mesmerized by the way he told the Story of Calcutta. Suddenly the buildings around Dalhousie Square came alive. So I read my first history book……then another, and another….and each book added a new layer to my story.
Then we linked it to the river….Where it all began….Where all the battles of Europe were fought over trade in the 17th and 18th centuries….the flower market, the Armenian church, the synagogues…..then we added lunch at a private Bengali Residence. Showed our guests the amazing art on the walls of his house. And then we added a sunset boat cruise with high tea. By then I had joined the Kolkata International Women’s club, and I met an amazing group of ex-pat wives, who helped me discover North Calcutta and all its treasures. North Calcutta…..that far away place, that you need a whole day to reach…..It’s now my backyard. I have whizzed 2 sets of guests up there in the last few weeks to see the Marble Palace, and the fascinating museum at Tagore’s Jorashanko, and been back at the Oberoi within an hour or two. The Jain Temples are filled with Belgian chandeliers and dutch tiles…..the Potters Market with its life-size religious idols. Before I knew it, my morning walking tour had become a 2 day and then a 3-day tour. And now I could tell the story of both the English and the Bengali community of 18th and 19th century Calcutta.
My guests were enthralled. People regularly said this was their favourite city on their trip to India. The energy on the street. The curiosity of the people. The street food. The buildings. The green expanses. The Story. It’s ALL there.
The historical significance of Bengal in the story of India is so important.
I asked the guests I was with a few months ago as we walked around the Botanical Gardens, and then ate a delicious Kathi Roll at Nizams…..about what I should talk about in a presentation I put together for another panel discussion. They raved about the unique experience they had here. And again, the unique significance of Calcutta in terms of India, in particular, for modern India based on the stories I told them about the 19th Century Bengali renaissance and all the social reform and cultural and academic activities that took place here. And this was their 3rd visit to Calcutta.
It’s not about sightseeing and ticking the boxes. It’s about telling stories, meeting people and discovering local culture. Pushing people just beyond their comfort zones, and making them the hero of the story, so they can go home and rave about what they did and who they met. How they walked the streets, with the locals. And chatted to them about cricket and football. And discussions on the street over a cup of tea about President Trump. Or Brexit. Or demonetization.
I had a group of 14 guests from Holland who were here over Durga Puja. They said it was bigger than Mardi Gras. And couldn’t understand why there weren’t more tourists. It’s all there. We have it all. And if more people were passionate about what already exists in terms of experiences, we would see a tourism boom. Perhaps that will kill the authentic experience that people have now. But its also a place with potential like no other.
Shanti Niketan has incredible experiences to offer, especially with the company and expertise of Nayana Gangooly and her home (Nayana’s Homestay) that all our guests adore. This and much more, will soon be the basis of our Bengal & Beyond experiences. Murshidabad is full of stories and the stunning Bari Kothi that Darshan Dudhoria has restored. Ajay Rawla has created magic at TheRaj Bari Bawali. Iftekar from Calcutta walks has set up The Calcutta Bungalow.
This excitement and wonder that we observed as our guests enjoyed exploring Calcutta, ultimately led to our second hotel, The Glenburn Penthouse …..and this is how I describe it……
After 18 years of inspiring guest experiences and feedback, the Glenburn brand of tea-and-hospitality is world-famous. Our latest project is a stylish penthouse boutique hotel in Calcutta, from where our expert guides conduct historical and academic tours of this fascinating, but often forgotten city. Limited to 9 well-appointed panoramic suites, where every need is anticipated, our philosophy is to create intimate havens of sophisticated luxury where visitors can deepen their understanding of local culture, history and cuisine as we indulge them as our special guests.
It took us 7 years to complete The Glenburn Penthouse but 2 years after we opened, we are now a well-respected boutique hotel in the heart of the city – with direct views of all her iconic landmarks.
These 3 experiences – A city hotel where we conduct expert-led cultural, historical and gastronomy themed explorations of Calcutta, followed by a country experience up at the tea estate provides a perfect combination that we now call The Glenburn Experience in Bengal.
YC - Could you please share with our readers what is your current team size and their roles?
Husna - Today, we employ 60 members of our local community as chefs, drivers, guides, gardeners, bearers and housekeeping ladies who have delivered an extremely high level of service in a very remote part of the country. We have refrained from employing any "trained" hospitality staff from out of our tea estate or our region. We still only have 8 rooms. Many people still laugh at me when I say I run an 8 room hotel. But in some months, we are booked out a year in advance. And 90 per cent of our clientele are foreign visitors who visit from countries all around the world. Many of them come directly to Glenburn as a destination in its own right.
I truly believe that you can build a world-class product with very little if you invest time and passion into working with your local community.
The success of our hotel has empowered our local community and brought international recognition for the amazing work that they do. We are remote. The roads are so bad, that even an Innova cannot make it down the last stretch. But we are still able to attract visitors.
And we include our local community, the 4000 workers who live within Glenburn Tea Estate, in our guest experience.
We have a successful education programme supporting 3 Government primary schools, and a scholarship programme that has 64 estate children enrolled in private schools in the region.
We are certified by the Rainforest Alliance where we gained 100% for Community Engagement and Wildlife Protection. Our policies protect the flora and fauna, within 1000 acres of private forest on the estate.
Our Glenburn Kalakendra is a Music and Dance Academy that supports the local culture of the Nepali community that lives in this region. Our Annual Workers Festival is an initiative that celebrates the talents of our community and its achievements throughout the year.
YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?
Husna - I am not someone who believes in designations, and big titles, so I contribute wherever and whenever I can. I work from wherever I am, on my phone, by email and on the property, so I don’t really have an office as such! My team knows they can reach me 24x7, and I trust them to deliver the attention to fine detail that Glenburn is famous for.
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?
Husna - I started off with Facebook but more recently have been using Instagram a lot. I do see how a post can lead to business and I am also aware that I do not post enough! I’m getting better at it. It’s something that is quite hard to delegate as I feel I understand the pulse of both properties and the experiences that we offer, so it’s hard to have someone else write about it the way I do! I’m not very good at analysing the success of any marketing that I do so it’s hard to know what is working and what isn’t other than just a gut feeling. I believe a lot in word of mouth.
So how did I get people to come to a remote tea estate in Bengal in the first place? It’s all about TRUST and giving people the right information. And then the DELIVERY of what you have PROMISED.
In the first summer when we conceptualized the idea, I went to visit agents in the UK. I just talked about what we had created so far. They believed me. Sent us a few guests. The guests raved about the experience. And word spread. I attended the World Travel Mart in London every year, and now I attend Pure Life Experiences in Marrakech or Further East in Bali once a year. That’s enough! It does the job. Then I focus on ensuring I can deliver what I have promised. And that’s where the integrity and the trust pay the bills. If more people, took a simple product, nurtured it with love and attention to detail, and delivered a service and empowered the local community to interact and share their lives with visitors, many more would be successful. Insta handles - @glenburnteaestate | @glenburnpenthouse
YC - What according to you is the USP of your boutique homestay, for which your customers come back to you?
Husna - Our attention to detail, in terms of the service and experiences that we deliver. It is genuine and heartfelt. Nothing is too much trouble for our team. It is also of course the stunning location of both our hotels. You just can’t compare the location of Glenburn Tea Estate, with direct views of Mt Kanchenjunga, 2 sparkling rivers, 1000 acres of private forest and 600 acres of rolling tea fields to any other tea estate in the region.
Similarly in Calcutta, The Glenburn Penthouse is located in the heart of the city overlooking the iconic Victoria Memorial, the Maidan, the 2 famous bridges, Eden Gardens, Fort William, the Governor’s Palace and the first cathedral, the first supreme court, Royal Calcutta Turf Club and many other famous sights.
And lastly, it’s the labour of love that has gone into the design and layout of the interiors, the unique items that adorn both hotels that I have collected from around the world, the prints on the walls – again a collection I have built up over many years – it genuinely has been a labour of love, and I think this is clearly evident to anyone who stays with us.
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?
Husna - Rare India has been fantastic as we are all aligned with the same principles that relate to responsible travel, sustainability and offering unique experiences to our guests. We are also part of the MAhout and the Secret Retreats portfolios of boutique hotels. We have only just gone online to allow OTAs like Bookings.com to book our hotels, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out. We got our first booking through Agoda last month, so it’s a good start, but not the conventional way we have been attracting guests over the past 2 decades as even our booking process is very personalised and involves connecting in person with each guest to ensure that we provide a perfect holiday experience for them.
YC - How are you coping with COVID 19, what would you suggest to your fellow boutique homestay owners?
Husna - Covid 19 was a tough phase for us to begin with, but as things opened up and the Indian traveller began to discover us, we actually had a very good end to the year. We were completely sold out in December and part of January and then again in March and most of April. Sadly all bookings were postponed when the second wave hit the country, but enquiries are now slowly trickling in. So even though we lost our entire International market, which has been our bread and butter for all these years, we have discovered a new market here in India and the response has been great.
We did receive a bit of skepticism especially as our price point is quite high, but once people realise that absolutely everything is included from your pick up from the airport, or anywhere else in the region, all meals – from morning bed tea, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, snacks around the bonfire, a lavish dinner, all the activities around the 1,600-acre estate as well as day trips to Darjeeling and Kalimpong, all transport, and even laundry and GST - then it’s clear that we offer good value for what we charge.
Our biggest concern was protecting our community from the virus, as so far they have remained safe during the pandemic, so we only opened once we had their agreement and they had our reassurance that we would follow all COVID protocols in order to keep the community as safe as we could. Luckily all our rooms have natural ventilation, we have lots of outdoor dining options and great outdoor activities that involve A LOT of fresh air! Physically distancing is easy on a 1,600-acre estate so it’s natural for people to feel safe with us.
YC - How do you manage expenses, typically what percentage do you allocate for marketing & sales, day to day operations and property renovations and enhancements?
Husna - It’s all gut feeling, so we don’t have a formal break up and as all the marketing is done by myself personally or my trusted partners like Rare, I work on what is needed and when. Repairs and enhancements are also carried out when needed. A boutique hotel is run with soul and passion, so it’s hard to formalise it like another kind of business. Our customers always come first, but we also prioritise looking after our community and our local environment. We are blessed to be part of a tea estate and so are also able to benefit from the infrastructure of the estate and in our journey so far, we have managed to pay all our bills successfully. The rest, are the rewards that come from the joy of what we do!
YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.
As I mentioned earlier …how did I get people to come to a remote tea estate in Bengal in the first place? It’s all about TRUST and giving people the right information. And then the DELIVERY of what you have PROMISED.
For example - Bengal has hills and mountains, beaches and mangrove forests, and this amazing city of Calcutta with all its history and culture.
Airline connections are great. There are 3 daily flights from Jaipur so you can even combine it with a week in Rajasthan. We need to create interesting circuits, with good infrastructure. Even just basic infrastructure. Good roads, and toilets for people to stop at along the way.
We need entrepreneurs and enterprising people who are passionate about what they do. Who can tell the story well.
The state needs to incentivise investors, so the right kind of people find it viable to set up quality products.
Other than that….it’s about just getting on with it, and not waiting for “things to improve”. Many travellers today want to go where no one else has been. Do things their friends at work haven’t. Bengal could be one such destination. It just needs more people to believe that!
That’s how Glenburn happened. I didn’t wait for help. I just worked with what I had, connected with my community, and before I knew it, the whole world was talking about what we do. It was a very organic journey, and I had no idea that I would be here when we started 20 years ago.
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