How Jairaj Singh Rathore built Chanoud Garh, A Royal - Rural Homestay

#boutiquehomestay - Chanod, Rajasthan 306602 - Book on RARE India

YC - Tell us about your background - educational, personal & professional? Would also love to hear about your family?

Jairaj - I am an Alumna of Welham Boys School (Dehradun), I was the head-boy of my batch and excelled as a sportsman. I joined Welham Boys as a 7-year-old and made life-long friends in my 11 years through school.

I then continued my education at Sydenham College (Mumbai) as a commerce student. Immediately after my graduation, I joined McCann Erickson Advertising in Mumbai. 

In my 11, years with this company I donned many hats and worked tirelessly with an emerging adverting market in India. I handled many important accounts for them, including their Coca Cola account. 

At 33, I was faced with the decision to come back home. I come from the family of Thikana Chanoud (Marwar - erstwhile Jodhpur State), and as the eldest grandson of the family had a choice to come back to run and manage the family affairs in my native village.  My grandfather, the late Sarkar Chiman Singh Ji, was a royal and impressive personality who had managed family affairs throughout this life. He was progressive, a thinker and knew that asking his grandson to leave a successful career in Mumbai would not be right. 

He suggested me to take a sabbatical and decide what I want to do with the ancestral palace at Chanoud. 

I, came to Chanoud to weigh my options and after consultation with my parents and siblings decided to repair and restore the property to just keep the legacy alive - one thing led to another - days become months and months become years - the bond and connect grew stronger - and I just got immersed in it. Looking at the investment needed and the task at hand - it just could not be a hobby but to make it a commercially viable option - something that could sustain all the three involved maintain the property - thus converting it into a Heritage Property made sense. 

My siblings - Swati and Mahiraj joined me in this dream. And driven by the support of the parents and extended family we trio very quickly managed to get the property up and running. 

Each member of this trio joined the team with their expertise. Swati is a Textile designer and has worked extensively with export houses in Mumbai. Mahiraj has extensive experience in construction and is the natural leader in the Village. The parents being the backbone and gave us the freedom to allow us to follow our dreams. 

YC - What motivated you to become an entrepreneur – especially as a hotelier? 

Jairaj - I never had any plans to become a hotelier ….it was just by a turn of events that one thing leads to the other and thus fell in the lap of hospitality. My love for history and architecture lead me to it. Preservation of a way of life and continuing with the rituals and cultures is very important for me. As a young child, I was fascinated by all the old stories narrated by my grandfather about the life and events of the bygone era and fell in love with the place - wanting to do something for the place - till the right opportunity fell in my way.

YC - Starting something unique or creating a niche is always challenging, what challenges did you face in your early days? 

Jairaj - The main challenge faced by us (me, Swati and Mahiraj) was the renovation of the property. The palace had been neglected for many years. It took 8 long years of hard work to restore it into a running hotel and work does not stop there - it is an ongoing process. 

The other challenge was to get the labour in a rural village in Rajasthan. I and Mahiraj, decided to fall back on the villagers, and their rustic equipment to work on the construction. Which in the long-run has worked in their favour as the carbon footprint has considerably reduced and everyone had to work within the environment of preserving the building. Also, the locals once again felt the feeling of ownership after all they too have been connected to the palace at different times - thus seeing it return to life and that too by their own hands give them that pride and connect. 

No walls were broken down during the restoration process, all hotel rooms and common areas have been built in the existing framework of the palace. As a result, we have some very large rooms.

Being in a competitive environment - many heritage properties around and starting late when all had covered their grounds - we had to be unique and different. Thus the mantra was - small, intimate and personal. Sharing a slice of the areas life - through conversation, food, social interaction and layout of the land - personally by the family - a royal -rural homestay. With time the family grew bigger - lucky to be blessed to have people that gave in their full - and committed themselves wholeheartedly. Thus from 5 people, we become a team of seven. Since I and Mahiraj’s better half joined in Ku. Anchal Singh (my wife) and Ku. Anuradha Singh (Mahiraj wife) bringing a whole lot of freshness and new skill sets. Therefore 7 people running a 10 room property - it could not be more personal - creating real experiences and exchanging stories of their journey in life. 

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

Jairaj - As the founder, I start my day early, I am involved in all aspects of the hotel. Since the property is very personal. My day starts with taking the guests up for breakfast and planning their itinerary for the day. 

I then am ready to welcome the new arrivals or say goodbye to the guests who are leaving the property. I spend the rest of the morning in his office, managing the day-to-day affairs. 

After lunch with the guests, I join them for the evening safari or a cup of tea around the property. I personally give the guests a detailed property walk, taking them through the treasures of Chanoud Garh. 

In the evening, the family joins the guest for a drink and dinner. At every point, it’s under the supervision of the family - being personal does not mean a compromise on professionalism. 

The Chanoud Garh is a large family, and at every point, one family member is with each guest. The activities like - safari, property walk and cooking class are all conducted by a member of the family. This makes the activity real and interesting. 

The current family is as follows: 

  1. Sarkar Ajeet Singh Ji Saheb (Father): An alumina of Doon School (Dehradun) and an equine surgeon by profession. He is the main attraction - guests love to just spend time with him - discuss his way of life, the changes he has seen before and after independence, the old bygone era, understand today’s changing time and adapting. His soft, well-mannered demeanour, his patience and being a good listener just makes him the perfect balanced person who they all want to listen to. 

  2. Rani Marudhar Kumari (Mother): A perfect homemaker. She is the secret behind all the magic that the kitchen creates. A hands-on lady who never fails to surprise us with the impossible. She manages everything behind the scenes - from the staff to the kitchen she is the perfect host and a perfect teacher (we do not hire chefs - but she teaches them and makes them cooks - for she wants them to do home cooking and not hotel cooking) 

  3. Me - Kr. Jairaj Singh (eldest brother)

  4. Ku. Anchal Singh (Wife of Jairaj): An alumina of Sanawar School and University of Westminister (London). She is from Delhi with masters in computer graphics and animation from London. Travelled and worked on most continents she brings a world experience to our table. Helping us modernise and upgrade at all times 

  5. Kumari Swati Rathore (Sister): An alumna of Mayo Girls College (Ajmer) and St.Beads (Shimla). She did her masters in textile designing. Working with very prominent Export houses in Mumbai and designing for world companies. Thus making her the design expert on the project - adding colour and sourcing the best fabrics at the cheapest price. A multi-tasker at all ends 

  6. Kr. Mahiraj Singh ( Younger brother): An alumna of Mayo College (Ajmer) and St. Xaviers College (Mumbai) he dwelt in construction for some time thus giving him the experience that was most needed for our renovation work. An avid birder and love for the countryside make him a perfect host for guest outings. 

  7. Ku. Anuradha Singh (Mahiraj’s Wife): The youngest member of the team. Hailing from the Royal family of Datia (MP) and growing up in Lucknow (UP). Her love for cooking and the experience of different states made her a culinary expert. Under the able tutelage of her mother in law, she quickly learnt the house recipes and now conducts cooking classes for the guests which are very sort after. 

YC - Do you use social media platforms (like Instagram, Facebook etc) to promote your boutique homestay? Which channels have been very effective for your business?

Jairaj - Social media for us is new, we were driven by word of mouth which was very strong. In the past, we have not used it as effectively as we could have. The reason was that all our energies were involved in the day-to-day running of the property. We do not have managers or mid-level staff, the family works on the property. 

However, after Covid, we have realised the need for domestic clientele and have now moved more aggressively on Social media. 

YC - What are your views on personally managed travel partners like RARE India and others OTA’s like  AirBnB, Makemytrip.com, Booking.com etc?

Jairaj - RARE has been our partner for a few years now. They have opened many doors for us. Shobha and Shobhana have worked and guided us in the right direction and so have definitely been very helpful. 

Regarding the other OTA’s, previously we have used Booking.com very successfully. We will be opening the property of Makemytrip and Airbnb now. 

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

Jairaj - Chanoud Garh is a small property, with only 10 suites and since it’s a 300-year-old building, most of the time renovation and maintaining the building takes the chunk of the income. The day -to day running of the property is the next main expenditure. Till date we worked on the strong word of mouth built by our clients - it worked wonders. We run only 8 months a year, we close the property in the summer. 

YC - Our readers would love to know the best time during the year to visit your homestay and why?

Jairaj - The best time would be October to March. The winter in Rajasthan is beautiful, not only the weather but also most of the festivals are at that time. Diwali and Holi are the 2 main Hindu festivals that we celebrate with our guests. These have become the highlights of Chanoud Garh. The village walks and safaris are also most enjoyable during these months.

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?

Jairaj - Unique experiences would be experiencing a way of life not known to many. The family is respected as the head of the village and is involved in the village day to day affairs, politics, hospital, schools etc. The respect is given by the villagers, the slower pace of life adds to the experience. 

The food is another magical experience, my mother manages the kitchen herself. The cooks are trained by her, and she personally looks into all aspects of the kitchen. The food is traditional Rajasthani and Central -India.. very much home-cooking - recipes that have been passed down in the family.  We serve non-veg dishes as well. Some of the all-time favourites are Khad Maas, Narangi Maas (Lamb cooked in fresh orange juice) Orange Kheer, Amrud ki Subzi, Magnodi and Hara Pyazz, Meethi Papad etc. Fresh seasonal vegetables come from our own garden house. 

We keep our own cows and make butter and cream for guests. We bake our own breads. We also make a selection of Jams and Pickels. The Masalas are all ground at home and the Wheat and pulses come for our own farms.  

Chanoud Garh is now offering a safari to Jawai Leopard Conservation area, a new highlight for our guests. This promises to be once in a lifetime experience. 

YC - How is your hotel attractive to Indian domestic travellers and what are the interest points for foreign travellers? 

Jairaj - Domestic travellers are new to us. Till date, we mainly received foreign travellers to Chanoud Garh. What attracted them to Chanoud Garh and made it their highlight was the very personal experience offered at the property. We always wanted it to be an oasis of conversation. We were never a hotel but a royal - rural homestay. It had all the luxury for a wonderful holiday but they were not there for that - what attracted them to Chanoud Garh was the real people (Family), real food of the area (you will never experience a place without its food), real history, real experience, understanding real village people and their lifestyle. And all this straight from the horse mouth. This made the stay very rich and something the guests remembered long after their holiday was over. They stay in touch and write regularly. That family connection and interaction is irreplaceable. 

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?

Jairaj - This is the core for the future of tourism. We are based in a village and the place has been our home for the last 300 years. With all the respect comes great responsibility - our father as a head of the family takes this very seriously. For he believes that respect and responsibility go hand in hand. Therefore we want to better it not make it worse. Our steps are as follows: 

  1. Much of the renovation has been done with lime - the original ingredient that keeps the building cool and with local artisans. 

  2. Used solar for heating all our water.

  3. Reused the greywater from the sink and bathing areas for garden purposes (filtered through sand and charcoal).

  4.  Our produce is locally sourced and mostly coming from our farms

  5. Every Diwali (festival of light) - instead of firecrackers we celebrate by lighting one dark corner of the village by putting a solar light. 

  6. Swati has adopted the village school - and helps administrate and run it. Providing facilities and learning equipment like none other. 

  7. We have with the help of the villagers have made a 60 bedded hospital for the area. 

  8. We made and run a stray animal shelter with over 450 cattle

  9. Age-old festivals and fairs have been bought back to life. 

  10. Helping the villagers with political, administrative and day to day problems - since they trust the family and accept their opinions. 

YC - COVID 19 has immensely affected the tourism sector, how are you coping with it and what would you suggest to your fellow boutique homestay owners?

Jairaj - We have got hit hard for we did not have a plan B. We had all our eggs in one basket - the sudden change in clientele and the long time lag before we can get back to normal times makes us understand that nothing is etched in stone. You need to keep your core the same but be ready to accommodate changes. There are many factors that are not in your hands - make the most of what you have. 

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

Jairaj -

I can speak about small boutique properties: Concept and reality are two different things - Can you and will you do the things you have conceptualised. One needs to be very clear of one commitment - you need to stick with things and concepts and make them happen. If you honestly do things people appreciate it and when you run things on a personal scale you leave your own imprint - this is not replicable by anyone. Luxury, commodities etc can easily be replicated but the people running a place and their nature and interest cannot be - thus two homestays will never be the same because there are two different people running them. 

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