How Manav Khanduja built Pugdundee Safaris - Promising luxury, in the wilderness of @ Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, Satpura, Panna & Tadoba
YC - Tell us about your background - educational, personal & professional? Would also love to hear about your family?
Manav - I grew up in a small town and countryside, in the lap of nature. This but naturally translated to a lifelong attachment with nature. Then a chance visit to Corbett National Park at the age of twelve left an indelible mark and paved the way for the desire to learn more about wildlife.
Pursuing environmental law was more of an impulsive decision. Internet was in its nascent stage, and so was the information available around wildlife & conservation. This course promised to take one behind the scenes of wildlife conservation and I didn't let the opportunity go by.
It built the foundation for life-long learning and opened up many opportunities including assisting in fieldwork with projects related to Great Indian Bustard in Rajasthan and Bengal Florican in Dudhwa National Park.
YC - What motivated you to start? Was there any turning point or incident in your life which led to your journey as an entrepreneur?
Manav - Passion for wildlife & conservation took me to the jungles, but it’s not always easy to find a balance between passion and work. Ecotourism seemed to be the right mix. After delving deeper into it, I realized that this could be a lifelong passionate career. I was fortunate enough to have found a like-minded team, which made this entrepreneurial journey worthwhile @ PUGDUNDEE SAFARIS
YC - Starting something unique or creating a niche is always challenging, what challenges did you face in your early days?
Manav - In our early days, most of us actually don’t think about the challenges and jump into it. Wildlife tourism was still in its nascent stage & business was hard to do. Most of our promotions used to be first about the destination & then about the product. Internet wasn’t much in use so establishing a product & communication wasn’t easy. We would visit potential tour operators with physical albums about the park & our lodges. For operators to trust us with their guests was a long slow journey initially.
YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?
Manav - I am a believer in, not really handpicking any responsibilities that look like a responsibility. We are in this profession out of our keenness to contribute and leave a better world for which whatever we feel is necessary to accomplish. We do it without hesitating or seeing what time of day it is. Our work is not time-framed. The fact is it’s a 24X7 job, where creativity & passion takes the prime seat.
YC - Our readers would love to know the best time during the year to visit your safari and why?
Manav - Primetime for Wildlife Safari in Central India is from October to June as parks remain closed from July to September due to monsoons. For a wildlife enthusiast who is willing to enjoy nature and wildlife, any period during the season is good.
Every season is unique in its own way. Drier weather provides clear sightings due to less dense vegetation whereas misty winters add a magical touch to everything in the forest. The scorching heat from April to June is rewarding with excellent tiger sightings as they all move out in search of water bodies.
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?
Manav - Our lodges are small in size with a personalized touch to all the aspects of the trip. Accommodation is in individual cottages set in natural forested areas with ensuite facilities, AC rooms and private sit-outs. It’s rustic yet luxurious so that guests can enjoy the surroundings from their creature comfort.
We passionately opt for locally grown and sourced food. Not only is it fresher, but it also supports marginal farmers and local markets. At many of our lodges, we have an organic vegetable & herbs garden for fresh supplies. Our menus are craftily designed around local ingredients and include a lot of regional recipes. We try and minimize the use of packaged and instant good items. Guests thoroughly enjoy the farm to table experience and our very popular special bush dinner experience during their stay.
We engage with our guests regularly through presentations, resource materials and excursions, proudly sharing information about our natural heritage. We try and make guests into ambassadors for conservation & wildlife as they can help spread the message far and wide. Many leisure holidaymakers have been converted into serious wildlife advocates visiting the parks regularly and contributing to the conservation.
At Pugdundee we strive to deliver a holistic wildlife experience and actively promote non-vehicular activities like nature walks, village visits and cycling as being on foot helps in observing nature closely. We are pioneers of walking safaris with camping in Satpura Tiger reserve and the newly launched cycling through Kipling country, corridor forest between Pench and Kanha.
YC - What according to you is the USP of your safari, for which your customers come back to you?
Manav - Each lodge has skilled local guides & naturalists who are trained by modern conservationists during our yearly Naturalist training programs. They play a vital role in making safaris a memorable experience and showcase the natural heritage that our country possesses. This wonderful experience combined with excellent hospitality by the rest of the lodge team, makes our guests want to come back again.
YC -Do you use social media platforms (like Instagram, Facebook etc) to promote your safari? Which channels have been very effective for your business?
Manav - We actively use social media platforms to stay connected with our existing and potential guests and work towards building a community of nature & wildlife enthusiasts. Dynamics are changing rapidly and these platforms provide a wider reach to us especially in current times when travel is restricted. Every channel offers a unique proposition, the secret is to do it right and make it effective for your business.
YC - Do you work with travel partners, which ones? What are your views on OTA’s like AirBnB, Makemytrip.com, Booking.com etc?
Manav - We work with travel partners across pan India and also with all major OTAs. Every industry stakeholder has its part to play and every business should make sure that they benefit from each other to keep the industry prospering.
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?
Manav - Sustainable travel has always been the driving force for us from the very beginning. We have learned and improvised constantly during our journey so far and have tried to minimize our carbon footprints while moving forward. We have seven Luxury Eco Lodges in six National Park/Tiger Reserve located in Madhya Pradesh & Maharashtra, India. Our lodges set mostly in remote locations away from regular tourism hubs help ensure that the benefit of eco-tourism is distributed far and beyond.
Getting locals onboard has been the biggest motivator. It’s a blessing to be able to give respectable employment to so many young boys, in a world where employment is the biggest challenge. The locals may not be the best trained, but work beyond the call of duty, and ooze out only genuine warmth and hospitality.
We continuously strive to deliver the best possible guest experience, while still integrating the conservation of jungles and the people living around them. We are inspired by the hope of reaching people in the remotest areas of our country as they are the front runners of wildlife conservation. Though a drop in the ocean, we believe we are making a significant contribution to wildlife conservation and the rural economy by our operations.
YC - COVID 19 has immensely affected the tourism sector, how are you coping with it and what would you suggest to your fellow safari owners?
Manav - Businesses have been hit worldwide especially the tourism and aviation industry. The low point for us is that both in 2020 and 2021, it happened during our peak months when we do about 50% of our business. Wildlife tourism is seasonal, as in India, annually parks are closed during monsoons from 1st July to 30th September. After the first wave in 2020, we opened again in Oct’2020 with a fresh season and did fairly well with domestic travellers till mid-March. We were hoping for international travel to start from Oct’2021 but the second wave has again put us back in a tight spot. The road ahead may be challenging, but not unconquerable.
The majority of the team is drawn from villages around our lodges and lack of pay-outs to them would have put all the conservation efforts at peril. Just because the business got hit, we never really thought of abandoning our team members and support each other during these trying times. We are confident that we will evolve as better human beings once this crisis is behind us. Until then we all are trying to stick together and support each other as a global community. We are in this together!
YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.
Whatever you do should be with passion and 100% zeal, success will follow.
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