How duo Raghu and Joanna are giving a unique, non-hotel, experience @ The Sarai at Toria and continue their passion for the conservation of wildlife near Panna Tiger Reserve

#homestay - Near Khajuraho & The Panna Tiger Reserve - Village Toria - MP - Book On RARE India

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

Raghu and Joanna - We are both from wildlife-related backgrounds. Raghu is a conservation biologist, Joanna was a wildlife filmmaker and photographer.  Raghu had a 10-year research study on tigers in the Panna Tiger Reserve ( Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers) and after that ended, we wanted to continue being involved with conservation in the area.  Having a small lodge was a way to allow us to live in the area and to feed into funding projects so we could avoid lurching from grant to grant! Along with the Sarai, we run a small conservation trust, ‘Baavan, Bagh Aap Aur Van’ through which we pursue this conservation work. (https://saraiattoria.com/docs/AnnualReport_2019_20.pdf)  

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

Raghu and Joanna -

  1. What is the current Team Size - We currently have 22 full-time staff members – plus us two.

  2. Team Roles  - We all share the role of ensuring that our guests have an as comfortable and enjoyable stay and experience as possible; whether cooking, washing dishes or laundering their clothes, cleaning their rooms or organizing their activities, paddling their boat, interpreting the jungle or growing their food—everyone’s contribution is valuable and a part of their special experience.

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

Raghu and Joanna - We live at the property and host our guests personally, tailoring activities to their individual preferences; we also oversee the kitchen and ensure that their stay and activities go as smoothly and happily as possible.  All guests are personally greeted by us on arrival and introduced to the Sarai.  We typically also interact with them at mealtimes and over drinks and snacks in the period before dinner. Apart from reservations which are primarily handled from Delhi, all the business, running responsibilities, and supervision are with us.

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?

Raghu and Joanna - We do use Instagram and Facebook but I think it functions more as a way to maintain contact with past guests than for bringing in new ones. Our guest profile tends to be in the upper age groups where social media is not so widespread. Nevertheless having a net presence is totally essential and we do feel that for example having positive TripAdvisor comments helps in some measure.

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

Raghu and Joanna - When you ask USP we think of the boat ride on the pristine river Ken that the Sarai offers to all guests, included in the cost.  It is a totally sublime and peaceful “Zen” experience and many guests rate it one of their overall best Indian holiday events. But what brings them back may be different. We provide such a unique, non-hotel, experience unlike any of their other accommodations that the Sarai has become something of a destination in itself.  There is so much to do at and around the Sarai at Toria, I think many find their allotted days too few, so wish to return to do more. But also,

Although they come as guests, they often leave as friends, so they return to renew their friendships.

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

Raghu and Joanna - Our bookings are still only offline so we do not have a presence on AirBnB etc. We have been a part of RARE India from the start and this has been most valuable for us. Our primary marketing was with agents, mainly in India but also to some degree in Europe. Our challenges have been:

1 - Trying to convince the agents that our area, next to Khajuraho and the Panna Tiger Reserve, deserves more than a one or two-night stay.

2 - Another was convincing some of them that their upmarket clients would be comfortable in our eco-lodge even without air-conditioners. Our cottage rooms were designed not to require heavy heating and cooling appliances. 

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

Raghu and Joanna - So far we have managed without having to lay off any staff, albeit putting them on temporarily reduced salaries. But as around 75% of our guests used to be international visitors, we have suffered quite badly although we still hope we can still get through until traveling occurs again. 

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

Raghu and Joanna - Actually, we do not have specific allocations. We probably spend up to 7% on marketing and sales and up to 10% on maintenance and enhancements.

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

Raghu and Joanna -

“Be optimistic but not unrealistic in your business plan — occupancy and income may not be all you hope for. “

The pandemic has underlined how precarious the hospitality business can be and how important it is to build cushions into the business model. Neither of us has business experience backgrounds so do not be put off if you don’t either. Good common sense can go a long way too!

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