How Ranjit Barthakur founded Wild Mahseer, a unique heritage stay, managed by co-founder and CEO Prabir Banerjea
#boutiquehomestay - Balipara Division, Addabarie Tea Estate P.O. Lokra, Sonitpur, Balipara, Assam – 784101, Book on RARE India
YC - Tell us about your background - educational, personal & professional? Would also love to hear about your family?
Prabir - Being part of the tea planter’s family, I grew up in the tea gardens of Assam and North Bengal and did my schooling in Darjeeling which is also another tea capital. Thereafter, I was involved with the FMCG sector working with multinational corporations for almost 30 years and then in the early 2000’s decided to launch a not-for-profit foundation called Balipara Foundation in the Brahmaputra valley and the tea heartland of Assam is a place called Balipara. As it so happens my senior partner Mr. Ranjit Barthakur and his wife also come from tea planter’s families.
YC - What motivated you to become an entrepreneur – especially as a hotelier?
Prabir - The hospitality project was actually an offshoot of the foundation as a social restoration project which was in a manner to give back to the tea community or the Adivasi community for the wonderful childhood we have spent in their midst. The whole concept of Balipara Foundation revolves around a proprietary term called Naturenomics (TM) which means the interdependence between nature and economics and how the promotion, preservation and conservation of our natural inheritance can actually help grow economic and social mobilities for the communities in the tea belt and rural part of Assam and the Northeast.
YC - Starting something unique or creating a niche is always challenging, what challenges did you face in your early days?
Prabir -Whatever challenges we face I think were surmounted through the passion of wanting to preserve our natural inheritance and wanting to preserve and propagate culture, tradition and practices of the local communities. I think the main challenge we faced was in terms of connectivity. The warmth, dedication and commitment of our team members who we called our “caregivers” were what actually drove us to do better as we went along. Our founder Ranjit Barthakur was actually a pioneer in wildlife tourism having set up Wild Grass in Kaziranga as early as the 1970’s. We had a fair amount of learning and we understood some of the complexity but not all when we ventured into this project. Our endeavour has been to restore some of the colonial planter’s architecture as well as the food which we call the Flavours of British Assam, which itself is a form of the heritage of this region.
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?
Prabir -Yes, we use Facebook - @WildMahseer, Instagram - wildmahseer, Twitter and YouTube - Wild Mahseer , in addition to our website (www.wildmahseer.com) to promote Wild Mahseer. We have found Instagram to be particularly efficient for organic reach and is also fairly gender-neutral in terms of audience profile.
YC - What are your views on personally managed travel partners like RARE India and others OTA’s like Air BnB, Makemytrip.com, Booking.com etc?
Prabir - My personal view of OTA is that these platforms help sell rooms but provide limited information in terms of the varied and diverse experience that are on offer, as well as customising and personalising visitors' expectations.
Partnering with Rare India has added immense value to our marketing efforts and reach because they understand our ecosystem of mindful and experiential tourism - preservation, conservation and propagation of our environment/biodiversity and cultural heritage. All promotions through Rare India are single-mindedly focused and true to their ethos of promoting sustainability and community livelihoods.
YC - How do you manage expenses, typically what percentage do you allocate for marketing & sales, day to day operations and property renovations and enhancements?
Prabir - This being a certified heritage property renovation, repairs and maintenance costs required are naturally high especially during the monsoon season with Assam’s bountiful rains. In terms of marketing expenses, we are currently in the process of ramping up because digital, we believe, is the way forward.
YC - Our readers would love to know the best time during the year to visit your homestay and why?
Prabir -Preferred travel period is between October to May for the wildlife adventure seekers and between June to September for the birdwatchers, nature and tea enthusiasts. I think one common shared profile of all guests whether domestic or international is the desire for experiencing what our environmental inheritance and our cultural heritage have to provide.
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?
Prabir - Wild Mahseer is a bio-diverse Ark of 1,00,000+ plants, 90+ species of birds, 72+ species of butterflies and is also the gateway to National Parks/Tiger Reserves/Sanctuaries like Kaziranga, Nameri, Orang and Pakke (in Arunachal Pradesh) known for its wildlife safaris’, birdwatching and rafting experiences.
Wild Mahseer guests were offered the opportunity to be the first guests to experience the launch of UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park, 6th addition range in November 2020. The 6th addition range is a 45 mins drive from our premises and has diverse habitats, from grasslands, forests to floodplains which make it an ideal hotspot for herbivores, carnivores and migratory birds.
You can see India’s very own ‘Big Five’: Indian rhino, Asiatic elephant, tiger, swamp deer and water buffalo. It is considered the last stronghold of Indian rhinos in the world.
The mighty Brahmaputra River is also home to endangered Gangetic dolphins which is a great attraction while sailing through the river on a wooden country boat- the tributaries of this river also provide for unique river journeys meandering through river islands and fishing villages.
We are also surrounded by 8 ethnic communities mainly from Indo-Tibet and Indo-Myanmar region and also the Tea tribe communities who came a century ago from parts of Central India. It is a diverse potpourri of cultures and a diverse potpourri of flora and ethnobotanical diversity. This provides an opportunity for plant hunting and birdwatching treks / slow-cycling through these indigenous communities for getting a flavour of their culture, heritage, dance, music, weaves and cuisines and beverages.
You can also experience serenity coupled with amazingly delectable cuisines. Apart from our hallmark “Flavors of British Assam” we also cater to the varied tastes from across Indian geography at our dining pavilion, “First Flush”. Our ethnic kitchen “Elephant Apple” is nestled within the botanic ark specializing in “Flavors of the Eastern Himalayas” with cuisines from our neighbouring communities such as Assamese, Nepali, Bodo, Garo, Tibetan, Mising, Nyishi and Adivasi.
Within an hour’s drive, we can arrange for a visit to the Misa Polo Club (Est in 1888) which hosts an 18-hole golf course and tennis facilities, apart from an antique billiard table, an antique piano and an exquisite bar within the confines of a tea garden.
If you browse through our guest testimonials the four things that come upfront and (not in any particular order) is the natural ambience of the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Ark, the quality of food, the hospitality of our caregivers and the luxury of our accommodation.
To experience all of this, we recommend a 5 to 6-night stay.
YC - How is your hotel attractive to Indian domestic travellers and what are the interest points for foreign travellers?
Prabir -For the domestic travellers in the recent past has mainly been a getaway from the urban landscapes to an area that is rural, remote, green, natural and very differentiated while providing for the best in luxury, food, hospitality and safety. We have also had a lot of special interest groups both domestic and international in the areas of environmental protection, wildlife adventures, birdwatchers, historians, filmmakers and writers interested in understanding the heritage and the tradition of the eight diverse ethnic communities that surround Wild Mahseer.
We have also hosted celebrity weddings, international yoga workshops and corporate conferences and offsites. Within our premises we also have a Naturenomics(TM) School which fundamentally provides educative interactions on the ecosystem services that nature provides from our staff of botanist and naturalists – we have so far had the privilege of having more than 3,000 participants ranging from school children to corporate leaders.
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?
Prabir - Our entire property of 22 acres is based on the principles of preservation, propagation and conservation of our cultural heritage and environmental inheritance and employment and livelihood generation for local communities - therefore the ethos is already built on the concept of sustainability under the principles of Naturenomics(TM).
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?
Prabir - Our first priority is the safety of our people, therefore all covid protocols are followed and during the worst period we also created a bio bubble for other caregivers coming in and out in rotation of 15 days after all the mandatory tests and I think that the guests we had in this period actually have truly experienced and appreciated the efforts we have taken to maintain the safety of not only the guests but also of our team members. One great learning has been that if your team members are safe and secure, they will ensure the safety and security of all visitors.
YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.
Prabir - I think the leisure tourism sector will slowly start moving to rural and remote areas providing the basic threshold levels of stay and food. Also, there is a large outbound domestic traffic who are actually looking inwards now towards a destination that offers a safe and natural environment, while providing for differentiated and localised experiences -
I think the entire positioning of any new property that is coming up must be based on local USP’s.
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