How Shoba Mohan built RARE India, A community for conscious luxury hotels.

#founder - Boutique Homestay | Lodges | Heritage Forts and Palaces @ India, Sri Lanka, Nepal & Bhutan

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

Shoba - A graduate in Science with a Major in Zoology and a postgraduate in Mass Communication, I began my life as an intern with The Hindu and as a copywriter with an advertising agency. Arriving in Delhi at the age of 22, I hadn’t a clue about what I wanted to do. Just that whatever it was, it had to be fun and hold my attention. 

Coming to Delhi opened my eyes to the world of travel and after a few years of working in travel and related companies, I turned entrepreneur when I joined a long term friend of mine to start a boutique travel company serving ex-pats, corporates, media executives and leisure travellers in Gurgaon. We focused on the offbeat travel and experience – each of them personally visited. You must believe me when I say this, I have walked, driven, hitchhiked, taken the train, sometimes took along a sick child even and just showed up in places to discover them. This was the last few years of the 1990s and a period of great learning and transformation for me. Also, the foundation for the kind of work I wanted to do in travel was laid, there are many people who helped consciously and unconsciously. 

A moment of epiphany that never ceases to amaze me and convinces me that the universe was indeed conspiring with me is when I look at the hoteliers we have onboard today. So many of them were photographers whose photographs I sorted when I worked with my first lady boss in Delhi, Radhika Singh who was the MD of Fotomedia, the Shutterstock of yore. RARE India was born in the winter of 2003 when I visited what is possibly India’s first conservation-based lodge in Central India, and again when the Universe ensured that the Lodge was the first lodge to sign up on RARE India.

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

Shoba - We began as a representation, reservation and marketing company providing backend support for small boutique owner-run palace hotels, lodges, homestays and retreats. After 18 years in the business, we have evolved to include marketing, sales, reservations and communications as well. Our team size is 13 members of which 5 are dedicated to technology and online product development which is what the pivot to RARE 2.0 is all about, the rest of us work on sales, marketing and products.

YC - How did you convince property owners to list their properties on Rare India, what challenges/apprehensions did you face? How did you deal with those?

Shoba - We never really marketed ourselves to hoteliers till last year when our pivot required us to scale to a conservative number of 100 hotels in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. In fact, we were actively promoted by travel companies and our friends in the media. We just built the brand and our community as RARE and what it would be mean to every hotelier on board. We perfected our communication, brushed up our story so that we became what small and medium-size hoteliers wanted to be known for - service, conservation, heritage, cuisine, community engagement, immersive experiences, transformational ideals and above all exceptional quality and style. We can proudly say that we were the original storytellers in the industry – the story of the destination, of the owner/host, of the hotel and the community around. Challenges came in much later, with competition and dilution, we just upped our game. Communication, networking and originality is our forte and in time improved on what we did best. Today we are a team of dynamic and talented members, each with a skill set that contributes to the story of RARE India. 

YC - Can you elaborate on the challenges you faced in promoting RARE India, basically how do you get bookings from India and abroad? Which social media channels have been very effective for RARE India? 

Shoba - One of the challenges was finding and keeping talent, training them, and then see them go. But when we switched our core to focus on ‘sustainability and ‘conscious luxury travel’ and assembled a hard-working team, having people come and go did not matter anymore. RARE India is a work of passion, hard work and dedication. This part of the travel industry in its traditional format will never make a lot of money so this is not the space for the over-ambitious. Those who stayed and will continue to stay and will grow with the ethos of RARE India, both personally and professionally. 

Before we settled on outsourcing our social media, I did all the social media work and personally wrote and posted the stories. Personally, I love FaceBook as it allows you to tell the full story, but now with a robust communications team, we are good across all channels. We want to improve on Twitter, youtube and also blog better. Just finding the time for all of this is the biggest challenge now. 

YC - What according to you is the USP of RARE India, for which your customers (both property owners and travellers) come back to RARE India?

Shoba - Yellowchapter have covered over seven of our hoteliers in the last month or so, they will agree that our hoteliers are our strength. Each one is a dedicated hospitality curator with a compelling story of passion and dedication, unique in their location and in the experience that they are offering. And we tell the best stories of our hotels and get them up on the travel map of the subcontinent.

YC - Do you think the Indian market has matured enough for experiential travel? You must be having a lot of data, how are numbers in terms of occupancy rate? Are they encouraging enough for more such properties?

Shoba - The Indian traveller is evolving, we haven’t built a robust strategy to lure him yet. What we have seen is that the discerning spender who would like the RARE kind of hotels travels abroad more than he does in India, also there are certain stereotypes of luxury which we have to create awareness for in the realm ‘conscious luxury travel’. Over 80% of our hotels focus on the Inbound, this dynamic changed in the Pandemic when we were able to move occupancies to 40-60% on the domestic market alone. I am sure that boutique hotels with experiences that are immersive and transformations with a message will appeal to the upwardly mobile and discerning traveller, once they know us, they will love us. 

YC - What is your strategy to deal with competition both in India and abroad?

Shoba - For me competition is a waste of time, what we need to look at is collaboration. I don’t want to waste my time looking at how we can build something better than the competition, we want to innovate superbly and curate better. Period. 

We are already doing this with hotel groups abroad like EcoTeam in  Sri Lanka and Secret Retreats. I am yet to find a partner in similar businesses in India with whom we can drive a win-win collaboration. 

YC - What is the thought behind Synergy partners? 

Shoba - This is a simple idea of collaboration, basically bringing together services and products which share our people and planet first philosophy so that we can highlight them and they can promote us. We have a captive audience of 100 hotels that can benefit from the kind of products they can use in their boutique hotels.  

YC - What is RARE India’s future plan, basically what you are excited about?

Shoba - Every day is an idea for new thoughts and innovation. One thing that I am very focused upon is to help change the traveller mindset, urge them to explore differently. Future plans include that we take the idea of RARE India and the stories of our community far and wide. We are in interesting times. There is so much happening in the technology space, we will make full use of our rich and original content, network and design to improve our reach. Another area of excitement is to have well-trained, robust and motivated but lean teams that respond to technology well. 

YC - How is RARE India dealing with pandemic? What would you suggest to your fellow Entrepreneurs?

Shoba - In a book on Quantum Marketing by Raja Rajamannar, I read that during a Pandemic, entrepreneurs and leaders should switch to service mode. Unknowingly this is exactly what we did and continue to do in the second wave of the pandemic – we put our head down and just worked. My team put out fabulous work in the last 15 months – over 100 zoom sessions, 5 online events, 3 international events and numerous other initiatives on Instagram Live. There is no one platform or a day to celebrate – heritage, wildlife, earth day, Tea day, Bio-Diversity day etc. we did not take advantage of. 

For entrepreneurs my only advice is this:

“there is nothing to beat hard work and an original idea. And there is no success like an original idea whose time has come! 

This is the RARE India story. “

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