As soon as Ashish Gupta surveyed the polished heirloom furniture, carpets and books inside the empty mountain side cottage, on a tea estate in Kodaikanal, he felt its potential. The owners of the house had left when COVID-19 struck and moved to the city to join the family. A hospitality entrepreneur, Ashish is on the lookout for properties — private residences and second homes that are empty— to manage and promote, to a clientele restless to get away from the restrictions of the pandemic.
With a 200-degree view of the Palani Hills, the lights of Salem, its antique chairs and tables, twin kitchens and vintage cooking ware, Skyfall opened in August 2020 and has since been hosting guests. Recently a Pune-based tycoon spent a month savouring its exclusivity.
Skyfall is one of the homes in Ashish’s inventory at LuxUnlock (Luxury Unlocked), a company he launched during the pandemic. Besides Maison 26 in Puducherry, Skyfall, and a home in Lovedale, Udhagamandalam , four other homes — amid the paddy fields in Mamallapuram; in the hills of Wayanad; by the lake in Kodaikanal — are set to open before the year end. Ashish and his wife Rucha have seen “over 100 homes” to manage and promote to guests in search of safe, private and open spaces to live and work in.
“The revamping and opening of second homes, private luxury spaces as exclusive luxury stays is totally a COVID-related phenomenon,” says Ashish.
A new space for home owners
He categorises three kinds of homeowners into this new space.
“There are people who closed their secluded homes and moved to the city for better healthcare services, owners who felt the pinch of the times and needed to monetise their weekend home, and owners who saw this as a business opportunity.”
By the time the first wave of the pandemic eased in June 2020, and opened a small window to allow travel, Manoj Kumar had readied his second home in Neeleshwar, near Kasargod to open as a safe, secluded getaway. Poothali meaning water lily has had 110 guests for longstays (six to seven days) and 40 individual travellers since then.
With a spread of paddy fields and a water body , a pristine beach a kilometre away, Poothali became a draw for the COVID weary youngsters of Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad.
“In these times of restrictions, people are looking for a getaway that they can have for themselves, a small manageable space for their family and friends,” says Manoj, who, within the restrictions of the pandemic, redesigned the house.
Sensing the shift in the way holidaying will pan out in the near future, Kochi-based Eldo Kuruvilla, too is working to relaunch Periyar River Lodge (PRL), a boutique property in the jungles of Thattekad, a bird sanctuary. The hospitality entrepreneur says, “There’s a general shift towards the whole approach to hospitality. People are seeking out isolated, very private, luxury properties, to live off the COVID fatigue,” He has added an infinity pool, open verandahs, strong Wi-Fi, more garden to PRL to give it the additional outdoors and the “two room villa will be single key, for one family only.”
In 2018, he launched the concept, under One Earth Properties, sensing a gap in the market, realising little that the pandemic will bring this model to the centre stage. His Panangad 976, a four-room luxury villa, on the backwaters in Kochi, has been witnessing a flurry of reservations after the lockdown was lifted.
A homegrown model, in demand
Pre-empting post COVID trends Inderpal Singh Kochhar who successfully runs Lakshman Sagar, an offbeat boutique property between Jaipur and Jodhpur, is seeking out niche properties in new destinations like Ladakh and the Andamans to cater to the foreseeable rise in demand.
Inder points towards Europe as an example where there is an abundance of private residences, country homes, serviced concepts, chalets, villas, luxury homes, which offer safe, beautiful and very exclusive experiences. “There’s a dearth in supply of this category in India and that’s the reason why Indians were vacationing abroad. The hospitality model is now beginning to realise this thanks to the pandemic,” he says.
Of the COVID-19 fallout, he adds, “We are all done with restrictions. One has to wear a mask and sit around in a hotel too. Here you are unmasked and can loll around in your dressing gown in a private space.”
He is now focussing on creating a “circuit of fully-serviced private homes.”
Inder talks about two things in this developing market; one is the homogenisation of décor, aesthetics, architecture, menu, and art work, which makes every hotel room and space look the same, and other is about a price sensitive market.
“There is high-end luxury space and there is the private budget category too. We need to look at options in India in the budget category too,” he points out.Sowmya Rao Vijaymohan of Tres India, a company that works with boutique properties, concurs. The hospitality stakeholder says “The holiday trend is going to be private residence concept. High net worth families who used to travel abroad and are unable to do so, now want the luxury experience here in India.”
Sejoe Jose, CEO and founder Moksha, a concept that manages luxury stays, says that he found on an average a 75% occupancy of these properties post lockdown. “It’s only for two to three days in the month of July, 2021 that we have not sold rooms and that too because of maintenance.”
Sejoe says that the experience does not come cheap and ranges from anywhere between ₹15,000 a day to ₹55,000 a day, inclusive of breakfast and excluding taxes. “But the client, cooped up at home for nearly two years, is ready to pay,” he says.
“With the pandemic there was an unusual interest in smaller properties like ours,” says Dubai-based businessman Biju George whose Baymass Lake House, near Kochi was booked by a Mumbai businessman, who worked out of it, for a month. With two pool villas and a main house, guests book the whole property and are looked after by a team of trained staff. A chef trained in global cuisine is attached to the property.
“We did not even think about COVID,” says, Priya Madhav who holidayed with her group of women friends, at Vismaya in Cherthala, near Kochi. The exclusive retreat with its two rooms, gardens, waterfront was the perfect getaway, she said, for these stressful times.
Ahead of the curve
Giles Knapton who pioneered the concept of private homes in Goa, 10 years ago moved to start Coco Shambala, further away from the city, at Sindhudurg, in 2018. Through the “up and down” of the pandemic, with lockdown and re-openings, he has seen a 100 % increase in revenue.
- Cashing in on the trend and the prevailing situation Punit Agarwal, CEO of Nirvana Realty finds this an opportune time for people to invest in holiday homes. He says, “Staycations are more than just a COVID-19 trend. Domestic leisure and travel are set to pick up in the coming years as people find flying abroad not safe yet. The hospitality sector is designing stay experiences based on work-from-home models. It is the ripe time for any interested buyer to consider the option of weekend homes, owning a holiday home and earning a passive revenue — you reap the optimum benefits of staycation and also save up money.”
Though Giles kept all communication lines open with his large clientele, during the fallow period, informing them with ‘newsletters’ of how his team of 70, at the two properties, was faring, he found his customers yearning to return to the isolation of exclusive stay.
Giles says that the pandemic has changed people’s personal lifestyle and that will reflect on the way they holiday. He is currently working on holiday homes around Nature and wellbeing, the perfect pandemic antidote.
Sejoe says, “The biggest challenge for many people who have built luxurious holiday homes or invested in luxury apartments is maintenance of the property. Though they would like to monetise these properties, they are faced with issues of safety of the inventory in the homes, (expensive paintings, artefacts, carpets) and staff. Owners of service apartments find it difficult to get clients. Those living abroad find it difficult to update the statutory requirements of buildings and end up paying huge fines.”