Hotels that try to seduce travelers with experiential stays, a multitude of activities

As an investment consultant, Sakshi Bawa had a busy schedule. With meetings going virtual since last year, the 40-year-old has been on a frenzy of domestic travel – she’s gone on a safari, a vineyard tour, a hike, and a food tour. Since the pandemic put an end to international leisure travel, many, like Bawa, are seeking home experiences that previously defined their travels around the world. Instead of snow-capped Zermatt, holidaymakers share photos of Gulmarg. Cable car rides in France have been replaced by those in Patnitop, while treks in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have replaced walks in foreign parks.

Rajeev Kale, President and Country Head – Vacation, Thomas Cook India, says Indians are pushing the boundaries of their demand for non-standard experiences and stays. In demand, he says, are havelis, forts, palaces, colonial villas and plantation bungalows amid tea or coffee plantations as well as private villas with personal chefs and concierge services. “We are currently at 130% of our domestic reservation levels in 2019,” he says.

Hotels try to stand out by organizing different experiences for their guests. Raffles Udaipur, for example, offers a full moon cruise, farm tours, and sessions by the resident barista and tea sommelier on brewing coffee and tea. Meals are also transformed into an unforgettable experience. Narendra Bhawan Bikaner has a full moon night meal named Le Diner En Blanc or White Nights of Rajput where dinner is cooked on a meadow.

Meanwhile, the Sula vineyards in Nashik attract visitors from all over the country. Gregoire Verdin, AVP, Tastings and Marketing, Sula Vineyards, says restrictions linked to the pandemic have forced travelers to rethink their vacation plans and explore more of their own country. “Many travelers accustomed to exploring the vineyards of Europe or America regularly visit Sula. We are used to welcoming guests from Mumbai, Pune or Surat, due to their proximity to the vineyards, but today we have guests from all over India. Since its reopening, Sula has posted an average occupancy rate of 90%, says Verdin.

Almost all of Welcomhotel’s new properties have activities to attract clients. Welcomhotel Tavleen Chail offers hiking tours while guests of Shimla can picnic in the nearby woods and meadows.

In fact, hotels offer more than a room. Kush Kapoor, CEO of Roseate Hotels & Resorts, says the nature trails around their Rishikesh property attract repeat customers. Meanwhile, Rahul Joshi, general manager, Taj Hotel and Convention Center, says sipping wine while looking at the Taj Mahal is an experience people keep coming back to.

Vishal Lonkar, general manager of brand development, Renest Hotels and Resorts, agrees that Indians are looking for experiential stays and interesting itineraries. “We have seen significant traction for the balloon safari at our new resort, Renest Bandhavgarh Meadows, in Bandhavgarh. Likewise, our Manali hotel has become a year round destination through hiking, skiing, paragliding, rafting, camping and fishing.

It’s a global trend, explains Ritu Mehrotra, regional director, South Asia, Booking. com. “Our global data shows that the use of approvals such as clean air, nature and relaxation has increased significantly on our platform since the start of the pandemic. Manali, Rishikesh and McLeodganj are among the top national destinations approved for outdoor activities by Indian travelers on our platform.

Syed Junaid Altaf, Managing Director of Empyrean Skyview Projects, which focuses on mountain tourism, says Indian hotel chains must not only match but better what is offered internationally, as the Indian tourist who has a lot traveled seeks world-class experiences at home.

Sally J. Minick

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