Domestic tourism continues to be the driving factor for travel industry’s recovery: Aviral Gupta, Zostel

‘Almost half of the bookings are made for destinations located away from the metros – usually a 4–8-hour drive. The other half is for long stays across offbeat destinations close to nature, especially in Himachal and Uttarakhand.’

Just as the second wave of Covid-19 subdued a bit, people started to throng hill stations and other tourist destinations in large numbers. One of their primary requirements was to get a safe and comfy place to stay. In these times community-led, experience-driven ecosystems carrying a variety of service offerings were the most sought after places. These include providing social and private accommodation, conducting outdoor activities, and curating original entertainment events, among others. Zostel was offering all these services. Originally conceived as a hostel chain for backpackers, the company claims that it mobilized local communities across India and established a robust, accessible, and trustworthy travel ecosystem. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online Aviral Gupta, Chief Strategy Officer, Zostel talked about how it is working to leverage a strategic blend of technology, capital, and regional resources, the impact of Covid-19 of tourism and more. Excerpts:

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How has been the travel industry scenario post the second wave of the pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a seismic shift in shaping the travel industry’s future. Just as the industry was recovering from the losses of the first wave, the second wave hit, and it now appears that travel will reach just about 45%-55% of the pre-pandemic levels by year end, subject to how well we control the third wave. However, the desire to travel has only soared and demand skyrockets as soon as restrictions are lifted, especially in locations that are 4-6 hours from the metro cities, as was evidenced by the recent boom of tourists flocking to hill-stations and beaches. That being said, the industry remains cautious as to its complete recovery which will take at least another year to stabilize, with corporate travel expecting the most delayed recovery.

Domestic tourism continues to be the driving factor for the industry’s recovery and can accelerate the pace if Covid is managed efficiently across each region. It is further aided and is dependent on an improvement in vaccination rates, opening up of international borders for Indian travelers, and how corporate travel actually takes shape in the post-pandemic world.

How has been the business of Zostel in the pandemic?

We had to navigate a particularly tough road, especially at the outset, with pretty much zero revenues during the first lockdown period. We did, however, make a quicker recovery, compared to the broader industry, post the first wave, largely due to the strong community of Zostelers across India who drove the business to almost 75% pre-Covid levels before the second wave hit. Emerging from the second wave, we are almost at 80% of the pre-Covid business, with the demand percentage for future bookings already surpassing pre-pandemic levels.

We do expect a brief slowdown on account of plateauing of this initial demand, as well as the uncertainty of the third wave, looming but we are hopeful of getting back to pre-COVID business by the end of the year. From a supply perspective, our business has continued to function seamlessly, and we are looking to launch around 10 additional properties by year-end.

The trend observed in the traveler booking.

The biggest observation that we’ve made is the increase in the average booking duration to around 12.5 nights. Travelers are also appreciative of dedicated sanitation kits at the properties and are increasingly connecting to figure out the latest guidelines to be adhered to at each destination. Those traveling in groups are also looking to have entire dorms to themselves, and a majority of travelers have woven the workation dogma quite seamlessly in their travel plans. Safety, security, and local support remain the top inquiries for most bookings. All these have particularly become synonymous with “Revenge Travel”, with people being cautiously optimistic and planning their next travel destination. Coming out of the pandemic, people are paying more attention to health, hygiene, and wellbeing than ever before, with travelers in pursuit of physical, mental, and spiritual health post a year of living in isolation. Simultaneously, brands and travelers alike have inculcated sustainable travel and eco-travel as symbiotic principles serving the travel landscape.

What locations are the major bookings coming for?

Almost half of the bookings are made for destinations located away from the metros – usually a 4–8-hour drive. The other half is for long stays across offbeat destinations close to nature, especially in Himachal and Uttarakhand where travelers are particularly looking to book and stay at Zostel Homes for longer periods. Rajasthan has been the only state to witness weak bookings due to the scorching summer heat but is picking up fast as monsoons bring much-needed respite for the state. Some of our most in-demand locations continue to remain the Zostels and Zostel Homes in Manali, Panchgani, Dharamsala, Spiti, Wayanad, etc.

What steps have you taken to promote safe & responsible travel?

Every single staff across all Zostel properties has undergone training to implement best practices of hygiene and sanitation at all times and ensure Covid-appropriate behavior is followed by all the guests. All our staff has been vaccinated, with daily temperature checks recorded, and are adequately insured to avail health services at all times. We have free live doctor consultations available at all properties for all our staff and guests. Our on-ground teams remain in constant touch with local authorities to enable quick dissemination of information to all Zostelers with regards to safety and responsibility, and Zostel as a brand further tries to amplify this through our distribution channels, with a zero-tolerance policy for carelessness when it comes to Covid.

Consumer sentiments when it comes to safe travel?

Consumer sentiment remains cautiously optimistic, with the desire to travel at an all-time high, further aided by the flexibility that remote working offers. At the same time, people are especially mindful of brand offerings in terms of safety and security concerning covid protocols, as well as trust in local staff to count upon in case of any misfortunes. Clean surroundings, regular sanitation, and hygienic food remain the foremost concerns among travelers while booking a stay. The increasing number of vaccinated crowds coupled with careful monitoring and the easy availability of the daily case numbers at any given location further supports the belief, driving them to travel.

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