“I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up.”
Starry-eyed Jack Dawson tells his lady love Rose in their epic love story aboard the Titanic. If you share Jack’s sentiment, chances are that you are curious and raring to go out on an adventure. To meet new people. To learn new things. To experience a new life. Travel, for you, goes much beyond the usual ‘pack your bag-check in to a hotel-wet your feet in the pool-shop for souveniours’ routine. If so, you would get along quite well with Jay Ruparel. A filmmaker by profession, Jay had travelled extensively around the world during his stint with MTV and Sony Pictures. He would always look for the non-touristy spots, the unexplored routes and local experiences. But he took the big plunge after he travelled around the USA with just $200 on him. He stopped making films and started his own travel company, Ant On The Globe, to share the joy of the unknown with others.
Sachin Parikh and Vikrant Chheda, too, have a similar story to share. Having known each other for a long time, Sachin and Vikrant did not have to brainstorm much when they decided to start up something together. Sachin, an avid traveller, and Vikrant, a nature enthusiast, had a clear cut idea in mind. Travel. Nature. Fun. Exciting. They put these words together and came up with what went on to be rated as one of the top 100 start-ups to watch out for (Sutra HR, 2014)–White Collar Hippie. While Sachin wanted youngsters to “discover the hippie within” themselves, Vikrant wanted to expose them to “places in their natural form, not in forms altered to fit them”.
From learning to cook an entire fish thali from scratch in Maharashtra’s seafood heartland Malwan to surfing in the beaches of Karnataka, White Collar Hippie has a wide range of offbeat tours on offer. “Some people travel in luxury. Others pick up a bag and set out to an undecided destination,” says Venance Roche, of White Collar Hippie. “Who we cater to are those who want the thrill and adventure of backpacking along with the safety of an organized trip.”
Offbeat is the buzz word in the tourism industry now and a lot of start ups like Ant On The Globe and White Collar Hippie are the game changers in this segment. While there are too many tour operators who would write up an itinerary that covers the must-see (almost always the most crowded) heritage site or that pre-Independence botanical garden, here are a group of travel junkies who assure to take you on a life-changing trip to never-seen-before places.
The reason why you can place your bets on them is the fact that they themselves are well-informed, well-travelled and still exploring. Case in point is Kavita Reddy and Jigna Modh, founders of Bangalore-based adventure travel company Basecamp Adventures. Both are qualified mountaineers, with Kavita having climbed several challenging peaks in the Indian and Nepal Himalayas and Jigna, who is also a national level rock climber and a search and rescue specialist, having completed 17 successful expeditions all over the country. And, Shivya Nath of Delhi-based India Untravelled, that claims to offer the “real rural India feel” with their trips, made sure that she had a sound foundation, acquired curating global social media strategies for the Singapore Tourism Board, before she could set up her own firm.
Why offbeat? “Why not?” asks Shivya. “The real India lives far from the tourist circuits, in small towns and villages where the famous Indian hospitality can still be experienced.” Rashmi Gadre, of World Travel Studio that offers offbeat tours in Sweden, Russia, Vietnam and Jordan, says she has observed a pattern in the travel profile of her clients. “Most of the well travelled ones have already ticked off the most popular destinations off their list,” says Rashmi. “Also, the evolved young generation is better exposed, thanks to social media and internet, and prefer to take the road less travelled.”
Their choice of offbeat destinations is not the only thing that sets these companies apart. They are a responsible bunch, too. Adventure seekers they may be, but they are against all sorts of cheap thrills which may trouble the natural ecosystem. “Our vision is to evolve adventure as the most effective learning tool and make those who travel with us environment cognizant,” says Kavita. “All our trails and accommodations follow the tenets of responsible travel, and directly or indirectly benefit the local community or the ecology of the region,” adds Shivya. It is through small changes like choosing to take public transport, carrying a good refillable water bottle rather than buying and disposing numerous plastic water bottles and staying in homestays run by locals that India Untravelled tries to make make a conscious difference to the ecology and community of a region.
Apart from the homestay and campsite experience, White Collar Hippie designs trips keeping in mind the fact that every journey should let you take back a new learning. “We believe that travel should change the lives of people,” says Venance. “Hence, we arrange trips that involve learning a skill or where there is some exchange of knowledge.” For instance, they urge their clients to make a photo diary of their Hampi trip and give you a chance to be a certified scuba diver in the Andaman islands. The company also does away with the usual paperwork of itineraries. “The White Collar Hippie member on each trip travels as a friend, a fellow traveler, and not a tour operator,” he says. “We steer away from the client – travel operator relationship as much as possible and do not share itineraries because we believe that travel should be spontaneous and that our travelers should discover their journey as they go along.”
However, planning and customising a trip for each client can prove to be very demanding. Everyone wants a new experience, a new view, a new backdrop to their photographs, a new trail to brag about on social media. It is, therfore, important to read both the client’s mind and profile in depth, says Jay, who specialises in offering offbeat tours in Israel, Laos, Cambodia, Japan and New York . This can be done by befriending your clients, talking to them and trying to understand their tastes. It could be that small piece of information, which the client might find inconsequential, that turns his trip around for him. “For instance, if its a honeymoon, our first question is if it is an arranged marriage or love marriage,” says Jay. “Like, if you have been dating someone for nine to 10 years, there is no point putting you in a boutique villa by the sea with nothing to do. This would be ideal for an arranged marriage where the couple needs to open up their cards and understand each other more, and more.”
For Basecamp, it is a totally different ball game as safety during adventure tours is a must. “We therefore assess a safety, back-up or rescue plan, the quality, duration and the season of the visit in mind while planning a tour,” says Kavita. Most of them make it a point to do a recce before the actual trip. This helps to equip themselves to deal with any surprises on the way. “The recce clears all of our doubts and very often brings new places and experiences to light,” says Venance. “It sometimes brings up insights that one wouldn’t find in any travel blog, book or article.”
Indians, foreigners, young adults, families, culture seekers, explorers, adventurers, nature lovers… the list of people who seek offbeat experiences is endless. Kavita puts this in perspective. “Majority of the clients are in the age group of 22-60 years. The age group ranging from 22-31 years comprises of young professionals with higher disposable income, who are more interested in outdoor as value-for-money holidaying and leisure option,” she says. “The second group which is of 31-60 years are generally successful professionals looking at adventure for relaxation or as a hobby.”
The sudden urge for a different experience arises from the fact that the reason why the middle-class Indian travels has undergone a drastic change. There is a lot of information at their disposal and travel is much more than just a break to many of them. This is where travel companies have to be careful, says Shivya. She swears by her principle of responsibility. “If we crowd and pollute these untouched destinations like many of India’s other popular tourist places, soon we won’t have anywhere to escape to,” she says.
As a business prospect, too, it is a viable model. The number of players with the right kind of expertise is quite few at the moment. “This gives us a good advantage,” says Rashmi. “This segment is growing rapidly and with less competition, the returns are attractive.” Venance brings in a few numbers to further justify this. “The Indian Travel Industry is a 42 Billion industry and is expected to grow by 10 per cent (compound average growth rate). And, the Indian urban youth population, who spend the biggest chunk of their earnings on holidays, is close to 10 crores,” he says. “So even if we are able to target a small percentage of this population, it clearly proves that it is a sizable market size.”
But how long can this trend last, we wonder. Jay replies to that question by telling us his company’s moniker. “Ant On The Globe! That is just what we are,” he says. “The world is too big. I, myself, have been to more 25 countries and believe I have seen less than 5 per cent of the world.” So, are your bags packed already or what?