Smita Agarwal is a born entrepreneur with a long-standing passion for the hospitality industry. This one-time investment banker decided to go solo in 2010, and started a home stay business called Stay With Us Homes. Like many start-ups, Stay With Us Homes seeks to meet a need that the hotel industry’s mass-market approach has been unable to fulfil (and has indeed exacerbated)—a genuine ‘home away from home’ experience for frequent travellers. Whether they’re amateur explorers or professionals on business trips, most individuals are looking for places that are comfortable, hygienic, personable, and affordable to stay in. In fact, Smita insists that the hotel or home stay experience has to aim for more than just hygiene and affordability—it has to make guests feel like they haven’t actually left home. Here is an excerpt from our interview with the ever-hospitable Smita Agarwal:
- What made you start your venture?
I used to travel frequently when I was working in the corporate world. My travel involved short stays and sometimes very long stays like a few months in a certain place. I realized that while all other countries had umpteen boarding options to choose from (like formal, non-formal, homestays, hotels etc.) that didn’t require you to pay through your nose you for a nice, clean bed and bathroom, the same couldn’t be said for India, particularly Bangalore. I hated the hotels or serviced apartments I stayed at every time I travelled on work to Bangalore. I heard similar stories from friends and colleagues who would criticize Indian travel lodges (mainly the stay options) for being expensive but also unclean and unhygienic. When I decided to give self-employment a go, I decided to address this issue. When our guests—especially those for whom it is their first tryst with India—like our places and become our regular clients, it feels great (better than even a hefty bonus from a company I might work for). This helps me feel like I have managed to make a little mark on the world, by improving their options!
- What has been the key to your business’s success?
Our USP is in offering rooms professionally managed short or long stay options for corporate or leisure travellers, and rooms with non-boring & non-white bed sheets (I see ‘white bed sheet rooms’ as just plain boring; they make you miss the warmth of home). We provide guests with access to facilities like a fully equipped and stocked kitchen, laundry facilities, and home-cooked meals. Basically we ensure that they feel like their quarters are just an extension of their homes, with everything set up the way it would be at home. Most of our rooms come with private balconies and that gives our guests a feeling of being close to nature and greenery; like they can breathe some fresh air (well, as fresh as it can get in Bangalore!) We also offer other facilities like planned tours, taxi booking, restaurant reservations, guided tours of the city etc. so that they don’t feel lost in the city. These offerings are, I would imagine, the key to our success!
- What are the major challenges in your line of business and how did/do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge is in dealing with the staff and training them to meet our ‘zero error’ policy standards. It is very hard to make people understand the importance of the little things that are extremely significant in this business and need attention. It is also important for me to ignite a natural passion for their work in my staff, because I believe that only when it is close to your heart will you treat a guest as your family member. As we say ‘Atithi devobhava’.
- Do you have a mentor who guides/advices you on matters of business?
Not really but my family is my strength and I go to them whenever I need advice. Whether they help me with the specific issue or not, I feel strengthened by their support. Sometimes, I go to my friends from similar fields and they help me sort through issues.
- Have you benefitted from the use of any specific technology for your regular operations?
Consolidation made possible by e-businesses like AIRBNB, HOMEAWAY, FLIPKEY etc. help our cause. They also help travellers distinguish between hotels and homestays and choose a place according to their preference. With regards to product and technology, we offer a service rather than a specific product or technology. We do, however, make use of technology to ensure that we are seen and visible on all online platforms like tripadvisor, twitter, FB etc.
- What strategy do you follow for Customer Satisfaction & Expansion?
We believe that service is what guarantees customer satisfaction. A B&B style of accommodation is today the most coveted stay option among travellers. We make sure we create an edge by personally attending to our guests’ needs, establishing a personal relationship with them instead of a purely professional one. We go to the extent of understanding their personal lives and sometimes send gifts for their children, families etc. Besides this, we provide very clean, comfortable, and affordable surroundings along with professional service and care. We are popular with long-term business guests who stay with us for as long as one year. We are also equally liked by wedding guests, holidaymakers, or families and friends who book entire units and live like they were at home! What, according to you, are the top 3 skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
- The zeal to serve, to be the best, and keep getting better;
- Staying focused on your goals and believing in yourself;
- The ability to turn a lost opportunity into either a learning experience or a new business deal!