Last summer, Chennai-based businessman Aravind Venkatraman went to Italy with his wife and 18-year-old son for a two-week holiday, which included a personal walking tour of Florence for the three of them and a ride through the Tuscan countryside on rented Vespas. Not one for organised tours where you’re herded along with a bunch of strangers, Venkatraman normally plans his trips on his own. But a tight schedule at work this time around nudged him to take the help of a boutique luxury travel firm in the city recommended by a friend. “I was very pleased, especially with the choice of hotels and the guides in every city who were all locals. For instance, our guide in Florence was someone who had been living there for 30-40 years and who loved the city; it was a fabulous experience,” Venkatraman says on the phone from Chennai.
Like Venkatraman, Delhi-based psychologist Mallika Surii also decided to turn to professionals to help her out with a trip to Bhutan in September. “I was looking to go to Bhutan but I wanted to experience it in a different way,” says Surii who travels quite often, especially to visit family scattered around the globe. An acquaintance suggested a Bengaluru-based firm called Unventured which organises off-beat holidays, usually involving cycling, and Surii ended up doing a nine-day hiking and biking expedition of the Himalayan country through the firm. “When I landed at the Bagdogra airport I suddenly wondered what I was letting myself in for! But the organisers made everyone comfortable and the trip is something I’m still talking to people about,” says Surii who is also a part-time chef.
Though it is now easier than ever to plan your own holiday, with a host of travel blogs, booking websites and multiple other resources available online, it appears that there is still a clientele for niche travel companies offering unique experiences. These firms are a far cry from the more established players which focus on the 10-countries-in-12-days style of packages, and target those looking to try something out of the ordinary.
Cycling in Ladakh
“We recently organised a golfing holiday in Australia for a group of 30 golfing enthusiasts,” says Uma Krishnan, founder of Footprint Holidays and a former banker who has travelled to over 60 countries. Other trips involved scuba diving at night in Oman, for a family who wanted to do something different, and exploring Mongolia on horseback. Krishnan, who qualified for the Indian Foreign Services which she then abandoned for a banking career after an MBA from IIM Bangalore, says the trigger to start the firm was her own experiences of planning various trips, and the need for authentic, expert advice. So in Turkey, they’ve managed to rope in a professor of history to act as a personal guide. Krishnan says though he was perplexed at first, he later said he quite enjoyed the experience!
Having someone else take care of the logistics is a luxury people don’t mind paying a little extra for, and a good reason they are willing to use professional help. Software engineer Sharath Srinivasan, a cycling enthusiast, is used to pedalling 500-1,000 kilometres on his cycling trips but for a cycling holiday through Manali, Leh and Ladakh, he decided to plan it through Unventured. “It might have been a bit cheaper if I did it on my own but it would also have been quite a hassle. There are also risks involved in cycling at high altitudes on your own,” says Srinivasan. The two-week trip cost him Rs 55,000 excluding airfare, but he considered the slight premium worth it. This way, he says, he could also focus on the ride, something he had been planning to try out for the last three to four years. “And it was brilliant, right from the way they took care of my bike from Bengaluru, so that I did not have the headache of transporting it,” he adds. Footprint, which focuses on the luxury segment, plans the trips according to the client’s budget. For instance, Venkatraman spent around Rs 17 lakh for three adults, but he adds that this was also because they flew business class and stayed in boutique properties.
The Vespa trip in Tuscany
Personal attention is another USP. When Seetha Chandrasekhar, a chartered accountant, landed in Jordan with her friend, they were greeted with the first snowstorm in the country for over a century. “But Footprint’s local operators were constantly in touch with us and rescheduled everything so that we could leave the minute the roads were cleared,” says Chandrasekhar, an avid traveller who has been to over 30 countries. Since she had made it clear that she was a foodie, she had been given a list of restaurants in each city to try as well which were not ‘run of the mill’. “And when I found a restaurant better than something recommended, I let the company know so that they could tell other clients” she says.
Gurudeep Ramakrishna, co-founder of Unventured, which also offers city trails in Bengaluru and weekend trails, apart from the longer expeditions to Ladakh and Bhutan, says he had been doing cycle tours for the past four years — one of the reasons for launching the firm earlier this year. “The idea is to use the cycle as a means of travel. But we also plan to include more hiking and trekking holidays as we expand,” he says. Scuba diving trips to the Andamans, which include training and certification, are also part of the company’s repertoire. Future trips include cycling through Arunachal Pradesh.
Tents at Ladakh campsite
For such niche firms, many are repeat clients. After her experience in Jordan, Chandrasekhar got Footprint to plan holidays to Norway and Sweden with her husband, and to Thailand, and says the company now knows her tastes. “They’ve already given me suggestions for my next year’s vacation,” she says, with a laugh.
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