A cult brand with a unique proposition.
'Everybody knows about StayUncle,' is how the two-year-old, New Delhi based start-up markets itself on the company's website. But does everyone really know what this brand, a fast-growing cult, is all about? Essentially, StayUncle is a hotel booking website for both married and unmarried couples wherein rooms can be booked for convenient hours.
The venture that has recorded a turnover of two million dollars in the last eighteen months, profits from the predicaments of nervous couples trying to get a room by ensuring the trip to be 'judgement free.' "That's our primary feature, providing privacy and safety assurance for whichever hotel one books for," says Blaze Arizanov, co-founder and chief marketing uncle (officer), StayUncle.
Arizanov, a commerce graduate from Macedonia, came to India for an AIESEC internship which ultimately led him to a tech job in the country. A chance meeting with Sanchit Sethi (co-founder of his first start-up, StayUncle and a mechanical engineer from BITS Pilani) at a social media workshop led to the eventual formation of StayUncle. As Arizanov puts it, "I was planning to wind up work here in India and head back to Macedonia when I met Sethi and StayUncle happened."
Speaking about StayUncle and their dealings, Arizanov says, "We are adamant about the kind of hotels we choose to partner with. We extend collaboration offers only to those hotels which are open-minded about the concept. From the receptionist to the general manager, we place scrutiny measures at all levels of management. When couples come to hotels, they have a fear of embarrassment, their legs are shaking! But when they book through StayUncle they receive fast check-ins and there are no embarrassing, cheesy questions asked."
The online portal which promises to provide 'couple-friendly hotels' in India, did not initially have couples as its core target audience. Arizanov and Sethi launched this company keeping in mind business travellers who would require hotel rooms for hourly stays. Realising that a majority of inquiries were from unmarried couples, the founders shifted focus. The business models itself on the popular Japanese concept of 'Love Hotels'.
While the company finds itself on the right side of the law, it is faced with the kind of marketing challenges that come with operating in a delicate and guarded social fabric of the Indian culture. The company talks to two distinct sets of audiences - first the hoteliers (B2B) and second the end consumers (B2C). Arizanov explains, "The biggest pain-point is to make hoteliers agree to partner with us. Initially, the conversion rate was extremely low. Out of ten hotels, only one or a maximum of two agreed to try us out. Now the number has climbed to five. But still, it can be way better."
Speaking about consumer interaction challenges, Arizanov accepts that high rates on the website are one of the biggest consumer objections. "We, unfortunately, don't enjoy the benefits of economies of scale the way other bigger companies do, which is why we cannot lower the prices beyond a certain limit. We often get this as feedback - 'I really like you guys, but you are so much more expensive compared to XYZ players.' We try to explain to them that they are mistaking us for a travel portal. We are not the ones to go to when you visit Vaishno Devi. We are different; we are about local guests, couples!"
StayUncle acknowledges OYO Rooms as its "biggest competitor." Arizanov snaps, "If you think OYO, (Rooms) for example, is cheaper than us, then go ahead and try to book a hotel. If you are a couple then see what happens; how you get judged at the reception, how you get knocks on the door while you are checked-in! Then tell us whether we are the same or different."
On the advertising front, the brand utilises unconventional modes that Arizanov labels as part of his "inbound marketing" strategy. Starting from 'Dikshi Auntie' courses on their YouTube page to open forums such as 'Naughty Sita', the brand has built a nexus of advertising pursuits to follow and target potential customers in the mid-range income bracket.
"In our case, we do not speak about our services; instead, we speak about why people would need a hotel for couples in the first place. We go all the way to capture peoples' attention when they are still single. For example, people need help to get hooked up and here comes Dikshi into the picture with her online courses on dating. When people apply her course tips and they actually work, they will then remember us. So the brand is already established in their minds, way before they become actual users of our services," informs Arizanov.
StayUncle rejects the idea of having a mainline advertising agency on board since the primary channel of advertising remains word of mouth. "If I have to spend so much money I would rather burn it or give it back to my customers as discounted prices," exclaims Arizanov.
At present, the company is present through its tie-ups with hotels in forty cities in India, including New Delhi, Mumbai and Bhubaneswar, among others. The company is growing at a steady pace and plans to expand to tier two and tier three cities which are in the pipeline. Arizanov says, "In places like New Delhi and Mumbai the culture is more open. However, in a place say Gorakhpur, the problem is way more serious; couples are being prosecuted like criminals! Since we are dedicated to this cause, we have to reach out to these places." As a long-term goal, the company would like to enter the offline space as well. "We plan to launch our first set of brands which are the Love Hotels, our very own hotels," Arizanov signs off.
The company, which operates from its Hauz Khas office, has an eleven member team with the average age being twenty-eight years. Ajay Naqvi, who has previously managed brands like Coca-Cola and Airbnb, is an investor at StayUncle. "I have always invested in people. StayUncle is people, courage and idea rich. We have always turned the most basic biological need - sex, into a monster by depriving humans of it through political, societal and religious narratives! Challenging that is what led me to invest!" shares Naqvi. In the past, Naqvi has also been associated with Rediffusion Y&R, DDB Mudra, Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett.