Namah Chawla

“Learnt a lot from what Zomato does on social media”: Eshan Joshi

A conversation with the head of marketing, Zostel, a community-led and experience-driven ecosystem for travellers.

Zostel doesn’t want to be just another accommodation option for travellers. The Gurugram-based backpacker hostel chain wants to create a community-led and experience-driven ecosystem for travellers, who’re looking to explore places other than crowded tourist spots.

The brand, which was founded by Dharamveer Singh Chouhan and six others in 2013, provides social and private accommodations, conducts outdoor activities, and curates original entertainment events.

Keeping in mind young travellers, who may not have, or be able to spend, big bucks, Zostel recently came up with a volunteer program. Speaking to afaqs! about this initiative, Eshan Joshi, head of marketing, Zostel, informs that the job of a volunteer is to maintain the property’s vibe. It’s to break the ice among travellers so that they get to mingle with each other, and also ensure that everyone comes together for a gig or event that takes place within the property.

Eshan Joshi, Zostel
Eshan Joshi, Zostel

While these volunteers aren’t regular Zostel employees, they play a crucial role in community building. They need to sign up for a specific Zostel destination for at least a month, and their food and accommodation is taken care of by the brand.

Joshi says that Gokarna (in Karnataka), Bir, McLeodganj, Dharamkot, Manali (in Himachal Pradesh) and Mussoorie (in Uttarakhand) are some of the destinations where the volunteer program has been well-received. In Kerala, the program is also picking up in destinations like Varkala, Alleppey and Vagamon.

In his present capacity at Zostel, Joshi is responsible for overseeing campaigns, collaborations, promotions and events, and festival curations for the brand.

Zostel also provides homestays that are its premium offering. This is because these homestays are mostly located at offbeat destinations. Zostel is in the process of opening a hostel in Lahaul (a district in HP). It also plans to expand to more such places, which are untapped and less commercialised, in future. Joshi says the primary focus is to unlock new locations for travellers, while making sure that these are accessible too.

The brand has a total of 55 properties, including 37 hostels and 18 Zostel Homes, in 40 destinations across India.

People aged from 18-35 years, including creators, artists, professionals who’re into backpacking and solo travelling, are the brand’s main target audience. As the brand has now forayed into homestays, it’s also looking at families as its target consumers.

Joshi remarks that though it has opened its doors to families, the brand wants to make sure that people aged 18 and above are only allowed to stay at Zostels. (This it to maintain the vibe of the property.)

Explaining the media strategy, he reveals, “The primary source of engagement with our communities is Instagram. We’re also looking at YouTube for a travel series. Currently, our focus is to curate original content or use user-generated content to reach out to our target audience.”

“In terms of marketing, we’re looking at established players and want to take inspiration from them. For example, we have learnt a lot from what Zomato does on its social media, or how Airbnb curates unique travel experiences.”

As per Joshi, the reason for not spending big bucks on advertising is that when the company was initially bootstrapped, it was decided to not spend heavily on advertising, but build the social media community.

Most travellers access Zostel through its website. It is also present on other OTA (online travel aggregator) platforms to reach out to audiences that the brand doesn’t communicate directly with.

While the COVID pandemic saw safety and affordability become more important than ever for travellers, exploring the unexplored is the true essence of travelling. Joshi recommends travellers explore places like Mukteshwar (Uttarakhand), Dharamkot and Bir, instead of going to traditional tourist spots of HP like Shimla, and Nainital in Uttarakhand.

He says that when you visit these places, there are chances that you may end up staying in a private room. Whereas, when travellers choose to stay at a Zostel property, they get access to the common room where they can meet travellers with different backgrounds and connect with them.

“I dislike when people categorise Zostel in the budget accommodation or hostel category because we are a premium hostel chain with respect to our prices. This is also the reason we get good crowds to stay with us,” Joshi adds.

Zostel competes with other backpacker hostel brands like goSTOPS and The Hosteller. Joshi says that Zostel is way ahead of its competitors, in terms of offering.

“Other brands are trying to replicate what we’ve successfully done. Ironically, when these brands were scouting to open their properties at a place we’d already explored, their founders were staying at a Zostel. It's good to see them grow as well because this industry needs more education rather than competition."

The brand is set to relaunch Zostel Pushkar just before the Pushkar Mela (Fair) in Rajasthan, which is slated for November 11. It also plans to launch a travel series in order to explore village destinations like Sissu and Rashil. Zostel Lonavala is also in the pipeline and will be the biggest ever Zostel property, once ready.

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