Namah Chawla
Marketing

“When travel resumed, budget and ultra-luxury segments were first to revive”: Pallavi Agarwal, goSTOPS

In conversation with the founder and CEO of backpacker hostel chain goSTOPS on the brand's marketing initiatives and key travel trends.

Imagine exploring the resort town of Manali, the ethereal Rohtang Pass, the beautiful hamlet of Kasol, or the lanes of Rajasthan, all without burning a hole in your pocket. There are a host of cheap homestays or accommodation options available at these Indian tourist destinations. But they may not necessarily provide the best facilities and experience for young travellers.

What makes a backpacker hostel different or unique is that it not only is easy on your pocket, but also provides a chance to meet fellow travellers, thereby enabling a community travel experience.

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While backpacker hostel chains are quite developed in the western countries, they have made their mark in India only recently. Pallavi Agarwal, founder and CEO of goSTOPS, an Indian backpacker hostel chain, tells afaqs! that she was fascinated by the hostel culture in Europe. Her 2012 backpacking trip to the continent led her to introduce a backpacker hostel chain in India.

Launched in 2014 by Agarwal and her husband Pankaj Parwanda, goSTOPS has presence in major Indian tourist spots. These include Agra, Alleppey, Amritsar, Bir, Dalhousie, New Delhi, Fort Kochi, Goa, Jaipur, Leh, Manali, Mcleodganj, Mumbai, Munnar, Mussoorie, Naggar, Palampur, Rishikesh, Udaipur and Varanasi.

Agarwal says that a backpacker brand was needed in the country as young travellers did not have good budget friendly options.

Pallavi Agarwal, goSTOPS
Pallavi Agarwal, goSTOPS

“There are about 370 million young people in India, but there was nothing in the accommodation segment that was purely designed for them. With this in mind, I started goSTOPS and our first property was in Varanasi. The idea was to design something to cater to the needs of the youngsters - provide them safe, fun and budget-friendly accommodation.”

Backpacker hostels are affordable and provide all the facilities that you would otherwise get at a much higher price. goSTOPS essentially caters to 20-25-year-old travellers (the upper age limit can go up to 35 years).

The common area is the soul of a backpacker hostel. Agarwal shares that when the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, many interactions in the common area, like musical night or an art workshop or a poetry session, were turned into online Instagram sessions.

“As soon as the ‘unlock’ was announced in August 2020, we launched programs to ensure that people went back to the hostels. We launched ‘Freedom Stay’, a free stay option from August 15-31, 2020, to get people back to the hostels and tell them that it is okay to travel as long as they are following all the travel guidelines.”

Another interesting program that goSTOPS executed was ‘work away from home’, where it tried to woo professionals who were tired of working from home. It was a kind of a ‘workation’ package that could be availed for seven days or a month or more.

Agarwal shares that right after the second COVID wave, there was a huge surge in travel demand that allowed goSTOPS to survive and keep its team intact. “When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we had 14 hostels and, now, we have expanded to 28. We have managed to double our properties during the pandemic.”

She mentions that post the second wave, there were two segments that were doing very well in the hospitality sector. One is the budget segment and the other is the ultra-luxury segment.

“The middle market didn’t pick up as fast as the other two did. This was because the first people to travel were either the youngsters, or the ones who could afford to take their families to private villas and luxury stays.”

The other key trend was the increase in the average number of days a person stayed at a goSTOPS hostel. People were adding an extra day to their weekends to extend their stay. Additionally, the demand for drivable destinations from metros like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, picked up. Udaipur, Bir, Mussoorie and Rishikesh are some of the most popular destinations for goSTOPS.

Speaking about some of the brand’s recent marketing initiatives, Agarwal says, “As we had just started, the focus on marketing was slightly less in the past. But now, we have built a very strong marketing team. One of our current initiatives is goEXPERIENCES.”

goSTOPS ‘Experience Wing’ will create well-planned itineraries with multi-day, multi-destination treks and tours, as well as curated in-destination experiences and activities over the next six months. The trips have been curated to inspire the travellers to go beyond the well-trodden path.

Another key focus for goSTOPS is its volunteer program. “We are deeply rooted in our youth communities. The idea of this program is to keep an additional check on our hostels using young volunteers. Our total marketing spend now is about Rs 15 lakh per month,” mentions Agarwal.

For goSTOPS, most of the bookings come from either its website directly, or travel aggregator platforms like Booking.com, MakeMyTrip and Goibibo. These bookings are done mostly through mobile devices, given the fact that youngsters today are hooked to their handsets all the time.

Some of goSTOPS’s competitors include Zostel, The Hosteller and Madpackers.

Agarwal believes that since the industry is still quite nascent in the country, the challenge for all the players now is to create awareness, as not everybody knows what a backpacker hostel is.

“Right now, I don’t feel a sense of competition, rather, a sense of shared responsibility. Globally, the backpacker hostel model is quite developed. There are budget backpacker hostels, high-end backpacker hostels and hybrid models, i.e., a combination of hostel and a hotel. India still has a long way to go.”

However, what differentiates goSTOPS from its competitors is that it operates all its hostel properties, as against the franchise system of some other hostel brands.

The goSTOPS app is currently in its beta testing phase and is expected to be rolled out within a month. The brand plans to expand from 2,000 beds in 30 destinations (now) to 3,000 beds by March 2022.

“We will add more destinations in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. By March 2024, we hope to have 20,000 beds across the country. By the end of next year (2022), we should also be able to have hostels in neighbouring countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan,” Agarwal signs off.

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