Two years ago, Northern Irishman Jonny Blair, then 35, reached Vagator, Goa. Now Blair is no ordinary traveller. He is one of the the world’s most travelled backpackers, having visited seven continents, 151 countries and 862 cities and towns. In Vagator, Blair chose to stay at a quaint hostel called Jungle. “This place will live long in my memory and I’m sure those of many other travellers,” he would write later about his experience at Jungle. “I felt a new sense of freedom here, in what I term personally as `hippy Goa’ ”. He went on to list the reasons why he would recommend Jungle to others of his ilk: meeting new backpackers; cool owners; cosy rooms; invites to parties; and, that boon for every budget backpacker: free breakfast.
Jungle is one of the five properties of The Hostel Crowd, an innovative hostel chain floated and run by a bunch of travel-loving Goan youngsters. The others in Goa are Prison (Anjuna), Old Quarter (Panjim) and Summer (Palolem). Emboldened by the success of the Goan properties, the founders ventured out of their state in March 2015 to set up Maritime in Fort Kochi, Kerala. With a total bed strength of over 200, the hostels initially attracted only foreigners. But now, 40 per cent of the guests are Indian travellers – and the figure is rising.
The group’s genesis can be traced back to Jason Noronha starting his career as a financial consultant working in Singapore. His work took him to Kenya, Indonesia and Hong Kong, amongst other places. But like many of his generation, he got fed up of his routine job. He gave it up to volunteer in Guyana during which time he also backpacked across South America. Staying at many hostels during his travels, he was impressed by how great the experience was. Back home in Goa, which attracts a lot of travellers, he got thinking about why there were no hostels to cater to them. He decided to do something about it.
Teaming up with a classmate from college, Amber Jalan, he started India’s first backpacker property, Asterix Hostel, in February 2012, at Goa. The two put in their combined savings of Rs. 7 lakh as seed money for the venture. It started off as an 18 bed hostel, but ended up doing so well that the duo expanded it to 45 beds within six months. Although the hostel was a runaway success, the partnership did not work out and the two decided to go their separate ways. Noronha then teamed up with Laura Anna Pawliczek, one of the first guests at Asterix, to start The Hostel Crowd with Jungle and Prison being the first two hostels to come up.
Business began picking up fast and more trusted hands came on board, including Jason’s brother Joshua Noronha, their cousin Joel Noronha and Joshua’s college friend Raunaq Kapoor. Jason, Laura, Joshua, and Joel are the company’s shareholders today. But there was another twist in the tale when Jason and Laura decided to get married last year and move to New York. Joshua Noronha is now the CEO of The Hostel Crowd and Kapoor, its COO.
Earlier with data analytics firm MuSigma in Bangalore, Noronha says the biggest challenge in running the business revolves around infrastructure. “Living in a developed country, many of our guests take water, electricity and great internet for granted. However, those aren’t always consistent in smaller parts of India like Goa,” he says.
The Hostel Crowd’s USP is that each of its properties is uniquely designed to reflect the vibe of the place it is located in. When Pawliczek, who designed all the properties, conceptualized the hostels, she kept a predominant thought at the back of her mind: travel is an exciting experience and the design of a property drastically affects that experience. In a place like India, she felt, every place has a unique vibe. She wanted to capture this vibe in the design of the hostel to make the stay at each of the hostels unique in its own way. She designed each property keeping the surroundings and the area in mind, which is why every property looks and feels (and is named) differently.
For instance, Palolem has a very different vibe from Panjim even though the two places are only 69 km apart. The Summer hostel in Palolem is a favourite with the outdoorsy type, with the beaches of Patnem, Agonda, Palolem and Cola just a short ride away. Old Quarter, the property in Panjim, is located in the old Latin quarter of the city which is a heritage zone and has many Portuguese houses each of which is well over a 100 years old. Jungle, the hostel in Vagator, is surrounded by forests on three sides of the property.
Prison hostel in Anjuma best exemplifies the funky spirit of The Hostel Crowd, with design elements of prisons incorporated, like a black and white colour scheme and metal doors with slots for food trays. Finally, Maritime, the property in Fort Kochi, is located in an old Dutch house which is over 30 years old. It has a rich maritime history and these elements were used in the design of the hostel. “Designing and naming each property differently is something that we haven’t seen any other chain do,” says CEO Noronha. “The industry standard has been the generic restaurant/café/hotel where you copy paste something that works well. This worked fine for baby boomers, but the millenials don’t want a McDonald’s which looks and feels the same from Bangalore to Berlin to Boston. They don’t want to check in to a hostel/hotel already knowing what to expect. They endorse more indie brands because this suits their personality more. We connect well with them for this reason.”
Apart from the design elements, what really sets the five properties apart from the competition is the range of `experiences’ the guests enjoy at the places. “Our activities are organised with two objectives – to give people the opportunity to have some unique experiences and to get them together so that everyone has a good time,” says Noronha. Hence the barbeque nights, movie nights, bonfires, yoga mornings as well as facilitating other local activities like driving people to the flea market that happens every Wednesday or dropping people off at a cool party at night.
Having got the basic rights, the team at The Hostel Crowd started dabbling in what at first looked like diversifications but on closer look, seemed quite close to the knitting, all aimed at their target audience. Take the case of Hathi Tours. “We noticed a gap in the tour market where there were no fun young tours being organized. With that in mind, we launched Hathi Tours,” says Noronha. They currently run Dudhsagar Waterfall and Spice Plantation tours, an Old Goa Heritage walk and a Panjim Walking tour.
Similarly, the entrepreneurs saw a gap in the market in Goa revolving around the transportation segment. “There’s no Uber or Ola in Goa, and taxis are prohibitively expensive. Many of our customers are solo travellers who can’t afford a taxi on their own and don’t want to take a bus.” Hence the offer of a shuttle service to help these travellers out. Then there is Bombay Coffee Roasters, a chain of coffee shops in Panjim, Vagator and Palolem, providing, what Noronha lovingly calls, “the best coffee in all of Goa.”
He then peeps into the future and says that The Hostel Crowd will “continue to deliver guests with a great experience and will grow with time.” Noronha whole-heartedly agrees that the hostel market is still at a nascent stage in India. But ever the optimistic, he is sure that it will only grow in the coming years.