Her Heritage ‘Airbnb’ Chases Slice of $492B Tourism Pie
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she's changing the way her country travels while lifting up communities in need.
Since childhood, Aditi Balbir has loved the thrill of travel. These weren’t the usual vacations Indian families take: Her parents took her to places at the time unknown around the world, like Primel-Trégastel, France and Osaka, Japan, every summer vacation. Even now, travel to her means exploring places that lie hidden away from the mainstream. In India, Balbir wants to make nontraditional tourist places affordable and accessible to the masses. And that is where her startup V Resorts comes in.
“How many people know of Divar Island in Goa?” Balbir asks. The state, with its beaches, churches and vibrant nightlife, attracts tourists in droves every year. But for some reason, most of them skip Divar Island — located just outside Goa’s capital, Panjim, and upon the river Mandovi. “At Divar, you get to experience a different Goa: a languid vacation, away from the crowds and with stunning views of the sea,” she says. Her mission is to combine that thrill of discovery with burrowing into India’s historic gems.
Balbir, 41, works to make older houses, resorts and bungalows in India’s smaller towns tourist-friendly. V Resorts pairs up with owners of these properties — currently, she has about 2,000 rooms in roughly 120 properties across India’s hills, forests and deserts — and then hires locals to manage them. It’s proving to be a rare economic opportunity for the towns and villages in which V Resorts operates, helping the company raise $10 million in series A funding this year. In addition, the company won the United Nations World Tourism Award this year for its focus on sustainable tourism, beating out at least 190 applicants from 71 countries.
When V Resorts started, the initial idea was to make it like Airbnb, but, Balbir says, “As Indians, we are not really geared toward the idea of staying at other people’s homes. When we holiday, we don’t want to make our meals or make the bed — that is not our idea of a holiday.” Instead, Balbir rejiggered the model toward full service — and higher-end customers — though the website does use Airbnb to sell its offbeat packages. They include more than a place to lay your head.
From turning an abandoned boat into a romantic dinner spot to a picnic by a riverside, V Resorts adds experiences to the mix. In addition, each property has a kiosk, called a pitara, that sells local products, such as village-made pickles or essential oils. Balbir packages and displays the products, and the profits go to the locals. “It is my aim to empower women in these communities where we set up our resorts,” Balbir says, noting that these people are often skeptical of outsiders.
“She is a go-getter,” says Chaitali Tarat, who has known Balbir for seven years. “She wants things to be perfect. She stands out for her discipline. Aditi has a vision and she is constantly working hard to achieve that.” Her vision? To make V Resorts a household name in India and then take it international.
It’s been a struggle to get even this far. Founded in 2011, V Resorts had a shaky start, and in 2014, two of the original founders quit. That’s when Balbir, who started as an investor and director, took over and revamped the company. Instead of just aggregating properties online, it is more like a resort management company — taking control of the experience. “It hasn’t been smooth,” Balbir acknowledges. She has let go of at least 30 employees. And yet with almost zero publicity and low resources, she has been able to create a niche for herself in the industry.
And that industry is booming. The travel and tourism sector of India’s economy is expected to grow from $234 billion in 2017 to $492 billion in 2028, according to the India Brand Equity Foundation. Balbir seeks a piece of the pie by providing “not luxury and not really budget” accommodations to Indians in their twenties and thirties.
Balbir is a Duke University graduate with an MBA from Symbiosis International University in Pune. Her childhood love of travel — she has been to 135 cities across five continents — carried on into a career. Balbir has also taught at Infinity Business School in Gurugram, where she focused on a leadership program for young women.
Balbir knows that she doesn’t have enough properties listed yet to really scale the business. “There is no dearth of inventory in the country,” she says. “It is just a matter of managing all of them well.” Hiring locals as property managers — each room gets one person who looks after the needs of the tourists — also requires a heavy-handed role in training. “These are people with no experience in hospitality, hotel management, etc.,” she says.
“She is limitless,” says Amandeep Chahal, a lawyer who has known Balbir for 20 years. “Once she makes up her mind to achieve anything, she’ll just work in that direction. Not many entrepreneurs think about giving back to the community.”
For now, she’s trying to set up properties in the most remote and inaccessible places in India’s countryside and lift up women in those areas. If all goes well, she hopes to go international — expanding across South Asia and into the Middle East. Another journey awaits.