If you were asked to move to another city for a month on a business assignment, how would you go about finding an accommodation?Your current alternatives include booking a hotel room which means that you don’t get home-cooked food and pay exorbitantly for basic amenities like bottled water; or you go about leasing an apartment but given that you only want it for a month, that option doesn’t seem viable anymore considering the legal formalities, brokerage, setting up of utilities, etc.
Enter, serviced apartments! Serviced-apartments are fully furnished apartments that are available for a short duration. RoomLion.com is India’s leading portal for discovering and booking serviced apartments and short-term rentals.
How does RoomLion.com work?
The idea is to collate all serviced apartment properties in India, curate their data and enable their online booking.
Once the team receives interest from the Host either from an inbound inquiry or sales efforts, they do a quick check on phone to see if the property is suitable to be listed on RoomLion.com. After qualifying the property, the team collects and verifies the data and conducts the virtual tour photography at a mutually convenient time.
Back from the shoot, all the data is processed, and the portal can start accepting bookings for the property in as less as 24 hours of the shoot. Currently, property owners can get in touch with the team if they’d like to list their properties, but they do not allow any self-serve listings.
When a guest likes an apartment on RoomLion.com, they can make a booking request by entering their details and authorizing their credit card for a token amount. Once the Host accepts the booking request based on availability, the guest will be charged on the credit card and booking will be confirmed.
The startup makes money by charging a fee to the serviced apartment companies when they bring them a booking.
RoomLion.com is founded by Ashish Agrawal, who is a former Googler. Ashish got convinced to build a portal for short-term rentals when he struggled in finding a serviced apartment for himself here in Pune. Quitting his fancy job in the US, Ashish set up RoomLion.com in late 2012.
Academically, Ashish has an MBA from Carnegie Mellon and a Masters degree in Computer Science from the University of New Mexico. At RoomLion.com, Ashish oversees product management and the broad marketing strategy.
” Thanks to a combination of streamlined operations, an irresistible offering and in-house expertise, we’ve been able to personally curate the data of over 7800 rooms across 9 cities in India. In fact, we’re constantly adding at least a thousand rooms on a monthly basis to this number”, says Ashish on the reason behind personally curating such huge listings.
Challenges ,USP & Thoughts on Fund Raising
Launched earlier in 2013 as AnekHomes.com, the startup re-branded themselves to RoomLion.com, as the latter name had wider appeal to their International audiences.
Talking about the challenges faced so far, Ashish says, “One of the early challenges was to convince serviced apartments of our ability to get them long-term bookings via an online medium. Having put that behind us, the broader challenge for us right now is to restore the lost faith of the average user who has had a bad experience with travel websites at large thanks to their misrepresentative data. Our users are amazed at the level of details and virtual tours of each apartment and sometimes find it too good to be true.”
The biggest difference between RoomLion.com and any other travel website is their focus on this specific niche of short-term housing. All the listings you see on RoomLion.com, are professionally managed private residences with access to a kitchen or a kitchenette. This is very different from conventional OTAs who focus on hotels; and alternate travel websites like Oravel and Airbnb who have an eclectic mix of shared couches, guest houses, PGs, motels and even tree-houses.
The startup is currently looking for funds, but opines that the investment scenario in India is not very conducive for an early stage product startup who does not want to settle for immediate short-term gains.
Near Future Plans
RoomLion.com plans to cover all the serviced apartments in India within a year after, which they are very keen to expand internationally to expat friendly countries in Asia.
“In the meanwhile, we are constantly building on the product by adding incremental features and tweaks on a daily basis”, concludes Ashish.
TTP Mentor’s Corner
It’s a pleasure to see the category killers emerging as strong contenders in travel e-commerce. Age-old serviced apartments are gaining strong foothold in recent years for all the right reasons and it’s time to digitize this highly scattered inventory. Unlike its peers in hospitality industry, it never witnessed passionate & expert intermediaries who can promote such inventory except relying on word of mouth from earlier guests. Role of specialized intermediary seems to be persistent given the lack of brand identity and inadequate market reach of such property owners. Players like Roomlion can drive their occupancy rates failing which reaping expected ROI on such properties is unattainable and may question the existence of this industry. Following analysis may help the venture to introspect its progress and take home some food for thought in order to build sustainable competitive advantage:
· Having traveled this far, team have done commendable job in inventory digitization spreading across major markets.
· Proprietary star rating is on par with quality assessment framework followed for hotels & restaurants based on the details of amenities, utilities, facilities and services.
· Though details and presentation of the property are pre-requisites to drive the quality traffic and bookings, it may not be a sustainable value proposition in the long-run.
· Go-to-marketing strategy sounds very feeble and they should not fall prey for prevailing e-commerce style customer acquisition strategy which needs lot of marketing dollars.
The pain points of property owners and short-term rental guests goes well beyond digitization and its discovery. If Roomlion can go that extra-mile, they have all the reasons to retain and churn the hosts as well as guests to increase the life-time value from either side.
Empower the Guest
1. Do remember that Indian customer is largely driven by human touch point. Follow-up with the reservations and cancellations very closely to better understand the factors of occupancy.
2. Call every guest after each stay to gauge their experience and to better rate each stay and ensure to empathize their grievances if any.
3. It may be early to introduce customer reviews but it is inevitable in catalyst business for better transparency about supply-side of the business.
4. Incentivize the repeat customers and referrals with additional stays, value-adds, free stays during off seasons, etc. It is wise to negotiate, buy & offer such inventory by Roomlion to acquire customers than spending marketing dollars on traditional media mix.
5. Go mobile and let there be timely and contextual reminders during and after stay to empower them to express on various amenities and facilities.
Enlighten the Host
1. Enable the host with reservation & checkout system and integrate seamlessly with your booking engine.
2. Help formulating pricing & promotional strategy for each host based on their property portfolio to ensure that they neither undersell or oversell to attain their occupancy rates.
3. Empower the hosts with a dynamic pricing approach to earn more during peak days, peak season, sudden spikes and short-notice bookings.
4. Share the cases of bad experiences or negative feedback as shared by customers after each stay to the property owner/manager to make sure that next guest is not effected on the same grounds.
5. Act as extended CRM team for host with a set of relationship practices to drive repeated bookings.
Despite the brighter side of the canvas, growth of this industry seems to be largely dependent on: inventory availability in hotel sector, operational efficiency of individual operators, high attrition among individual operators, addition of new properties, volatility in property rentals etc. We wish the team a roaring success while retaining their first-mover advantage.
About the Mentor
Ram Nutakki is the Founder of Sloyd, a start-up envisioned to build a franchise conglomerate of consumer brands to foster small business entrepreneurship. Prior to Sloyd, he was an independent consultant where he worked with startup-up and early stage clientele in SaaS, E-Commerce & Mobile domains for building and honing the core competencies that can yield sustainable enterprise value. He is extremely passionate about mentoring both tech and non-tech startup founders to discover the right value proposition and lay down the strategic direction to deliver the same.