The good business of intimate spaces

Providing safe, affordable spaces for couples through micro-renting of hotel rooms has overcome social taboos to be successful

Started in 2016 with claims of pioneering a social movement and breaching an enormous taboo — offering to provide a hotel room for a very short stay for couples — StayUncle has stayed the course.

The name of the startup, a play on then dominant Internet hosting service, Go Daddy, and perhaps, a nod to ‘uncles and aunties’ who have been at the vanguard of upholding middle-class morals, StayUncle, is considering a name change to reflect its anti-patriarchal, anti-caste, gender-neutral and inter-faith credo.

“While the name was just a on-the-spur kind of a thing, the time is now right for a name change,” said Amit Sharma, the CEO of StayUncle, where everyone goes by the suffix of ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’.

Operating today in 40 cities and with linkages with 1,800 5-star, 4-star and 3-star hotels, the start-up is by no means the first in the hospitality business to offer a ‘no questions asked’ stay. OYO had started its Relationship Mode couple of years ago.

But with an aggressive positioning of the brand and single-minded focus on couples, and a cheeky tagline post-COVID — “We are clean to get you dirty” — the managers of the startup are not worried about with the comparison. Neither are they apologetic about their tagline.

“We are singularly focused on couples,” reminded Sanchit Sethi, the co-founder of the startup. To this end, the entire process of booking a room is literally a phone call and an app away. No questions asked other than preferences according on the customer’s budget. An identification document, namely driving license or Aaadhar is, however, necessary at the time of booking a hotel.

Obstacle course

Couples from different religions or castes in India have long faced hurdles — from family opposition to death threats, some even paying with their lives — for daring to fall in love. Come 2020 and complaints were registered against the OTT platform Netflix for daring to show the story of a young Hindu woman in love with a Muslim man and exchanging a kiss near a temple. It was also the year which saw BJP-ruled States determined to enact laws to stem such marriages by repeatedly raising the bogey of “love-jihad.” Moral policing has reared its head in major cities in north India, making it virtually impossible for couples even to be seen in public places.

However, StayUncle has managed to steer clear of such controversies by what it calls ‘sensitising’ its partners.

“We carry out sensitising exercises with the hotels and tell them that caste and religion is not their business to meddle with,” said Mr. Sethi, a BITS Pilani graduate. The first two years did see threats over the phone and odd-demonstrations by people airing their concern about the corrupting influence of StayUncle.

“The real challenge before us was to persuade hotels to be LGBT friendly. It took us a long time to win them over along with the help of an NGO,” he recalled.

And business was not really easy for the odd-bunch of fresh graduates who fancied themselves as relationship managers, after managing short stays of business professionals to begin with.

“The first 20 hotels we reached out to said a flat ‘NO’. The 21st hotel in Greater Kailash said ‘yes’ and from there, there was no turning back,” said Mr Sethi.

Five years later, around 1,800 hotels, big and small have now tied up with StayUncle.

Post-COVID revamp

And the hotels too are changing their business plans. The post-COVID opening up of the economy has also forced hotels to change their conventional bookings to include short and very short stays to recoup their losses — unthinkable earlier. Time slots were worked out.

And over the years, interesting facts have emerged, indicating how far the startup could go. While cities like Nagpur refused to play host to StayUncle, Thiruvananthapuram, initially reluctant to partner, has slowly waded in along with other cities in Kerala, which has had its share tensions over so-called “Love Jihad”.

Then, there are cities in the north of the country marked as sensitive and a ‘no go’ for the start-up.

Kolkata, not surprisingly, has emerged as the most progressive city where Stay Uncle’s social media campaign went viral and was embraced. Bangalore, too, has said a resounding ‘yes’. And across the country, in Guwahati there are requests for at least 30 bookings a month.

Sikander Yadav, the group owner of Orion Hotels, said, “Initially, our staff was reluctant go along with StayUncle; we had to sensitise them. The couples, too, were unsure. Now they feel they are doing nothing wrong. We simply ask for an identity paper.”

Business is slowly picking up after the pandemic. From a pre-COVID turnover of ₹12 crore, the managers of the startup say they have regained 50% of the target. Presence on Instagram and Facebook has helped them reach their young audience.

With good music, clean and safe surroundings and now kits to practise safe sex, StayUncle aims to put the romance back in relationships even if only for a short while. Any comparison with Love Hotels in Japan, which is now an organised industry, is brushed away by Amit who said, “We are in the business of managing relationships.”

Our hands are clean, the team insists.

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