Recently, a senior management professional from Delhi called me up in a state of agitation. “Yogi,” he told me, “I’ve just quit my job and I need to get away. Plan me a 60-day holiday in South America.”
With that, my team set about planning the perfect getaway. Should he fly to Rio? How would he make his way from Rio to Chile? Which was the best mode of transport? And what offered the best experience? When should he hit the Amazon? If he’s vegetarian, what were his food options? If he wants adventure, what could he try his hand at?
That’s the kind of intensive, customized service every client of ours gets. It seems a world apart from the time I set out for Europe after my class XII exams, armed with a much-underlined Lonely Planet Europe, determined to see Antoni Gaudi’s fantastic architecture in Barcelona and the artworks at the Louvre. As a schoolkid, I’d spent all my time at the British Council Library in Mumbai, reading up travel books—this was in the 1980s, when overseas pleasure travel was not even a wisp of a dream for the Indian middle class—and I hit the road as soon as I could with a backpack, my savings from working in the family logistics business, and no fixed itinerary.
Shah says backpacking is about attitude, not money (Photo by: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
After that first 45-day trip through the European capitals, backpacking became a habit. Every time I heard of a friend or an acquaintance getting a job in a foreign country, be it Canada or Cambodia, I bought myself a ticket there. And the more I backpacked, the more I met similar travellers from developed countries, the more I wondered: Why weren’t more Indians like me doing this?
That’s how The Backpacker Co. (www.thebackpackerco.com), India’s first backpacking company, was born. In its initial years, it was a one-man show. Since I had personal experience of certain destinations, I helped friends and their friends draft plans. Despite the profusion of VCs (venture capitalists) and banks promising easy finance, in the early 2000s, no one was ready to invest in a business that did not have the word ‘IT’ or ‘communication’ in it. Finally, I borrowed money interest-free from friends and relatives and rented office space, covered our overheads and began acquiring our first clients. Since we were bootstrapping, there was no money for advertisements: All our clients came to us by word of mouth.
Which wasn’t a bad thing, really, because they all had some idea of what we did and didn’t do. There was no one, for instance, demanding a Day 1-Day 2 kind of itinerary, travelling cooks to serve them ghar ka khana or desi guides to herd them from Museum A to Café B. They were all looking to get the vibe of a place, to carry back experiences and not just photographs. Over time, I have seen the profile of my clients change, so much so that I prefer the term ‘independent traveller’—someone who travels on his own terms—to backpacker, with its hippie and gap-year connotations. It’s no longer about money, but about attitude: While rising disposable incomes, international credit cards, roaming networks have made travel possible at the drop of a hat, people may not have the time to plan their dream trips. They don’t want to land up in Pamplona and discover they missed the running of the bulls by a day or two. That’s why they come to us, the experts.
Which is what a top honcho of a multinational consulting house did. He and his wife, a senior banker, both travel widely on business; they’ve criss-crossed Europe umpteen times. But staying at St Regis Grand doesn’t give you the buzz of Rome. So, they asked us for an 18-19-day plan that would give them access to the true flavours of Munich, Venice, Rome, Turin, Nice and Paris.
They will be staying at hostels wherever possible—even the youth hostels have changed, you can get private rooms and baths now—and he can spend just as much time and money at each place as he wants to. But, with our vast database of local festivals, museums, adventure operators, off-beat activities, et al, they are assured of the “experience” factor.
The Backpacker Co. is now a 10-man operation, including my wife Suchana, who handles operations and finances, while I am usually on the road. We also have a large-ish consultant network. From the first days, when we got calls inquiring if we made bags, to today, when we’re looking to get into another travel-based vertical, it’s been a long journey. That’s what we do best.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org