How Harkirat Ahluwalia, Farm-stay Man of India without any experience in the hotel industry founded Citrus County Farm Stays and got featured in BBC | Discovery Channel |India Today
#homestay - Chhauni Farms, Ram Colony Camp , Hoshiarpur, Punjab
YC - What is your background? What motivated you to start and what is it all about?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - I'm a farmer by profession and this is the third generation growing citrus farming. We started farming in the year 2008 when I shifted back from Chandigarh to Hoshiarpur. Frankly speaking, I was finding it very boring to be in Hoshiarpur without any work and any social life. So I thought of starting something where I have people coming and staying with us. They can also see our place and how we farm. And we meet a lot of people which was actually one of the biggest reasons for us to start. And also our farming incomes were shrinking, so some extra income would be generated through this. So that's how we started in 2008 - Citrus County Farm Stay
YC - Could you please share with our readers what is your current team size and their roles?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - We have about eight people who are permanent with us, but we also hire temporary staff whom we have trained ourselves. We give local employment from our village and nearby villages. So basically everyone is trained to do everything. I always believe in hiring unskilled labor and training them and make them skilled. I'm happy that all my staff can do everything.
The guy who was trained in housekeeping can also lay a good table or my manager can also be my driver or an electrician if something goes wrong on the farm. Basically, every person is well trained to do everything. We have a good team.
YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - I treat my staff as my family, and as I said above that my staff is very well trained for everything. Every person is allocated responsibilities, but everyone does everything. So my basic role is that I don't interfere in their daily chores that they are supposed to do. But I interact a lot with guests. My personal supervision or my personal being there makes a lot of difference. So that's the difference between a farm stay in a hotel.
One member of the family is always there on the farm to take care of the guests. I'm a farmer by heart, so whenever I get time, I'm at the farm. Before our guests arrive we have quality standards checks and SOP’s, which everyone follows. I ensure all the things are in good shape, I also do a random check to ensure the same. We have a good, well-trained team to takes care of everything.
YC - Have you used social media platforms to promote your boutique homestay? Which channels have been very effective for your business?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - We have our presence on Facebook and Instagram. We are also being marketed by a very professional RareIndia. Citrus County has been very lucky to have a lot of media attention from India and all over the world. We've been covered by BBC, we've been covered by Discovery Channel. I worked very hard and was also featured on the cover of India Today, which said the New Bharat @ 2019, December. We've been covered by Outlook Traveller as well.
YC - What according to you is the USP of your boutique homestay, for which your customers come back to you?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - We personally being here at the farm stay is the biggest USP people come to see me. People come to meet me and stay with me at the farm to see how we farm, how we are. We give a lot of personal attention to each and every guest. That's why our size of every farm stay is not very big. Citrus County is just nine tents. And our new property for the Citrus County Firdaus just six rooms.
So our very personalized kind of service differentiates our’s niche property from a bigger property or a hotel, which we are proud of. Here the best thing is people come as guests, but they go back as friends. We've always been in touch with 80% of our guests from all over the world.
YC - Can you elaborate on the challenges you faced in promoting your boutique homestay? What are your views on platforms like Airbnb, RareIndia, Booking.com, etc?
Harkirat Ahluwalia -Yeah, of course, when you start something new, you have challenges to promote it, to get noticed. So this is what happened with us in 2008 because we were a new concept and a new property in Punjab. And Punjab is not very well known for tourism. So no one took us seriously unless until we created a spot for ourselves in the market with giving good quality service and a very personalized kind of a service where we started to get noticed from different travel houses like Sita and Le Passage to India (LPTI) or Internationally. That was a very big changing point for us. And we started getting noticed and we were in the main tourism talk and in the main tourism circuit.
Well, Airbnb and Booking.com I have never used because we want to know who's coming to our home. We are very careful of the kind of guests we get in, I'm a little apprehensive with unknown guests. But we are definitely partner with RareIndia for a very long time. Because of our quality RareIndia also accepted us and we never let them down.
YC - How are you coping with COVID 19, what would you suggest to your fellow boutique homestay owners?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - COVID is a very sad thing to happen to humanity and to the hospitality Industry. It's been very horrible and devastated a lot of businesses, very unfortunate. I'll tell you honestly, COVID has also brought in a lot of business opportunities to small players like ours, which are very small properties, very niche properties where, people feel very secure to come and stay in these difficult times where, as social distancing is there. Privacy is maintained.
Travelers are not meeting many people, they're getting very personalized service. Like, last year when we were allowed to open, we had guests who were staying with us for 2-3 months and they just became like families. They made one of our properties called a Firdaus as their second home. Again, this year, we're getting a lot of queries and a lot of people are wanting to come. So let's hope for the best. But I really sincerely hope this pandemic gets over and we get out of this situation as soon as possible.
Also, another thing that is going to happen in the travel industry is, guests coming into your property would ask “Is your staff vaccinated”? So I suggest we should get our staff vaccinated as it would be the next norm for people to come and stay with any hotel or a farm stay.
YC - How do you manage expenses, typically what percentage do you allocate for marketing & sales, day-to-day operations, and property renovations and enhancements?
Harkirat Ahluwalia - The expenses are very high, especially in these times when people are not traveling. Salaries have to be paid, regular bills have to be paid and at the same time property also has to be maintained well. So we need to manage our expenses well and shell out from your savings.
Marketing and sales have to go on because if you don't do that people will forget you. Every day a new property comes up, every day a new concept comes up. So you have to be in the market. You have to spend money to promote your property, you have to be seen by the people. Social media is a big advantage, I hope everyone makes full use of it and sensibly uses it in order to get guests back to their properties.
YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.
Harkirat Ahluwalia - I believe I am no one to give any advice to any new entrepreneur or old entrepreneur. I truly believe experience teaches everything. That's how I learned. No one taught me. No one gave me lessons on what is right and wrong, I learned from your mistakes. You learn from your experiences. You learn from your success.
I feel the new generation entrepreneurs are very smart. Reaching the right audience is the key through social networking websites. Well, when I started in 2008, there was hardly any social media. But now with so many platforms, it's a very big advantage. Just focus on makes full use of it, best of luck to the young entrepreneurs.
Website - http://www.citruscountyfarmstays.com/
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