Indian hotel apps offer young couples privacy – for a price

  • By Ammu Kannampilly / AFP, MUMBAI, India

A new set of Indian apps offering rooms to unmarried couples is helping to overturn traditional norms in a country where premarital sex remains taboo.

From StayUncle and BreviStay, which offer hourly packages, to Softbank-funded Oyo, which allows users to search for couples-friendly hotels via its “relationship mode”, young entrepreneurs are tapping into a previously overlooked market to lucrative effect.

The development is welcome news for Pooja, a Mumbai-based PR executive who tried to check into a hotel with her then-boyfriend in 2016 and found the romantic experience quickly soured. when staff inquired about his marital status.

Photo: AFP

“I could feel them judging me,” Pooja, whose name was changed at her request, told reporters.

Stung by their questions, she says she decided to lie.

“We were both over 18 – they had no reason to deny us a room, but it was so awkward,” she added.

Her experience is not unusual in a country where many people live with their parents until they marry – either due to high housing costs or conservative cultural norms – leaving couples courting desperately for some privacy.

Every evening in Mumbai, dozens of canood lovebirds can be spotted lining the city’s famous waterfront with their backs to slow-moving traffic as they seek personal space in the world’s second most populous nation.

Sometimes the consequences can be dangerous: police raid hotels and demand bribes from unmarried guests, while Hindu diehards attack couples celebrating “Western” holidays like Valentine’s Day. .

“People have a hard time accepting the idea that being in a relationship is a natural thing,” said Rahul Taneja, co-founder of LuvStay, one of many apps seeking to shake up the hospitality industry with services for couples. not married.

“It’s a simple case of supply and demand. The rooms are there, the customers are there: the challenge is to bring them together,” Taneja, 29, of LuvStay told reporters.

StayUncle founder Sanchit Sethi originally planned to target business travelers with his app focused on hourly rentals, but when he started responding to requests from couples, he realized he was targeting the wrong customer.

Soon the ex-engineer found himself handing out business cards to young people hanging out in cafes – announcing his new venture with the slogan: ‘Couples need a room, no judgement’.

When the app went live in 2016, extremist groups threatened to beat up Sethi and his colleagues, but “nobody ever went beyond a phone call,” the 30-year-old told reporters.

Getting hoteliers on board proved a tougher sell, with many worried about police raids and offending the sensibilities of traditional customers.

In one case, a hotelier signed up only to get cold feet and turn away guests at check-in, prompting Sethi to decide he wouldn’t spend any more time trying to “convince reluctant hotels”.

He needn’t have worried, given the growing demand.

The app has 800 hotels in 45 cities and plans to add another 1,500 by the end of this year. He’s not shy about seeking out new clients, with a YouTube channel offering dating advice to anxious singles.

With nearly 700 hotels, LuvStay is not far behind, with ambitions to increase that number to 2,000 within three years.

So-called “love hotels” are also popular in Japan and South Korea, with couples seeking either extramarital affairs or private time away from demanding families.

Mumbai’s Sahar Garden hotel, which signed with StayUncle in 2018, said the tie-up has added 150,000 rupees ($2,097) to its coffers each month as the number of bookings has increased.

“Business keeps growing,” said Satya Shankar Rao, the hotel’s sales and marketing manager.

With free StayUncle-branded “Love Kits” in every room – a silky red pouch containing condoms, lube and chocolate – and staff under strict instructions to respect unmarried guests, the hotel has experienced repeat business, Rao said.

Sunil Kyal, sales manager of boutique hotel Dragonfly in Mumbai, told reporters that the success of StayUncle reflected a generational shift.

“People used to think it was a sin or it was wrong” to be in a relationship before marriage, he said, noting the changing beliefs.

For young women like Pooja, 27, the apps are “a blessing”.

“We can’t expect Indian society to grow overnight, but hopefully in the future we won’t need such apps anymore,” she said.

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Christina A. Kroll