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Four years ago, Sanchit Sethi was skulking around airports and railway stations, trying to get his flagging hotel aggregator business off the ground.
Two years later, in 2015, he had finally found his true calling. In a country where hooking up is often a spectator sport—the best a young couple can hope for is a quiet bush and not too many onlookers—Sethi and his business partner, Blaze Arizanov, offer unmarried couples hotel rooms for a few hours, no questions asked, through their company StayUncle.
Technically, legally, Indian adults can rent hotel rooms wherever they want, and with whomever they want. But hotels often play moral police, rejecting local residents, and demanding marriage certificates from potential patrons.
StayUncle’s brazen attitude towards premarital sex has catapulted the company into notoriety. Sethi and Arizanov employ ten people, and offer their services in 30 cities. As of last year, 42,000 people had used StayUncle.
We caught up with Sethi and Arizanov to find out why business is booming despite the challenges.
VICE: What gave you the idea for StayUncle?
Sanchit Sethi: Not what you think. I wasn’t facing problems finding hotels for me and my girlfriend. We started providing hotels to business travellers on an hourly basis. When we launched our hourly hotel stays in Delhi, we started receiving a lot of calls from couples, so we thought: why not do it for couples?
Who is the average Stay Uncle user?
Age-wise, 52 percent of our customers are between the ages of 20-25. But 20-30 covers about 90 percent of our users. We also have very regular customers who are around 50-51. We have a 50 percent repeat rate, and most of customers use our services at least once a month. It’s like a grocery business: high frequency.
How quick is a quickie for a StayUncle customer?
Generally, an average person spends about five to six hours in the hotel. The minimum time is about an hour and a half, but this doesn’t happen very often. If you’re spending money, you take time, you make special arrangements for that, you don’t tell your parents. You try to spend as much time as you can.
What about same sex couples?
We’ve received a few inquiries, but we’re still trying to make hotels comfortable with that. There are a few hotels who are comfortable with that. It’s something we still need to figure out.
So what’s your pitch when you go to hotel owners?
Mainly we tell hotels the amount of business that we’ll provide for them. But that comes later. Half of the conversation revolves around their comfort with unmarried couples. First, we pose as customers and call hotels. If I’m pitching a hotel in Lucknow, I call and say, “Hey I’m from Lucknow, I have a Lucknow ID, will you allow me and my girlfriend to stay? We’re not married.” And that’s when the fun starts. We have people tell us it’s illegal, it’s a sin, what we’re doing is completely wrong.
Is it harder in small cities?
Yes, mainly because of the mindset. People in small towns aren’t exposed to how people in Mumbai and Delhi think. So, what you think is a reflection of what the five people around you think. I won’t say everyone is like that, because there are people who think liberally, but there is a difference.
Your unique marketing strategy included shouting slogans in Connaught Place and handing out cards to couples. How did people react?
If someone handed me a card I’d be excited and ask, ‘Wow! What is this?’ But youths in Delhi…There were instances where they threw back the card at us. They started abusing us, our moms, our sisters. We knew that this could happen. But a good majority of the responses were positive, and that kept us moving forward.
Once, I was distributing cards in Connaught Place at 11 at night. I approached a young couple sitting on a bench and started a conversation. Eventually, I handed over the card. So, this guy was in the army, and he got SUPER offended. They were married. The moment I handed the card to him…fuck man, that was crazy. He stood up and he asked me to leave. I said I was happy to go, but I really wanted to know what I’d done wrong. Our conversation got super heated; his wife had to hold him back. There have been a couple of such instances.
Did you also run into problems with the police or security guards?
A couple years ago, two of us were distributing cards outside Unitech Park in Gurgaon. A guard took a card from us and gave it to his supervisor. Now, this guy was Haryanvi, 6 or 7 feet tall, with big, bulky muscles. He asked us what we were distributing and took us to a corner to talk. The supervisor asked us to leave, and when we resisted, he slapped one of us. ..he took us to his office, and we didn’t really have a choice but to go with him. The minute we entered, we spotted two canes lying in the corner, and the guy said, “Nobody leaves this room without getting beaten by me.”
Somehow, we started having a conversation about youths, our needs, etc. and that got through to him. He said he got it, but he couldn’t let us distribute those cards under his watch, since his job would be on the line.
We ended up giving him our card, and he used our services a couple of times after that.
What about the moral police? Anti-Romeo brigades or things like that?
So people from across the country send us messages on Facebook telling us how wrong we are. But we haven’t faced any response from any specific organisation as such.
Once, a particular organisation got offended by an ad we posted and they sent a couple of people to our office. But as always, we resolved it through talking.
The bigger worry is, ‘What if something happens to my team?’ Blaze and I have gotten used to this, but they haven’t. What if something happens to them?
Do you think such opposition is going to increase?
Blaze Arizanov: We don’t expect anything in the short term, but as the next election approaches, it’s possible that some political party may just ride on our cause to get some sympathy from the conservative parts of society. We’re sort of preparing ourselves for it, but we still don’t think it’s likely to happen.
What do your parents think of what you do?
Sethi: At first, I didn’t tell them what we were doing. And then when we went viral, a couple of my relatives in Lucknow found out, because of a newspaper article, and they went to my native place, Jaunpur. I had to run home to tell my parents before the relatives told them. Better that they hear it from me than from the news or relatives.
When I first told them, they did not react. Then slowly we started talking about it, and they said things like, "this is wrong." But now, after a long time, they feel better about it. I wouldn’t say completely okay, still.
When you started, how many hotels did you approach before one said yes?
We got rejected by 20 hotels. But it’s gotten easier. Now we get three to four hotels out of 10 when we pitch. We have about 600 hotels now.
Do you prevent underage people or prostitutes from using Stay Uncle?
The ultimate right of admission lies with the hotel. You need an ID to check in, so if you’re underage, you can’t enter. That’s one legal filter that the hotel applies.
With prostitution, if the hotel thinks that the girl or guy I’m coming with is not “genuine”–which is also hard to tell because we’re all human, right? You can’t tell a person’s occupation from their face. But if the hotel isn’t convinced, then they deny.
Has that happened?
A couple of times. In most of the instances, we ended up believing that it was not a “genuine couple”. Hotels have been in the business for years, they’ve developed an eye for people as well. So, in such cases, the explanations from the hotels have been very understandable and convincing.
Do you use StayUncle?
I have. I’ve always lived in a flat, but then staying in a hotel is a different experience.
So what was growing up like for you?
Very conventional! I had a girlfriend, but we were always in a long distance relationship. So I used to meet her once or twice a year. After graduating from BITS-Pilani, I was working in Goa and I was sitting with my friends, talking about what we wanted to do. And that’s when I realised I wanted to start something of my own. That evening changed my life.
And now when I look back, the way my life has taken shape is totally unexpected. I think what both Blaze and I did was that we kept on saying yes to things that other people were saying no to. That’s the best thing that we’ve done.
And then there’s a lot of love that happens in that hotel room.
There are other hotel aggregators that backed away from unmarried couples to begin with and then came back to them.
OYO rooms? Yeah, if bigger companies are trying to imitate you, that’s a clue that we’re doing something right. We cannot stop them from copying us, but doing it better than them is something we can control.
Serving hotels to couples is not an ordinary service. Any other hotel stay is just that, there are no emotions involved. But in our case, when a couple checks into a hotel room, there’s a lot of insecurity and fear. And then there’s a lot of love that happens in that hotel room. So the overall process is different.
Dating apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Truly Madly have exploded in India over the last couple years. Is that helping business?
Yes, there are many couples who’ve met on Tinder and now use StayUncle regularly.
Did you consider partnering with these apps on a professional level?
Arizanov: We tried more than a year ago but they rejected us because our image was too controversial, too outspoken. Tinder kept insisting that, “We are a brand which is not about hookups.” It’s like they’re living in their own concocted version of reality. Tinder is all about hookups, but they refuse to accept that.
How’s StayUncle doing on the business end of things right now?
Selling hotel rooms is going to be our core offering. But we’ve started expanding into other related aspects. Recently we started selling a “StayUncle kit” – chocolate and a pack of condoms. We figured that a lot of people are uncomfortable buying condoms, so we thought we’d make it more convenient.
We also receive a lot of requests for bathtubs. So, we’re trying to create an inventory of hotels for bathtubs.
What are other popular requests?
Sethi: We receive requests for decorations, like cake and candles on special occasions. We get a lot of requests for partners.
Arizanov: We once received a request for a room with lots of mirrors—all four sides. That’s the strangest one we’ve had.
We also receive a lot of requests for bathtubs. So, we’re trying to create an inventory of hotels for bathtubs.
What’s the future for StayUncle?
Arizanov: To be one-stop shop for all things related to couples. Whether it’s private space, whether it’s a sexual wellness portal that we can put up in the future, whether it’s a fashion brand for couples.
Sethi: On a social angle, we want to make people open about sex. We want to make people comfortable talking about sex, whether you’re speaking to your friends or your parents. Going forward, we just want to emphasise that sex is a very natural phenomenon.