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Founders of Soul Travelling, Ramchandra Prabhu Salgaonkar and Varun Hegde are treading new ground in Goa’s startup ecosystem, discovers Shoma Patnaik

The road less travelled

Are you the kind who, when travelling, wants to soak in the ambience of the place? Do you wish to walk down narrow streets that traverse close to people homes and take a swig of the local drink?

Well then, Soul Travelling an innovative travel venture could be the answer for you.

Tourists often say that Goa is a great place to explore but it is not easy to track down a tour operator who makes off-beat travel a reality. Entrepreneurs, Ramchandra Prabhu Salgaonkar and Varun Hegde are trying to make a success of unusual travel services through their venture. They offer walking trips in cities, interior villages, towns and in localities such as Rachol, Veling, Comba among others. The startup keeps away from the beach-belt hotspots and the touristy places.

Initial results are encouraging, according to the partners. They reveal that, in nine months of existence the number of clients handled by them is increasing. “In June we handled 263 people and in July (so far) about 330 customers. “Typical walk companies handle about 100 customers a month. In comparison we are doing more clients, meeting costs and making profit,” says Salgaonkar.

“In the current financial year it became necessary for our company to file returns and pay income tax. It is a milestone for us,” discloses Hegde.

Goa is being promoted as a haven for IT startups and the duo it turns out are always being urged to take up a venture related to technology. Salgaonkar and Hegde point out that, they are proud to be a non-tech startup and doing business that is very simple, down-to-earth and connected to the people. “IT entrepreneurs are fixated over getting funding and investors. In contrast we are self-funded and free to grow at our own space,” add the partners.

They point out that the company although liberated from the pressure of investors is run dynamically. It currently has 10 presenters on board and plans are to hire more and get bigger. The firm is also looking for a space in one of the incubators in the state.  The short-term goal is to handle 1,000 customers a month and expand the walking trips to 20 locations from 10 locations currently.

The partners add that they haven’t even got down to targeting tourists due to the enthusiastic response from locals. “About 80 per cent of our customers at present are Goans and 20 per cent tourists. We have not really gone after domestic and foreign tourists but will do so shortly. It is an untapped segment that offers significant potential to increase the business,” says Salgaonkar.  Trying to chalk up plans for the future, he says that, Soul Travelling will be looking at outbound travel and to nearby destinations such as Gokarn, Manipal. In future they are even looking at international destinations such as Europe.

Corporate clients are going to be another focus area, explains Hedge. He says that, the company recently conducted a walk for Oman Air and for an international human rights group. “The corporate market is ripe for tapping. Corporate visitors are tired of partying and staying within the hotel. They want different experiences by way of night treks, food walks, tavern trails, etc.” says Hegde. “‘Lot of people confuse us with travel agents and ask us to do bookings,” he says frankly.

Both Salgaonkar and Hegde are alumni of PCCE, Verna. But they belonged to different batches and never really came together in college. The duo became business partners by chance after meeting each other in an event and discovering a common interest in travelling.  They decided to work together in the travel industry but were determined that the venture had to be off-beat and “not doing the normal stuff covered by travel operators.”

“I had tried my hand in few startups like ventures along with working,” says Salgaoncar. At the end he quit his job to commit himself to business. Hegde worked for about four years in Bangalore and also in Germany. While abroad he travelled quite a bit and saw how walks were conducted for tourists. “I decided to adopt the concept to Goa,” he says.

“Goans are not familiar to walking tours but walk companies such as Royal Mysore Walks and Khaki Tours, Maharashtra, are doing good business. We took inspiration from their success and started our company,” says Salgaonkar and Hegde. They initially structured two walks, in Panjim and Margao before coming out with a package of 10 walks in 10 different localities.

‘The response to our first walk in Margao was very poor and we got only three visitors including us. But the second in Panjim had twenty six people turning up. It took us by surprise and we found it difficult to handle so many people. Gradually we worked out the balance and the optimum numbers,” they reveal.

The partners are thankful to CIBA, Verna, for incubating them virtually. The incubation center was a big help in mentoring and guidance, they say.

As for the walking tour, the partners say that it is more than striding on the streets. Each walk (in a particular locality) is different from the other and offers a personal experience. The trip usually has a local speaker who is an expert of the area. The speaker could be anyone, an oddball resident or even a politician. In Margao the group once had Digambar Kamat, former chief minister, as a special speaker while in Panjim it was Siddharth Kuncolienkar. Both gave nuggets of information on their cities and were a huge hit.

Sometimes the trip involves a visit to a local bakery or a handicraft unit. It is an energizing kind of walk and not all filled with tedious historical background, they say. “We aim to have to a world class product. It has to be good in quality so as to attract all kinds of tourists,’ says Hegde

“Our business model is low-cost but sustainable. We are confident about our product. It will drive growth in future,” says Salgaonkar.

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