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Room service for unmarried couples

ON A CRISP winter afternoon back in December 2014, Sumit Anand found himself on his motorbike with the visage of his girlfriend in his rearview mirror and a smile on his face. The 29-year-old Delhi- based software developer, after much deliberation and planning, had finally managed to find some time off and combined two long-held promises into a single plan—that of a long bike ride promised to himself and the other of an outstation holiday with his girlfriend. The idea was to reach the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand by evening, check into one of the several hotels on the park’s periphery at night, and be up early next morning for a tour of the famed national park.

The bike zipped through the city in the mild afternoon sun, leaving the Delhi plains behind for the cooler sub-Himalayan air, until they reached the outskirts of the park by evening, having completed the 250-km odd distance in less than the expected six hours. “All we needed now,” Anand recounts, “was to stretch our legs and get some rest.” Except the couple just couldn’t find a hotel room. “We moved from one hotel to another. Some of them were adjacent and some of them on different lanes. But nobody was willing to give us a room,” he says. When asked, none of the receptionists offered any explanation, while it was quite evident, Anand claims, that several of them had vacant accommodation. Finally, the reception at one hotel, turning them down, did them the courtesy of explaining why. “They said they had a policy against unmarried couples sharing a room,” he says. Another hotelier they approached went a step further. Pointing to his girlfriend’s Muslim name, the hotelier said that letting an unmarried couple, and that too of different religious communities, share a room could result in trouble. The year 2014 had seen the proliferation of several absurd political conspiracies about Hindu-Muslim lovers.

As evening turned to night, the couple moved from hotel to hotel, hearing almost always the same spiel of how unmarried couples cannot share a room. By the time they found a hotel willing to take them in, their mood had soured. “It was like a nightmare,” he says. “Like we had committed a sin.”

A few weeks later, says Anand, a friend who works at a call centre, Soma Lala, recounted a similar experience in Delhi. Despite having called to confirm a hotel booking made online, she landed with her boyfriend on his birthday at the hotel, only to be turned away. “The staff looked at our IDs and just refused us. They were like, ‘You two are from Delhi. What do you need a hotel room for?’ They didn’t even return the money,” she recalls. To Anand, who had brushed off the Uttarakhand episode as a one-off, the outcome of a provincial mindset, Lala’s experience in Delhi stumped him. “I was like, ‘What, really? Here too?’” he says.

Anand began looking around, talking to friends in relationships and hotel owners, until he realised the issue affected almost everyone everywhere in India. Most hotels, he claims, object to couples who live in the same area. “The whole idea is since they have houses in the same city or town, what would they possibly need a hotel room for but mischief,” he says. “You try it—if you’re an unmarried couple, chances are you just won’t get a room.”

When unmarried couples do get a room, there is often the fear of a police raid. In several cities and towns, despite the absence of any law that forbids two consenting adults from sharing a hotel room, policemen are known to raid the premises of hotels that accommodate unwed couples on the pretext of going after ‘prostitution-like activities’.

Legally, the police have no grounds on which to conduct these raids. The Bombay High Court spoke against this practice last year. In 2010, a Supreme Court judgment clarified that pre-marital sex is no crime. Lawyers however point out that policemen do have a right to investigate if they suspect paid-sex is taking place. “So what usually happens is policemen, who want to prove their efficiency to their superiors, will conduct a raid on the pretext of [busting] prostitution, even if there is no reason to believe so,” says Sushan Kunjuraman, a High Court lawyer in Mumbai. “On these raids, they are not supposed to disturb or detain hotel guests as long as they are adults and have submitted copies of their identity papers at the reception. But cops will never look at the papers. They will just detain everybody [there].”

We wanted to celebrate my boyfriend’s birthday. But the hotel staff was so rude. Like we were doing something very wrong

Couples are often picked up and humiliated by the cops, the local media sometimes tags along to report a ‘scandal’, their parents are informed, and they are occasionally let off with a fine and a stern warning against committing such an ‘indecency’ again. Last year, for instance, the police detained around 40 couples, many of them college students, who had checked into hotels in the popular holiday destinations of Madh Island and Aksa Beach in Mumbai. At first, the police claimed they were busting a prostitution ring, but later charged the couples with ‘indecent behaviour in public’. They were detained for several hours, lectured and fined, and many of them had to call their parents. “The police are going beyond their brief in these cases. It is unlawful when this happens. But unfortunately, this is what often happens,” Kunjuraman says.

A TELEVISION PRODUCER IN Mumbai remembers following news reports of the 2015 police raid in Mumbai. “There have been so many moments when I wanted to go do a short holiday with just my boyfriend. Not just do lunch or hang out for a few hours. But we’ve just never had the courage to check ourselves in a hotel after reading about these incidents,” Anita Vohra (name changed) says. Manik Singh, who owns Hotel Rupam in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area, claims several hoteliers are unaware that there are no rules against letting out rooms to unmarried couples. “We used to think you can’t give out rooms to couples who show local IDs,” he says, “We’d be like, ‘Why do you need a room? You two live in Delhi’.”

Spotting market potential, this September, after months of research and convincing hotel owners, Anand, Lala and another friend in Mumbai launched Luvstay, an enterprise that aims to solve the problem of staying space for unweds. The portal acts as an aggregator of hotel rooms, much like Uber and Ola does for taxis or AirBnb for short-stay apartments, except that this one, although on a much smaller scale right now, is geared towards addressing an issue that is peculiarly Indian. There is no estimate of how big such a market is, but, according to Anand, as word of the portal picks up, and the difficulty of finding hotel rooms for unweds continues, over time their business is likely to take off. “You would be surprised,” Anand says, “but every single day I get between 2,000 to 3,000 hits on the website. This means single people are looking at it, wondering if they can find a room.”

Luvstay joins one of several similar portals and companies that have sprung up in the past two years, like StayUncle and FellaStay. Earlier this year, Oyo Rooms, India’s largest hotel room aggregator, launched what it calls its ‘relationship mode’ service. Among start-ups, Oyo Rooms is big. It has over 75,000 standardised units on offer in more than 200 cities and towns, and raised Rs 413 crore from Softbank earlier this year and $100 million in an earlier round of funding. Once a user switches on ‘relationship mode’, the app filters its search to list only those hotels that welcome unmarried guests. However, convincing hotels to come aboard these platforms is a challenge. “Of every 10 hotels we approach, only about two or three will come on board,” says Sanchit Sethi, founder of StayUncle, “The others will say, ‘This is going against Indian culture’ or express fears of moral policing by policemen or political groups. What we are doing is new in the hotel industry, so this is bound to be there.” Manik Singh, whose Hotel Rupam is listed both on Luvstay and StayUncle, says that prostitution is one worry. “We don’t ask too many queries or make guests who come from these platforms feel uncomfortable, but we do keep an eye on the age difference of the couple. If there is, say, a man in his fifties and a girl in her twenties, it could mean something odd is going on. We might deny them a stay at those times.”

We moved from one hotel to another but nobody gave us a room. They said they had a policy against unmarried couples sharing a room

Some of these businesses, like Oyo Rooms, allow couples to check in for the usual minimum duration—up till noon the next day, typically. But others allow shorter stays, from seven to 10 hours. FellaStay allows couples to book for just three hours. The lure of commerce overrides perceived issues of immorality or indecency. “If you make it technologically efficient and streamlined, if you get hotel owners to realise the business potential here, we can work around it,” says Raushan Kumar, one of the founders of FellaStay.

The first to get off the block with the concept was StayUncle. Started by a techie, Sanchit Sethi, in 2014, it was initially conceived as a portal that allowed frequent business travellers to check into hotels for short durations of 10 or less hours. “Most hotels in India take reservations on a 24-hour basis. For someone who travels frequently on work, who would at best use a room for a few hours of rest, that’s not the most cost-efficient thing,” Sethi explains. “We thought we had an exciting new idea at hand.” But after the launch, almost all the calls Sethi began to field were not from business travellers but couples wondering if they could book a room online. For about a year-and-a-half, he ignored those calls, choosing to focus instead on his primary clientele. “It was like 99 per cent of all the calls. Couples phoning in to ask if they could also use it. It was crazy,” Sethi remembers. “It took us more than a year to realise that this was a much bigger problem than the one we were trying to solve.”

More than a year into the business, with the initial concept not taking off, Sethi and his team realised they needed to start afresh, this time focusing only on unmarried couples. But by the time they refocused their efforts, much of their early investment had dried out. They had to move out of their office in Hauz Khas and take up cheaper space in Vaishali. With little money for marketing, Sethi along with his colleagues printed thousands of cards with their company’s new tagline, ‘Couples need a room, not a judgement!’, and distributed them for about five months in public places frequented by couples. “It was humiliating to have cards torn and thrown at you, but we had no choice,” he says. Gradually, online portals began to write about them and bookings began to pick up. Currently, StayUncle has tied up with a total of about 200 hotels in 10 cities. All these, Sethi claims, are premium hotels, a 10-hour long stay costing anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 6,000. The business gets about 70 bookings a day and is now expanding the list of hotels on its platform, especially in holiday destinations like Goa and Manali.

Several aggregators admit there is no way to filter out cases of paid sex. “We follow the rules. We get them to submit their IDs. Some call us before booking, and, unless they say something odd, we go ahead with the booking,” Anand says. “As far as we are concerned, they have submitted their IDs and are in their rooms consensually. What goes on inside in nobody else’s business.”

Oyo Rooms’ story of how market dynamics forced the company to woo unmarried couples is like StayUncle’s. Launched in 2013 with a single bed-and-breakfast property in Gurgaon, Oyo Rooms has grown rapidly over the last two years. Its founder, 23-year-old Ritesh Agarwal, however, would often get feedback forms and emails from couples expressing distress about hotels failing to honour their bookings. “So we put together a consumer insight team to study the issue,” says Maninder Gulati, the company’s chief strategy officer. “We got them to dig around, look up the market, and interview couples. When they came back to us with their report, we realised that this was a big untapped market. Lots of couples in relationships want rooms for all sorts of things—not just sex—from sorting out differences to watching a movie together. That’s something that kept coming up.”

With a large section of its users already in the 18-30 age bracket, Oyo adopted the position of a new-age brand that was open, Gulati says, and began to get hotel owners on board. Around half of all the hotels on its platform are now okay serving clients in relationship mode. According to the company, an average of 7,000-8,000 couples switch on this mode every day to look for hotels.

Although nothing untoward has yet occurred, almost all these ventures have handed out to their partner hotels copies of old police notifications against raids on hotels with unmarried couples and court judgments calling these unlawful. Standing up for the cohabitation right of consenting couples also makes these businesses vulnerable to online abuse. Organisations that have in the past protested against couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, like the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal, have occasionally been tagged in tweets asking for these companies to be shut down.

Two weeks ago, Anita Vohra used Luvstay to finally check into a hotel with her boyfriend in Bandra. “I was so hesitant and scared. I was expecting the staff to say something. Or maybe the door to be kicked in by policemen, with my picture splashed across the papers the next morning. I was so paranoid of all that, I didn’t even have fun,” she says. “I think we will have to check in once more just to rid myself of all these fears.”