WHEN HIREN GANDHI crawled into his bed in a tiny pod on his first night in Singapore, he wondered if he could get any sleep at all. The pod, somewhat like a hibernation capsule in a science fiction film, was roughly the size of a futon, large enough to accommodate him, but not large enough to stand upright. It cost him only 40 Singapore dollars (about Rs 1,900), about half the cost of the cheapest regular-sized hotel rooms in Singapore. Gandhi was severely jet-lagged, and he knew if his past first-nights in new countries were anything to go by, he would not get any sleep. “I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do for the entire night in this pod if I don’t get any sleep?’” he says.
There was wi-fi available, so Gandhi, who heads the Vadodara-based Express Group of Hotels, watched YouTube videos to pass time. And before he knew it, he had dozed off. “The next morning, I was thinking, ‘This can work. This can really work, even in India’.”
As travel guides and media reports will often tell you, either nudging the point respectfully or explicitly stating it, there are several things that appear baffling to outsiders when they visit Japan. This ranges from their exceptionally polite manners, unusual fashion trends and efficient-but-strange lavatory controls to the popularity of things like anime porn and, more seriously, the demographic time bomb they now face with deaths far outnumbering births. And in this list of the bizarre is the Japanese concept of capsule or pod hotels. Tiny rooms, plastic boxes really—where the price is right and the space just big enough for guests to crawl in and sleep—stacked in rows, sometimes one on top of another. It is a reflection of an increasingly near future, if it hasn’t happened already, where the value of every cubic centimetre of space in a modern city will be optimised.
Over the years, this concept of pod hotels has spread with mixed success to other countries. They have sprouted in Singapore, China, Europe and the US. And now, for the first time, a pod hotel has opened in one of India’s costliest cities, Mumbai.
Like other expensive cities in the world, the standard complaint about hotels in Mumbai has been that their size is too small and price too high. Guests deliver this line with the implied query, ‘Can you do something about it?’ But what can you do about it in a city where area is measured in square millimetres and almost everything is crammed, from the trains people take to work to the matchbox-sized apartments they return to at night?
But Gandhi, enthused by his experience, and his friend Shalabh Mittal—CEO of the Mercator Group—believe they now have a response to that complaint. The duo have made accommodation cheaper, but also drastically reduced its size, offering just the bare essentials in tiny yet thoughtfully- designed pod accommodations that roughly cost Rs 2,000 per night. Each of these pods is supposed to serve as a self-contained miniature hotel room, complete with a bed, lights, plug points to charge electronic devices, and even a tiny TV set (with headphones), all within a fraction of the usual space taken.
While trying out pod accommodations in Singapore, Gandhi and Mittal figured that there would be demand for similar spaces on rent in India. “We are looking for travellers who want value for their money. People who don’t want extravagant lobbies and wasteful spaces. Just a nice, clean, no-frills place where they can sleep and leave the next morning,” Gandhi says. “Just think about it—can you find a good clean hotel room in a place like Mumbai for less than Rs 4,000? Nope. We give you that for almost half the cost. What we are doing is introducing an entirely new category.”
Pod hotels are believed to have first come up in Japan in the late 1970s for working men who missed the last train home; an otherwise efficient public transport system would shut down at midnight. Over time, as land prices shot up, hotels became expensive, and families had to move to tight quarters in distant suburbs, demand for capsule hotels also picked up. Reportedly, during the 2008-09 global recession, many laid off workers moved into capsule hotels after they had to vacate their company-sponsored houses.
But now Gandhi and Mittal believe that price-conscious, stylish travellers will gladly check into truly tiny spaces as long as they’re well-designed and maintained. Their capsule hotel, Urbanpod, is in Andheri and caters not just to workers but also tourists who need to catch a flight from the airport nearby.
In appearance, Urbanpod is all futuristic chic. There are a total of 140 pods on offer. You drop your luggage at a separate locker facility when you check-in. The cafe, lobby and bathrooms are common. And for a little more money, one can upgrade one’s stay to a ‘suite’ or private pod. Gandhi and Mittal plan to take this concept to other cities too. They also hope to set up pod hotels by means of a public-private partnership model with the Indian Railways at some train stations.
“We think the concept can really work in India,” Gandhi says. “We are using the [Andheri] pod hotel as a showroom to exhibit this concept.”