Vandana Vijay stood all India first in the Combined Defence Services (CDS) exam in 2009. She was schooled in the Himalayan region and some difficult areas of the North-East and Jammu & Kashmir, thanks to her being the daughter of an Army officer.
But to her surprise, her parents did not allow her into the defence services. So, she had to explore an alternative career. “With an MSc in Microbiology from Osmania University and confused at what to do, I saw an opening in Facebook, which had started operations in Hyderabad around 2013,” she says.
“But the strong lure of the Himalayas, spirit of adventure that had got imprinted on my young mind drew me into venturing into travel and tourism as a career option. Thus, I hit upon the idea of Offbeat Tracks in 2016,” says Vandana, a first generation entrepreneur. The three years in Facebook, her travels and interactions with a cross-section of people, especially young professionals, gave her the realise that high earning people, women too, were keen on travelling and adventure.
The start-up journey
Why just travel, when you can make a positive impact, is a drive Vandana wants to promote via her bootstrapped enterprise. With a small personal investment, support from her family and a team of five employees, Vandana plunged into the start-up world.
The adventure loving-traveller-turned-entrepreneur says from just travelling and knocking off places and sites from bucket lists, some people are slowly moving to ‘impact tourism’.
This is where Offbeat Tracks wants to create a niche and build the market and business along with social impact and sustainability, explains Vandana.
In most of the trips, the company tries to achieve at least two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG19) of the United Nations to be realised by 2030 – gainful employment and clean energy. Though the initiative did not get a big boost immediately, the tuning point came around July 2017. A team of 12-14 travellers from California including two NRIs from Lighting for Literacy (LFL), a group of HNIs from the Bay Area keen to implement renewable energy solutions in difficult places, set out on a 10-day trip to Takmachick village in Ladakh.
Located at an altitude of 14,000 feet and with subzero temperatures for nearly eight months a year, it had no power or water. “Combining my knowledge of the local area and support of LFL, we provided LED lighting to 10 households with solar panels. The trek involved carrying 100 kg equipment to be able to light up their lives,” Vandana recalled.
Unwittingly, this experience opened up a new social-cum-business opportunity for the company — implementing sustainable energy projects in remote locations along with core tourism, she said.
Though tourism and travel sector is competitive and tough, the difference Offbeat Tracks is trying to bring is to make it more ‘experience centric’ and newer and less explored destinations. To achieve this the company has tied up with homestays, local vendors and also focus on locations such as the Himalayas, North-East States, J&K and Himachal Pradesh. About 25 Indian and half a dozen global destinations are on the company’s radar now.
For example, a trip to the North-East can include staying and experiencing the culture, cuisine and activity of the Angami tribe in Nagaland. A tourist can be given a total, local experience and go way beyond boat rides or basking in nature settings. It can be timed with the annual Hornbill Festival in December which sees a congregation of 24 tribes. One can learn how to weave a basket or knit a shawl or make Nagaland’s popular cuisine made of King Chilli.
“Why buy a souvenir when you can make one? Why not get a few tips on local art or craft through a crash course? It’s time to go beyond Instagrams, selfies in front of monuments and sites and savour the experience,” says Vandana.
With more and more Indians travelling overseas, Offbeat Tracks has set its sights on the Nordic countries, Balkans and Central Asia in the near future.
Banking on next-gen travellers
Vandana is banking on HNIs, women in their thirties keen on experiential journeys, young professionals and retirees, who have both money and energy and are ready to explore, to grow. Having organised over 250 tours so far, Vandana taps social media, networks of contacts, NGOs, tie ups with hospitality and travel entities and websites to promote her business.
On social-oriented renewable projects, plans are on to tie up with local companies to provide cost-effective solar solutions for home lighting, says Vandana.