Alessandra Sikand was practically born in transit between Hong Kong and Tokyo to a Swiss-German mother and a New Yorker Punjabi father. She decided on a Japanese birth certificate and then lived in the US, Turkey, Spain, Italy, India, England and Thailand.
After studying Sociology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics, with a dream to explore the world in a meaningful and responsible way, Alessandra’s career in hospitality began at the Conrad Bangkok. She worked with the opening team of the Aman New Delhi and then held various positions at SUJAN Luxury Hotels, including as Resident Manager of their Relais & Chateaux property, Sher Bagh, in Ranthambhore, India. In this last position, she managed a luxury tented camp in a tiger reserve and found a place that had made her dream of meaningful and responsible travel, a reality. After six years in the hospitality industry, she has begun a new nomadic adventure designing similar travel experiences.
For some individuals, starting something on their own is a given and comes naturally; for me it developed over time.
Over six years, I built a career in hospitality in Thailand and India, and loved every moment of it. I had some of the most incredible experiences, met genuine and vivacious people, and had the pleasure of hosting high-profile events with heads of state, such as the King of Bhutan, and celebrity weddings, like that of Katy Perry and Russell Brand’s. I also spent time with a fantastic team of fifty Rajasthani village men and their tigers!
But, I burnt out pretty quickly. I neglected myself personally, ended an eight-year relationship and, in general, felt quite off-balance. I also had a tremendous desire to explore something different and reconnect with friends and family spread across the world.
The last company I worked for--SUJAN Luxury Hotels in India--really paved the way for where I am now. In my last position as Resident Manager and then as General Manager of Sher Bagh, I was also in charge of business development, and gained valuable experience. Though I left my full time position in June 2012, SUJAN continued to give me consulting work, which helped me maintain my travel industry contacts and, at the same time, allowed me to fund my travels. I enjoyed the freedom of freelance work, but soon concluded that if I could work this hard to pursue someone else’s dream, surely I could follow my own. I just had to figure out what this dream was and with whom I was going to pursue it.
I had many ideas and I knew early on that I wanted to create something with someone else but hadn’t quite met that “someone.” There were a lot of people who were talented and with whom I would have loved to collaborate, but they weren’t the right fit. It wasn’t just a matter of having a unique idea, finding investors and starting a business, it was something more. I wasn’t sure how I would monetize the business, but my idea was to combine my many interests and my passions with a desire to create something with someone that would evolve and endure.
I am a strong believer that things come to you when you put your intentions out in the universe. That may sound kooky, but when you really believe something in your heart, not just in theory, you are open to opportunities that have sometimes been right in front of you all along. Things just took their natural course and fell into place, even if I didn’t realize that at the time.
I met Tara, my business partner, when she used to go on safari to photograph wildlife at the camp I managed. We spent a year-and-a-half getting to know one another and discovered we had a lot in common. We discussed our passions and then asked ourselves what we would like to be doing with our days. The answer was simple: we enjoyed travelling, writing, photography, designing meaningful experiences, and we wanted the ability to work from anywhere.
Over a handshake under a tree in Villa Borghese in Rome, we agreed to go into business and started writing a business plan while on a trip we had scheduled to New Zealand. We took a standard template and answered all the questions that dealt with company structure (LLC, partnership, etc.), startup costs, projected expenses and revenue, products and services, target market, philosophy, marketing plan, and competition. It was a huge learning curve. We had to think of things that when you work for someone else, never really cross your mind. The internet and mentors were very helpful, but we soon realized that the best plan was for us to just start our business.
Fortunately, we didn’t need very much capital to start, nor did we want outside investors. We just had to figure out how to stay financially stable.
Apart from our website, business cards and the costs of incorporation, our major expense was traveling and doing on-site research of new destinations. We also stayed informed about places we were already familiar with so that we could offer our clients a special experience based on our personal knowledge.
The way I would describe Karvansarai is a travel lifestyle brand that brings the talents and passions together of both my business partner Tara and myself. The area I focus on, which is the main part of our business, is travel design.
We create personalised travel experiences based on firsthand knowledge, whether it is a single event, or an entire itinerary. We understand that each individual’s desires are different and that there is no one-size fits all. Given that our travel planning is made-to-measure, our products and services are different each time, depending on our client.
I wouldn’t be where I am now without all the experiences early on in my career. Working in hotels taught me that things don’t always go as planned. The lesson that has stayed with me is that you don’t lose your cool, you apply patience, stay calm and focused, and you have backup plans --plan A, B or C. Nine times out of ten, plan A works out and all is resolved.
That said, there are some days that I wish I could just clock in, do the work assigned to me, clock out, take my regular paycheck and go home. Other days, I seem to lack creativity, motivation and inspiration, or I wonder how I am ever going to be able to scale my business and make a living.
But those days are no different from the tough days in life. They don’t make me want to quit. Instead, they are what keeps this process exciting. There are always new things to work through, and I always come back to why I am doing this in the first place. Starting a business is not everyone’s dream, but I love the freedom and the ability to create something that is truly my own. Now I just cancel challenging days from the calendar, keep my feet on the ground, a balanced head to work through every situation or mistake, and start fresh the following day.
Our business model will surely keep evolving. Along the way, we have made major and minor adjustments to our business plan, but we have learned to embrace change and adapt to new situations. Rather than looking at mistakes as failures, we keep modifying our product to see what works and what doesn’t. We have also discovered the fine balance between patience and giving up too quickly. Tenacity and the ability to see things through have become our mandate.
When we incorporated in October 2014, we targeted a specific segment of the Indian market traveling abroad, and also focused on developing a client base that wanted to travel to India.
Then we saw an opportunity in the US market for travel to Cuba, so we spent a month there doing research and exploring what was possible. Now both a market and product I hadn’t thought about is taking off for us.
I think we are doing pretty well. We’ve only had a few assignments but, so far, they have all come with exceptional feedback. A friend who has a similar business and has been operating for ten years now recently shared that in their first year they had six clients. We are currently working with our fifth client and we’re only nine months in (as of this writing), so I am quite pleased.
It has helped that I have had a well-rounded education, which has included math, languages, science, philosophy, arts, sports, and community service.
Both my time studying at St. Stephen’s, as well as at the London School of Economics, has given me solid exposure to many fundamentals: how to think, question, analyse, process information, and create. It wasn’t always so much the actual information I learnt but the way to approach the world. These institutions opened many doors and gave me access to a diverse network and to invaluable connections.
I would have also enjoyed emphasis on non-traditional subjects as well, such as entrepreneurship, the arts and even vocational skills. I would have liked to have been encouraged to explore alternative ways to being successful as opposed to following a ready-made plan. So I am happy to hear St. Stephen’s is open to other methods of learning and education, such as STEAM.
We are still in the early stages of our startup with a very niche product. Currently, we are focusing on our marketing strategy and on ways in which we can become more profitable. Word of mouth is still our most powerful tool, and it’s working very well for us.
Starting Karvansarai has been as much a professional journey as a personal one. Every day I re-evaluate my goals and remind myself of our purpose. I always try to keep things real and meaningful, taking one day at a time. I live life with my eyes wide open, I maintain a balance and try to have fun.