It was a dirt bike race that proved to be a catalyst for Hunter S Thompson when he wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He found himself in Vegas with a boot-full of illegal drugs, fending off invisible demons with a fly swatter. Thompson admits to have craved a taste of adrenaline but for all his iconoclasm, he never once felt a roaring machine burn rubber on desert tracks. Jimmy Mistry never had that problem. His semi-pro racing days back when he was in college gave him the adrenaline rush (and not out of a bottle, mind). And he was reminded of the same rush when he stared at 36 acres of vacant land in Lonavala on a nippy January morning in 2010.
A part of that land now rumbles with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs, or quad bikes as they are popularly known in the US), which howl at a pitch higher than a truck and more powerful than a regular motorbike. This first-of-its-kind racetrack is central to Della Adventure’s, well, adventure park not far from Lonavala, the popular weekend hill destination 100 km from Mumbai. Here, a group of 20-somethings turn into lords of the track for 15 minutes and, as soon as a race starts, an audience is drawn to them, like moths to a flame — even the acrid smell of diesel deters no one from crowding the fences.
Mistry, the founder of this sprawling ode to thrill-seekers, watches the serpentine queues leading to the ATV track with intense pride. Elsewhere, motocross-standard dirt bikes putter on a parallel racetrack even as kids rappel down a sharpish manmade wall. The major pull for its younger (and lighter) crowd is zorbing, a sport invented in New Zealand where the participant runs in a transparent ball across various surfaces — a hamster on a wheel, if you will. Groups on office off-sites prefer team sports like paintball, archery and mini golf.
Today, Della Adventure pulls in around 12,000 visitors a month, and 60% of them are corporate clients. The average ticket size is 1,500 (spent exclusively on the activities), and the four on-site restaurants, also owned by Della Adventure, pull in about the same amount. Once the park started to take off, Mistry quickly built a 50-key five-star stay experience in the form of ultra-luxury tents. The card rate of a basic room is 10,000 a night and the hotel runs at 30-50% occupancy, depending on the season. “And because some people prefer hotel rooms to tents, we are adding a 100-room hotel soon,” Mistry says.
Getting a foothold
Mistry wasn’t even planning on an adventure park. “I wanted to build a set of second-home villas,” says the 41-year-old who runs Della Tecnica, a Mumbai-based architectural design firm. But, inspired by a similar second-home project in Orlando, Florida, where he spent a summer in 2005, he bought the land at Lonavala for 100 crore in 2007 with personal funds and some borrowings.
He was formalising things in 2009 but, “that’s when the slowdown hit the villa sales.” Mistry had to diversify to utilise the rest of his land bank, and the idea of a park began to take shape. Go-karting had started to take off in a big way in India, motor racing was no longer a fool’s obsession and expat friends enquired about quad bikes. So Mistry imported some equipment from the US and Europe, and built a rudimentary dirt track.
But where would he get the customers? A professional designer who had built studios for media companies such as Zee Entertainment and Network 18, office spaces for the likes of Rajiv Bajaj, and his personal highlight, “a yacht for liquor baron Vijay Mallya”, Mistry asked some of his clients to give the ATVs a run. A few companies even organised a day’s visit and employees took turns on the vehicle. Soon, Mistry bought horses and farm animals. “The idea then started to evolve — the planned in-house café became a full blown restaurant that served cocktails,” he reminisces.
Meanwhile, the sale of villas continued to rake in money. “We don’t want to let go of the second-home market,” Mistry admits. Della has the permissions to construct 48 villas, to be built and sold in two phases. Of these, 24 villas in the first, completed phase have been sold, as have 16 in the second (under construction) phase. This is how Mistry’s math works: a villa sells for anywhere between 1.5 crore and 4 crore, depending on the amenities. The cost price, however, is “almost half that.” The margin is pushed into the hotel and the adventure park to purchase equipment for new activities.
All into the game
It works well because the adventure park is, in fact, a capital-hungry business since new rides are added constantly to keep excitement levels high. “Unlike amusement parks, our rides are cheap to purchase,” Mistry says. “A roller coaster costs upward of 5 crore, while an ATV, the most capital-hungry activity, costs 5 lakh.” The park has seen an investment of 50 crore till date and its most popular ride — the ATVs — cost 750 for a 15-minute spin. The daily upkeep is handled by the revenue each piece of equipment generates. “The adventure park, if taken in isolation, broke even in FY11 and is paying for itself,” Mistry confirms.
Della’s 36 acres is now split over 15 acres for the villas, 10 acres for the adventure park and its 84 activities, and 11 acres for the hotel-resort. The company ended FY12 with revenue of 30 crore and aims to double it when FY13 draws to a close. Ambitious target? “Yes, but it can be easily managed,” Mistry says confidently.
Durgaprasad S Powar, a Pune-based software engineer working for Cisco, heard of Della from a friend and checked it out online. The over 42,000 ‘likes’ and the unique nature of the activities on display helped him sell the idea to his colleagues. “Thirty of us, including two managers, went there,” he says. “The average cost per head was close to 1,600 (just for the park), with unlimited access to the activities, which is not too expensive.” The average corporate visit lasts two or three days, and Mistry hopes to increase that by offering more activities.
Dogs could be next on Mistry’s diversification agenda. “When I was in South Africa last year, I saw that dog walking was becoming a fad… it is almost therapeutic,” deadpans Mistry. He has imported Great Bernards, Boxers and Irish Setters to wow visitors. Milking Jersey cows is another big draw. There are now 18 dogs and four cows in Della’s stable.
It hasn’t been an easy ride, though. Getting the right gate fee was a problem — Della started by charging 500 as entry fee but this turned away visitors. Then, one of Mistry’s corporate clients advised him to lower the entry fee but not the individual ride fee (300 on an average), which would get people in the door. The fee was then lowered to 100 and the number of visitors increased almost overnight from 300 to 500 on peak days.
But there was a general impression among visitors that, like amusement parks, the gate fee would let them get on any ride, and the disappointment that followed made them feel the prices were too steep. Mistry felt the pressure of taking the amusement park route but resisted. “It was decided we would target people who earned enough to, say, own a Honda City,” quips Mistry. He was prepared to lose the rest of his guest list.
Food was another way in which he could keep his customers in the park but Mistry had no experience in running a restaurant and did not want another hotelier on his property. Della experimented with a steaks-and-grills restaurant where people could learn to cook their own meat while nursing a drink, borrowing from the American barbeque culture but that gig flopped. The demand for an all-vegetarian restaurant got the edgy grills shelved. Now, there is a 24-hour coffee shop, a vegetarian restaurant, a fast food joint and a bar that pulls in the crowds.
Staffing problems for such a niche segment is another persistent issue. “Most of the ATV and bike staff are motocross professionals but others have no adventure background… they have all been hired and trained,” Mistry says, so it’s not easy to fill the gap when a staffer quits. Local hires compensate. Mistry explains, “About 650 of our 2,500-strong staff are locals and that helps them want to stay.”
Into the distance
The dream does not stop here. He is planning on getting four more parks operational in the next year. “Gurgoan, Noida, Bengaluru and Indore are our first targets,” Mistry says. And this time, he wants all these parks even closer to the city. “I don’t want to rely on weekend crowds alone, I want people in every day,” he says.
To offset the cost of expensive land acquisition, he is planning a JV with three companies. “The land will be owned by [as yet unnamed] partners whereas the expertise will be mine, and this land will have second homes as well,” Mistry says. There is talk of PE investment and an IPO in the next six years but right now, Mistry is thinking about upping the intensity at the Lonavala plot, by adding a more activities within the next year. So the next time you feel the spirit of Thompson crawling up your leg with a knife in its teeth, remember you may not want to load up on ether. Just drive a few kilometres to the closest Della and let it give you a fix.