Amanpreet Bajaj is by all accounts a busy man, whose job entails taking a flight out to somewhere in this world at least once a month, but he is loath to consider himself a typical business traveller. Instead the India country manager of Airbnb, the online rental platform that has reinvented how people travel since 2008, prefers the new-age concept of “bleisure”. The explanation is self-evident: business trips that also afford some of the joys of unencumbered travel.
In a conversation over the phone from his office in Delhi, 36-year-old Bajaj reveals that he had been travelling for work long before Airbnb. “I was lucky because I was a consultant (with Ernst & Young, India) early in my career. Part of that role involved constantly going to a different country to learn. The friends I made when I was in those places ensured that I was made to feel at home,” he says.
In his consulting days, Bajaj would spend at least three to four weeks in a foreign location. “I worked through the week and then weekends were spent exploring whichever city or town I was in,” he says. That meant anything from spending hours roaming around Paris to dropping by the best restaurant in Amsterdam or checking out the latest hotspot in New York.
Wanderlust runs in Bajaj’s family. His father owned a transportation business and any downtime was spent taking road trips, often through north India as they drove to meet relatives in Delhi. “My father was the kind of person who wouldn’t just drive from one location to another. He would stop at roadside dhabas, enjoy the sights and love to start a conversation with people. He encouraged me to do the same,” remembers Bajaj.
It’s an ethos he has carried through to his dealings today. Thanks to travel, he has also picked up hobbies he never would have considered. Sailing is a fledgling interest. “I wouldn’t have ever considered sailing in India. I experienced it for the first time in Greece and because I had such a wonderful time, I now sail whenever I go there. I find someone who has a boat and we go to one of the islands nearby,” he says.
Greece, sunny and postcard perfect, is a perennial favourite with Bajaj. Its genial hospitality and familial culture appeal to his Indian roots. “Greece is like another home to me. Everywhere you look, there are remnants of the country’s ancient history and civilisation. The people are warm and value family ties. And, the cuisine is delightful,” he says. In Athens, Bajaj’s usual stomping grounds are the local flea markets, in and around the city centre, or Brettos, one of the city’s well-known bars. “Brettos is the oldest distillery in Athens that serves ouzo (a traditional Greek aperitif), high quality brandy, and more than 36 different flavours of liqueur, many of which are not available in other establishments,” he reveals.
Bajaj’s idea of fulfilling travel isn’t extreme, either in luxury or adventure. He prefers down-to-earth interactions with new faces instead. “Travel is a good way to realise that whatever apprehensions a person might have before he or she goes somewhere, the people they meet are probably thinking the same way. So that presents a great opportunity for cultural exchange and finding common ground,” he says.
Home or how to make people feel at home is a constant motif in his responses perhaps because Airbnb’s equity with travellers around the world depends on it. In November 2015, that skill faced its greatest test after a series of terrorist attacks shook Paris. Bajaj was there that night dining at Flora, along with some Airbnb hosts who were in town for an annual company event.
“As soon as the news broke, we went to our Airbnb listing which belonged to a Frenchman,” he remembers. “We spent almost one-and-a-half days in his home trying to locate every employee and making sure they were safe. We couldn’t step outside but the French host was so kind. He called us to let us know that there was enough food in the fridge to last us during our stay there.”
For Bajaj, that was a life-affirming moment and, according to him, it’s what travelling comes down to—forming real and authentic connections with strangers. And there’s no substitute for that. “I know that there’s talk these days of Virtual Reality (VR) replacing travel one day but all that will remain a novelty. As long as we are human, we will want to go to a place and feel it in our bones,” he says.
Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Editor in Chief at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.