September 29, 1999: My business partner Daniel Fraser and I boarded a plane from Calgary, Canada to Bangkok, Thailand. The idea: start a travel company for people that don’t like ‘tours’, yet want a very comprehensive experience in about two weeks. Smiling Albino was born.
We spent our first year doing odd jobs, traveling as much as we could and honed-in on activities and locales that could be woven together in a highly creative, seamless manner, to put together the best possible Thai experience in two weeks.
But there’s much more to the story than this. An element of prime importance when planting roots in an adopted land is developing and maintaining community relationships. With locals in the areas you visit, but also with suppliers who help to make sure everything runs like clockwork (to the amazement of guests). There are no end of tour companies in Thailand, good ones, bad ones and ones that disappear as fast as they come on the scene. Add to this the fact that we were foreigners, how we approached suppliers and partners at the start was paramount to success. We were here to stay.
We didn’t have to think long about the keys to building strong relationships in our adopted land, the came rather quickly. It was simple: treat others like you want to be treated. Period. While many in business will tell you getting the best price on every component is of prime importance, in a high-touch business like tourism, relationships, really personable ones, are integral to success. Here are a few guidelines we’ve lived by:
- Relationships are based on mutual respect and dignity.
- Acknowledge each side’s need to run a business and turn a profit.
- Cognizant that Smiling Albino and its clientele are guests in the region.
- Committed not to nickel-and-dime suppliers, knowing that makes for better long-term service.
These points may seem obvious, but they’re incredibly easy to pass over in the early stages of business development. Sprinting to get a product to market and ensure it’s profitable can often over-shadow the above considerations. Saving what money you can, when you can, could be argued to be good business sense. But we looked way down the road, set our sets higher, had the long-game in mind, and knew if we wanted a satisfying life in our adopted country we’d need to set the bar high.
A telling example is of this approach is how we rent our motorscooters in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province. Luckily we found ‘the shop’ to work with on our first visit. During our time in the area we noticed most guesthouses and hotels had signs advertising they could arrange motorscooter rental from this shop. We noted the price, then recognized the shop itself rented to people for the same price as the hotels. There was a commission available to hotels but we opted not to take it. In our early dealings it was subtly acknowledged we knew of the commission scheme, but were more interested in getting the best bikes, in perfect working condition each and every time. And it happened, perfectly, every time for the last 13 years. We could have easily asked for the 20% commission when we rented and saved a good deal of money over the years but placed higher importance on the overall relationship and it’s paid off in spades. Over the years we’ve continually gotten the best bikes, they’ve been delivered to non-typical starting points, picked up in the middle of the mountains when needed and the list goes on. We didn’t nickel-and-dime the owners and they extend us the very best each and every time, which most importantly results in the absolute best experience for our guests, who are ultimately paying the bills.
It’s easy when traveling to try and save a dollar, bargain hard, lose sight of real financials and annoy all locals in your path. The same is true of doing business in a foreign country, and if you’re there to stay and make a real go of it, treating locals with respect, dignity and investing in long-term relationships is crucial. It sounds pretty simple but is sadly not practiced as much as you might think.