As co-founder of Bangkok-based tour operator and DMC, Smiling Albino, Daniel Fraser provides insight on how to survive the changing currents of the industry post-lockdown and stay successful in Thailand
How has the mindset of your clients shifted post-pandemic?
A much larger segment of travellers no longer take travel for granted as much as they did and seek to get more experiences out of trips than before. There is also a rush to visit landmark sites that had become overwhelmed with pre-pandemic tourists before mainstream travel returns worldwide.
Since things began to open up, we have seen a distinct rise in the number and consistency of clients asking for once-in-a-lifetime experiences and the willingness to pay more for them than before Covid.
This trend is perfect for Smiling Albino, which has always positioned itself as the prominent regional go-to DMC for GOAT (Greatest Of All Trips) travel. Over the last 18 months, GOAT-like trips made up the majority of our business.
In fact, during Covid, Smiling Albino made some of the most unique and creative trips we’ve ever done, ranging from epic railway events to full-throttle Isaan luxury adventures with a surprise Mo Lam-style bus party. Helicopter-hopping to remote sites and private villas with celebrity chefs, dramatic performances, exclusive access to landmarks, jet-skiing the Mekong, and doing “things that no one has done before” at the prompt of our clients.
What are your thoughts on the Thai government’s industry directive to move away from budget travel and refocus on affluent and luxury-experience-focused travellers?
The remarks on shifting the focus to attracting quality over quantity visitors are welcome in light of keeping tourism hotspots more sustainable and enjoyable. However, there needs to be more cooperation and programme implementation between the government and the private sector, who are the main drivers of tourism behaviour in the country.
I would love to see travel providers, on-the-ground creative travel managers, and DMCs be part of a public-private think tank with the government, tourism authority, etc, to strategise and implement programmes that drive high-quality/sustainable luxury initiatives. So often, the policies are top-down initiatives, not necessarily connected to the end-user experience or the service provider. As private travel companies are on the ground dealing with guests in-country, we can come up with the right luxury ideas and sustainability solutions with the end-user and local communities/supply chain in mind. Government support via media and agent FAM trips can generate the right kind of buzz with these themes.
Is there still room for Thailand as a budget destination?
Definitely. Only approximately 20 per cent of the country is well known to the travel industry. Those areas have developed and installed infrastructure to increase the quantity and quality of visitors. But, much like the 1970s-1990s, fantastic, exotic, and authentic experiences can be had in places like Isaan, the Eastern coasts, and the deep South, which offer outstanding value to the budget traveller.
Which countries represent the strongest market for Smiling Albino?
The US, the UK and Canada are our three major markets. But we are excited about the potential of Saudi travellers booking high-end bespoke trips. Another brand new and exciting market for us is the local market, travel-savvy Thais and expats seeking once-in-a-lifetime experiences in their own backyard. Before Covid, we rarely hosted local guests, but some of the most creative trips we’ve ever done have come from clients in Thailand.
With fewer human resources than before Covid, we need to convert more trips and not risk working on complex itineraries without upfront commitments. Therefore, being very clear on what these once-in-a-lifetime experiences actually cost and what is required behind the scenes to pull them off, is something we’ve been working to convey for the last few months.
What are the main challenges for the Thai industry in the near future?
For Smiling Albino, we are seeking to be a more sustainable company, more robust, and not dependent on one specific client segment, so some immunity development is in the works for the next couple of years as well.
Ultimately, it comes down to human resources – for us and the industry as a whole. The workforce needs to get comfortable again with the hospitality industry and not be afraid of what happened in the last couple of years. Creative, bold and passionate people will drive the luxury hospitality industry, and universities and government agencies need to keep that in mind as it is Thailand’s key strategic advantage.