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27 Apr, 2001

Ten Great Business Opportunities In Travel

A TIME Asia staff writer offers his insights in this speech delivered at the PATA 50th anniversary annual conference in Kuala Lumpur.

By Daffyd Roderick, Staff Writer, TIME Asia

Speech delivered at the PATA 50th anniversary annual conference in KL

I haven’t always been a hack. I used to work in the tourism industry for a ski resort in the Rockies. I was working as a ski technician, waxing and tuning skis, but I did learn some lessons about human nature, and specifically the nature of travelers.

In the rental shop, we were often the first point of contact for people who had just finished a long drive to get to their holiday. And they wanted their holiday to start already. While it sounds like it should be a fun time, the joys of skiing, happy families preparing to enjoy themselves together, these were often some of the most miserable people you can imagine. They were often bleary eyed from the trip, a little grouchy and they weren’t in any mood for the likes of me. It appears that holidays are not stress free.

For a while, I hated that job. Invariably, several times a day, some impatient customer would explode into a hissy fit because things weren’t working as they should or moving as quickly as he’d like. It was a little like an Emergency Room… this man needs skis, boots, poles STAT! But after a while, I learned that these people were under tremendous strain. So instead of meeting a glare with a glare, I pretended that I was blissfully unaware that I was bearing the brunt of their anxiety. And this usually helped a lot more than getting snippy back.

Holidays are special. They are where we keep our dreams. They are the psychological release valve on our hard working lives. So travelers are fragile creatures who must be treated with much care. And this puts people who work in the travel industry in a very important position. You make dreams come true. And if you figure out what people dream about how to give flight to those dreams, and you’ve got a potent way to make them choose you and come back to you time after time.

So, here’s my top ten under-tapped travel business ideas. Oh, I have to make a minor admission. I’ve only got nine ideas. I was pressed for time and stressed out and I just couldn’t find ten. And ten has always seemed like such an arbitrary number that I didn’t think you would mind if you only got nine. If you want ten, we can get together afterwards and I can figure something out. I’d hate for you to feel short changed.

9. Number nine is easy. Allow people to live out their fantasies within limits of course, according to local laws and customs. I think fantasy actualization is going to explode in the next few years. I know of one company in Spain that does this and according to their CEO, he can’t meet demand. Essentially, what I’m talking about is making people the star of their own movie by arranging for them to play out an elaborate fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to be a feted member of the royalty or a spy on the trail of a dangerous criminal? It takes the idea of virtual reality and makes it a reality. The Zegrahm company with their ‘submarines to the wreck of the Titanic and flights in fighter jets, has proven that high-yield customers are willing to pay handsomely for a unique experience. So, pushing that envelope a little bit further and go beyond experiential travel and reach into providing fantasy experiences. Of course, this idea requires a high level of logistical prowess and the tools and skills of film making. Stuntmen, actors, actresses, special effects people would all be part of your staff team. But think of how much fun you could have. And for people who have everything, you’re giving them the ultimate experience, allowing them to live a life that they would never know or experience.

8. When parents dream, they dream about their children reaching their potential. They want them to have more opportunities, run faster, jump higher, learn more. To this end, families spend millions of dollars every year sending children to summer camps offering everything from language skills, sports activities or, heaven help the poor kids, math. And there is a complete hole in the Asian market in this area. Compared to Europe or North America, there is virtually nothing available. It would be simple enough to do. If parents wanted Native English speakers, you could import them easily enough or hire Expat teachers already living in Asia. I think this is a market waiting to explode. And ultimately, it’s not just about the Asian market. As Asians have proven time and time again, people are willing to travel a great distance, or at least let their children travel a great distance, to give them a special experience.

If this is properly developed, there’s no reason that children from all over the world won’t come to Asia to attend summer camps. In order to gain credibility, affiliation with the best foreign programs could be worked out, linking the Asian experience with the history and sophistication of programs that have generations of background. Camps could be aimed at a variety of markets, from less expensive adventure camps based in Thailand to more exclusive camps on Hokkaido. Not only would this program foster a global outlook, it would get to young travelers early. Travelers who visit a country at a young age, are proven to return to that place regularly, as it becomes part of their personal culture.

7. Business travelers dream too. Shocking idea. And not just about flying business class or pulling off massive deals. Mostly they dream about being effective for their entire trip. I think one of the major missed opportunities at the moment is a strictly business hotel. A hotel that focuses strictly on business people. Designed in a simple, minimalist fashion that emphasizes simplicity and functionality, these types of hotels would foster work by feeling like a workplace, albeit one with fantastic restaurants. At the moment, it can sometimes be a feat worthy of Houdini to get some work done in your office. I was at a Manila hotel two weeks ago, which will remain nameless and it was about as suitable for work as my kitchen at home. The phone jack was at one end of the room (not near the desk) and the power outlet was at the other end of the room. I ended up sitting on the floor, which was more comfortable than the chair anyway and working there. Needless to say, after three hours of trying to work this way, I decided to go to the business center. Which was worse. The desks were so high I was typing up near my ears and the screen was blurry. Not to mention the fact that the Internet access was abominably slow. In my dream hotel, rooms would be designed around working happily and healthily. Ergonomic, adjustable chairs would replace the high- backed horrors that most hotels currently offer. The desk would be at the correct height and would allow you to fit your legs under it in a comfortable fashion. I’m not so tall that this should be a problem, but believe me, it is. And on the desk would be a computer constant broadband Internet access and a built in printer and a host of stationary. The truly built for business room is too much of a rarity. Market this to business people and I’m willing to bet they’d pay. If this nirvana existed, I’d beg my office manager to let me stay there. But it doesn’t exist yet.

6. Disabled travelers are one of Asia’s under- developed markets. In the US alone, there are 50 million people with disabilities representing about $120 billion of disposable income. A good friend of mine is one of the most active people I know, he’s also paralyzed from the waist down. Last summer he spent two weeks at a sailing camp for people with disabilities and learned how to pilot a small boat. He wants to come out and visit me, but he also wants to do some sailing in Thailand. The problem is, he can’t find a company that has a boat equipped for disabled sailors. Another problem is that Hong Kong as a city, with it’s high curbs and lack of disabled equipment, is a difficult place for the disabled to come to. The opportunity for tour companies, resorts and businesses is impressive. A company in Vancouver has bought a fleet of off road wheel chairs which they rent out to disabled travelers who want to hike in the University of British Columbia’s park land. The big- wheeled chairs allow people who wouldn’t get to experience a rain forest to roll down a dirt path and smell the cedar trees and hear the birds. And they are making a profit. Travelers with disabilities dream the same dreams as everyone else, they just need a bit of thinking on society’s part to make them come true. Now a lot of you are thinking of the expense of this, but if you build it, they will come. And you’ll add a wealthy group to your core audience by realizing the possibilities of a group that you hadn’t thought about previously.

5. My girlfriend is a market waiting to be tapped. For the last year she’s wanted to learn how to work with clay and she’s been searching for an artisan’s village where she can go and learn how to do this, combining a holiday with learning how to make a vase or a bowl. Though I’m frightened by what she might come back with it has to be said that she’s not the most artsy craftsy creature on the planet, it’s strange to me that she can’t find what she is looking for. There must be thousands of other people like her and want to immerse themselves in pottery for a holiday, but there’s no outlet for them. There is an enormous amount of room in knowledge- based holidays for adults in Asia. And as the Chinese market grows in sophistication and disposable income, this is going to become ever bigger part of the travel industry People are hungry for knowledge, hungry to grow as humans and as individuals. Name any field and there is a demand. Mountaineering, archaeology, architecture, massage, cooking.

This area also includes spiritual travel, spiritual tourism if you will. Journeys to sacred sites where people can learn about religion and touch base with something deeper than the wading pool at the Hyatt. If you pay any attention to the way the self-help section has metastasized and taken over a large part of your local bookstore, it has the potential to do this in the travel arena as well. Look at how you can take that hunger and help them reach their potential, help them in the process of becoming what they want to be. Asia, with it’s long and rich history of teaching and education is ideally suited to be on the leading edge of this market.

4. A small Nepalese company has started offering trekking tours for women, by women. Using female guides and porters, they offer an alternative to a traditionally male-led activity. And I think this is just a start. This is in reaction to safety problems with some male trekking leaders and I think it is an appropriate one. But look to women travelers and think about what they want out of their trip. Many of the same things as men, but they also have some special needs, such as safety.

A good friend of mine is terrified of getting into strange taxis after a horrible experience in Manila. She dreads it with all her heart. Imagine if there was a car service run by women for women. Take a fleet of cars and advertise yourself as running the women friendly cab service. Have representatives at the airport and I bet 9 out of 10 times, most female travelers would choose that option. I think an enormous opportunity exists in offering women an exclusive environment that caters to looking after their needs. Whether it be in an educational setting, a eco-travel experience or a spa. There’s a website calledJourneywoman.com, and I have to say, out of the deluge of travel websites, this one I find very interesting. The level of dialogue and community on the site is extremely high. Betsy from Hong Kong wants to know where a good hotel in Bali is and Joan from San Jose knows of one. It’s amazing. And it shows that solo women travelers are a powerful force to be reckoned with.

3. The Pink dollar. U.S. gays spend $10 billion a year on travel- related expenditure. Ignore them at your peril. Or embrace them and reap the rewards. Gay travelers tend to be high-yield, long staying guests that will come back again and again if they find a welcoming environment. While this isn’t possible everywhere, it’ an interesting idea to think about how you can draw gay clients, what you should be offering in terms of product and service to keep them coming back. At present, to my knowledge, there is only one gay tour company based in Asia, Utopia Tours in Thailand. Surely there is room for many more in this vibrant sector of the market. There are dozens of websites around that cater to this sector of the market, but with the amount of money on the line, it hurts your business not to consider gay travelers.

2. Now, for my generation, cruise ships are equated with white vinyl shoes, sailors hats and the Love Boat. So for most of us, the last thing we want to spend our holiday money on is going on a cruise. When I was a child, I went on a cruise with my grandmother down to Puerto Vallarta, and I loved it. I loved the shuffle board, loved the buffet, loved the cheesy nautical theme, loved the sailors in knee socks. However, it’s not my idea of fun anymore, and I don’t know many people who are choosing cruises as there way to escape it all. They seem like the kind of holiday that my grandmother would like (she loved it!) But, being a contrarian, I think there is a huge opportunity to be had here. Make cruising cool again. Instead of being smoky gambling dens, turn them into floating wonderlands. The cruise industry in Asia needs to hit the fast forward button if it wants to tap into a young, affluent market. The number of beautiful ports of call and the fantastic islands of Asia cry out for nautical adventure. Cruise companies need to become more design- conscious, more sophisticated in the way they approach equipping their craft. There’s a younger generation that wants to see its idea of style reflected by their surroundings. And this means minimalist, intelligent design with a high level of technology and a low level of clutter and anything in plaid, unless it’s Burberry.

1. Health-focused adventure travel. While the existence of baby- boomers is hardly a shocking revelation, understanding their concerns and how they impact on the rest of the population. One barometer of this is the advent of men’s health magazines such as Men’s Journal and the boom in health publishing in general. If people are reading about something it’s on their minds. And health is on our minds. We want to take better care of ourselves, feel better, live longer. Now, as a member of Generation X, I’m not about to start worrying about my salt intake. Travelers are going to put more and more emphasis on being offered healthy alternatives, be it fresh salads and juices or full-on medical based health retreats such as Chiva Som. But for many people, a full-on health resort just isn’t that much fun. All that fasting, all that detoxifying, it can seem a little bloodless. And that’s why I think there is a great opportunity in offering a combination spa/adventure holiday. Mountain biking, rock climbing, wind surfing and eating right. Imagine two weeks in Northern Highland, using a resort as a base for day trips guided by intelligent, fun people. It would give you the chance to try something new, experiment a little and get the pollution out of your lungs. People want to come back from a holiday feeling challenged, invigorated and healthy. If you provide them with the opportunity to do this, they’ll come to you in droves.

Thanks very much for your time, if you have any questions that you think I’ll be able to answer, fire away. But remember, I’m just A journalist. And most people that go into journalisM do so because they’d rather talk about doing things rather than do them.

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