Sunny – manager of localalike.com – an online marketplace where you can find curated travel experiences in local communities across South-East Asia.
Q1: What do you appreciate yourself in the business mainly for?
Each price on the website comprises the cost of hosting a guest and on top of that 5% for what we call social development fund. Basically anybody who comes contributes to this fund. How it usually works is that we come to a village and say: this place is very nice, it will be suitable to host few guests every month, are you interested? And if they have interest and they have the right facilities to welcome guests, we ask them if they have any little problems or issues to solve, what do they need. With the fund we settle goals, for example this place need additional stationary place, new bathroom floor, pipe system. We use the social development fund to meet those goals. The social impact group, one of the departments of our company, is responsible for tracking, measuring all those things. It’s only working in some villages right now, not all. We don’t have enough critical mass, money to do all the things. We decided to set smaller goals for next year, so we can see more impact and then head for bigger impact later. There is a line between doing charity and social impact work. A lot of companies go to villages and donate sweaters, blankets and they do it every year. We want to be sure we don’t give free stuff which people can start to rely on. For example educational supplies. We don’t want to give just pens and pencils, we want to fund new curricula, education programs. And what is the most important, both sides decide what it will be. The social impact group knows how to deal with those things. We co-create things with villagers. We are not helping, we are doing it together.
Q2: What is the biggest challenge for you now?
In localalike we are divided in 3 divisions: one looks for social impact specifically; one looks for tours, they design routes with locals, come up with prices, look for new destination and local partners. And then the technology team, there are 4 of us building the website. None of us is working here since long time, we are quite new. We are learning about the process and how to manage it. Right now we are only accepting 10-12 people. From corporation or school often they ask: can I bring 100 employees to the village? It would be nice because it means a lot of money, but 100 people it’s too much stress for the village so we have to refuse. Ideally we want small groups, individual travelers, 2-10 is the best number. It’s a different selling strategy. Instead of going for big groups we want more frequent small groups. The challenge is how do we reach out to more people so they want to come to us. When you plan travel overseas, you don’t do it two days ahead, but 3 months ahead. You compare a lot. How do we make people to trust us? We are so young a company. That’s one of the challenges for the tour part. From the technology side our challenge is that none of us have experience in building a big platform. Usually it’s 20-30 people, we are only 2 coding, then we have some freelancers, contractors, as we don’t have enough money. Most of us are here because we have passion for social entrepreneurship, we have passion for travelling in Thailand, passion for community development. We work here for incentive and benefits. But once incentive and benefit is not cash, then what could it be? How do we retain good employees? Most of the people here are very talented, they could go to work for big companies and make good money but they decide to stay here. We have 12 employees. It’s a very diverse team. The challenge is also how do we keep them and how we recruit new people.
Q3: What advice do you have for yourself in this situation?
For the next years we want to bring also different handicraft products from the villages and sell them online. So tourists can not only do tours themselves but also share some products with their friends. And the most important – skills sharing. Sharing local wisdoms, and also organizing team building format for corporates. Some people come to us and ask if we do team building. We don’t, but locals do. They have lots of local knowledge that people from city don’t even think of.
Would you like to add something more?
Our founder comes from the NGO world. He saw the problems in local villages, one of which is that tourists go to few destinations only, the most known. They come for short, take pictures and leave, that’s it. Locals have to pose, pretend they are doing a certain activity, like handicraft, selling food so people come to take pictures. But it’s not real life. You are not going to see real people, you see people performing, that’s not the way it should be. The tourism industry commercialize the most popular destination, locals do not do their regular jobs, they evacuate places for community events, so they become places to host foreigners. It’s hard to bring it back to the pristine stage, just consider Pattaya or Phuket as an example. Those pictures from postcards are not longer real. The goal here is to encourage responsible tourism. How do we do it? We want to find more destinations in Thailand that are worth visiting. That way we can control the amount each place is taking and manage the capacity. Each place has a limited number of tourists they can receive every month. We want them to stay the way they are. The selling point is that visitors can see it the way it really is. With that in mind, tourism is a social development tool. People don’t see it that way, they see just profit. Especially in Bangkok they build lots of shopping malls but how sustainable is that? Probably not so much. It’s driven by consumerism and we want to create tourism driven by actual interest, passion and purpose. That means we want travellers who are more aware of the world, they want to leave it better than they found it. Our market for now are people who understand that tourism has to be done properly. In future we want to target Chinese tourists, they typically want to go to Japan, Singapore, Korea, pay super cheap tickets, do some sightseeing, selfies. Those would be our future target. For now we focus on those who already care about the world. We need more appreciation for traditional livelihood. North Americans, Europeans, Scandinavians, Australians… it’s very clear that the market is there, they understand and appreciate.
The questions were asked on our behalf by Anna and Andrea from How to (ex) change the world.
Bangkok, Thailand, 10th June 2016