Joes vs Pros

The first time I hosted friends in Bangkok seems like a lifetime ago. The year was 2009, President Barack Obama had just been sworn in, James Cameron’s Avatar was the year’s highest grossing film and I became an ad-hoc guide for six energetic millennials.

At the time, I felt such pressure to make sure my friends ate, saw, smelled (durian), wai’d, and tried everything. It was their first visit to Thailand, and they were counting on me to deliver an “authentic local experience”. (Little did I know how much those three words would impact my career today).

Looking back, my biggest takeaway is simply that most travellers desire an element of the extraordinary: something unique, captivating and memorable that they can recall for years to come. In order to provide that, I had to gauge their particular appetites for adventure and plan our itinerary accordingly. But what if they didn’t conveniently have a local buddy on-hand – how would their trip have turned out?

Perhaps with the help of articles, top-10 lists and published travel guides, they would have been OK. Better yet, they might have sought out their hotel’s concierge for sightseeing ideas, discussed Bangkok’s best street food stalls with a lively waitress at breakfast or discovered the neighbourhood’s temple after chatting with an ever-smiling doorman.

Inevitably, and thankfully, hospitality at its best requires genuine face-to-face human finesse. It is that very notion – and the idea that travellers are inherent story collectors and experiences seekers – that makes Airbnb’s recent offer, Trips, something to keep an eye on.

Guiding a New Path

In what seems like a natural extension of Airbnb’s mottos of ‘Live There’, ‘Welcome Home’ and ‘Belong Anywhere’, Trips enables plucky locals, and even non-profit organisations, to share their insights, passion, culture and art with curious travellers. Made to tap into Airbnb’s already substantial global network of hosts and guests, Trips is motivated by the fact that, as Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky says, “You can spend as much time planning your trip, as on your trip.”

The new offering is something the company says will ‘fix’ this problem, giving travellers authentic local experiences while freeing up the time usually spent researching and arranging said experiences. Experience Hosts, as they’re calling these local insiders, can’t just be any regular Joes. They must be creative, expressive, welcoming and, most importantly, not think of themselves as tour guides. This extends to the types of experiences hosts should offer. Airbnb challenges them to create “an experience that your guests wouldn’t be able to find on their own”.

The latter point is perhaps the essential trait of Trips. Because, regardless of what travellers wish to do – dive with sharks, hunt truffles, learn Dominican bachata dance – it is still easiest (and safest) for them to ask their hotel to arrange it.

The reason Trips is such an exciting prospect is that many hotels either aren’t prepared or are too mired in convention, to cater to travellers’ growing appetites for off-the-beaten-path adventures. The majority of hotels and tour groups continue to peddle generic tours that don’t quite fulfil expectations or inspire the imagination. This is at their peril, as more forward-thinking operators are taking a leaf from Airbnb’s playbook, realising they need to offer distinct, bespoke experiences if they are to sell their tours.

Learning from Experience

Airbnb has already had a profound impact on the industry, and although it is less than a year old, Trips is shaking up expectations and business models in the hospitality and travel world. To the
benefit of travellers everywhere, this has been a motivating factor for all operators, from independent properties to global brands, to invest more into creating, and enhancing, their own experience offers.

While some are catching up, others are already well on their way. West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis is leveraging its rock-n-roll reputation to tap into experiential travellers. From making their famous underground recording studio available to guests and adding the Morrison Hotel Gallery (an extension of the New York City-based gallery) to monthly themed events focused on music and artists, the Sunset Marquis has proven that hotels can more than compete with the independent local insider ‘host’. Perceptive guides and guest experience managers at hotels may even employ Trips as an additional platform – because if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Multinational hotel groups with brands that showcase local culture and design, such as IHG’s Indigo or AccorHotel’s MGallery, are also a step ahead and should have little difficulty adapting and even innovating. Still, while some will rise to the occasion, there will undoubtedly be a thinning of the herd.

Local tour companies dependent on standard one-day trips may have to go back to the drawing board. I doubt anyone will miss those loud, flag-waving, time-keeping tour guides, their military-strict
sightseeing schedules and their cold, uncomfortable minibuses. No matter what the future holds for this industry, one thing is for certain: it doesn’t pay to lather, rinse and repeat.

Hoteliers VS. Hosts

While independent hosts have agility going for them, hospitality expertise and training are not to be taken lightly. The very purpose of Airbnb is to connect regular people with, well, regular people – not seasoned hospitality professionals.

While there will always be outstanding, generous indie hosts, hoteliers as a whole still set the standard for service and care. A team of in-tune, dedicated specialists is better equipped to serve. And judging by the expansion of their training programmes and the growing intensity of their experience proposal vetting, Airbnb knows this.

Consumers and industry experts should not discount the value of brand standards, service and operations guidelines, job experience and ethical requirements. Each assures guests of respect and fair treatment.

Being a hotelier entails so much more than checking-in guests, offering poolside service or even being a local discovery guide. It is a specialised role that demands expert precision, commitment to guest
experiences, passion for service, creative innovation and enthusiasm for each and every guest. Hoteliers, whether seasoned or newly minted, have a very real stake in delivering the best services to guests.
For Airbnb, whose hosts are probably not seasoned hospitality experts, maintaining standards will be an ongoing challenge.

Last year, the company came under fire over its hosts’ ability to refuse potential bookings based on guests’ race, nationality, age, gender and more. A study published in May by Rutgers University, based on nearly 4,000 Airbnb booking requests, found that bookers with disabilities were refused at rates higher than people without disabilities.

While Airbnb has implemented a non-discrimination policy to “reaffirm their commitment to inclusion and respect”, there are obviously still ways around the language. Currently, the most severe consequence that rogue Airbnb hosts face is being removed from the platform. Meanwhile, Airbnb’s reputation suffers.

Naturally, hosts do not have the same connection or obligations to Airbnb as a hotelier has to their property and brand.

Ask the Experts

Did I end up being a good local ‘experience host’ for my friends? Much to my relief, they ended up falling in love with Thailand, and their happiness was well worth all the planning. But I can’t claim all the credit. While it was easy to share my enthusiasm for a city so close to my heart, I had plenty of support.

Thanks to Thailand’s mature travel industry, I was able to tap into a well-established infrastructure. I stole ideas from articles. I scoured top-10 lists. And every morning while my friends were diving into their hotel’s breakfast buffet, I reviewed my itinerary with the concierge, whose insights and advice were essential to our holiday.

So while Trips may signal a new era of travel, it’s not the end of the tour. The quest for an authentic local experience is always going to rely on exactly that: experience.

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More ‘Social’, Less ‘Media’

QUO believes social media content should be more ‘social’ than ‘media’ to win against ever-changing algorithms. By QUO Brand Strategist Rica Facundo.

Many hospitality marketers panicked about the recent change to Facebook’s algorithm, which now decisively favours user content and meaningful engagement over promotional posts from businesses. While brands ultimately need to adjust their approach to media planning, data crunching does not address the crux of the problem. Neither do content strategies with no real-world implications.

QUO believes that the answer to social media content strategies is simple yet easily overlooked: create meaningful experiences in real life that guests will naturally want to share with their communities online.

That is why the Facebook algorithm change actually works in favour of hospitality brands.

Share-worthy experiences have always been at the heart of the industry. People seek out novel adventures for their next online #humblebrag. They document, then relive fond travel memories through throwbacks. They cultivate their communities through photo tagging and inside jokes left on comments.

A shift to more meaningful interactions is also an emerging theme evident in the hospitality industry, with travellers seeking more wellness and purpose-driven experiences. Now more than ever guests will advocate and recommend hotel experiences that align with their personal beliefs, instead of those that just pay lip service to them.

This strategy defined the new social media campaign and long-term social media approach that QUO created for Wink Hotels, a new hospitality brand aimed at tech-savvy ‘Indochine 2.0’ travellers.

After the Wink Hotels brand launched in October 2017, the first posts on its Facebook page were standard press releases that pushed the product without giving compelling examples why the brand was relevant to the lifestyle or mindset of an Indochine 2.0. traveller. This is a stark contrast to the ‘Indochine 2.0’ campaign that is currently underway. Even though Wink Hotels is still being built, the brand aims to create content that demonstrates its ethos in order to resonate with a new generation of travellers in a meaningful way.

While the initial headlines after Facebook’s recent change were screaming every variation of ‘RIP Facebook for Marketers’ in the long-term the change will become a return to the essence of social media – that it’s a behaviour, not a channel.

A social-savvy hotel brand needs to understand the nuances of human behaviour, particularly when it comes to what their guests desire and believe, to create travel experiences able to spark this kind of ‘shareability’ online. If brands focused more on the ‘social’ than ‘media’ in their content strategies, this will ultimately give guests a more compelling reason to share the brands they love with their social networks.

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Something’s Brewing in Sri Lanka…

There is a story written in the skyline of Colombo.

Composed in rising towers of concrete and steel, it tells the tale of Sri Lanka’s fledgeling hotel industry – one marked by rapid transformation and lofty ambitions. The seaside capital, with its colourful blend of Colonial-era architecture and Buddhist temples, is in the midst of an unprecedented construction boom. Driving along Galle Road, it is impossible not to notice the dozens of cranes that bow over buildings, structures that will house international hotel brands looking to ride the country’s post-war resurgence.

Within the next two years, an estimated 4,300 new rooms will come online across the country, the bulk of those in Colombo itself. For the most part, these will belong to established global giants like Hilton and Marriott. But behind the scenes, a home-grown revolution is brewing. Driven by ambitious local brands looking to shake off decades of dormancy, the national tourism landscape is set to be upended from within.

Sri Lanka has all the hallmarks of a success story in the making. After being largely isolated from the world during its three-decade civil war, the country is on its way to becoming one of Asia’s most sought-after destinations. Four Sri Lankan properties even beat out 675 global competitors to make the Condé Nast Traveler 2017 Hot List.

In the eight years since the war ended, Sri Lanka has recorded promising year-on-year growth in inbound visitors, with 2012 breaking the US$1 billion mark in tourist revenue – a figure that has more than tripled in the time since according to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority data.

“Everyone’s focusing on tourism right now,” says Emanuel Abeyewardene, director at Closenberg (Pvt) Ltd. “It’s one of the main industries the government is promoting, so there are a lot of places opening, most in the high-end and mid-range sector.”

Fuelled by this support, the total contribution of tourism and travel to GDP is expected to reach 13.5% in 2027 (up from 11.4% last year), as international tourist arrivals are tipped to total 4,968,000. Tourist arrivals have already more than doubled since 2012 when the figure first passed the one million mark.

And those visitors are spending more and staying longer, too – receipts per tourist have risen 63% in that same period, while nearly 41% of tourists now stay 8 to 14 nights in the country. With these figures, it’s hardly surprising that big brands are rushing to put down roots.


The list of hotels set to open their doors in the coming years is a long one, and their locations diverse. No longer confined to the traditional tourist areas of Colombo and the southwest, they are looking to pioneer the beaches and jungles of the east and north. Marriott International already has four properties in development under its Sheraton, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton brands. The 24-storey Mövenpick Hotel Colombo opened its doors in January, while Hilton plans to launch six new properties across the country by 2021.

To accommodate the growing influx of foreign travellers, Terminal 1 at Bandaranaike International Airport is likely to be expanded by 2019, increasing its capacity to 15 million passengers annually, well over double the current six million. While it all spells success for the Sri Lankan economy, there are disconcerted murmurings over the country’s focus on the luxury segment.

More than 3,600 of the 4,300 hotel rooms in the country’s pipeline are categorised as luxury or upscale, with the mid-range and budget segments underserved. This is despite numbers indicating there are more budget and mid-scale travellers arriving. For local hotel and travel brands with agility and vision, this gap poses a ripe opportunity to innovate.


“I’m basically chasing the market that’s already coming through,” says Ravi Bandaranaike, owner of two Colombo bed-and-breakfasts. “It’s a missed opportunity [for others] in a sense.”

Three years ago, when Ravi opened his first guesthouse, the mural-covered surfer-style Drift BnB, it was the first of its kind. Now, he estimates that up to 40 new copycat establishments have opened in Colombo alone. His customers make up part of that burgeoning underserved budget to midscale demographic – backpackers who are broke after travelling for six months and travellers who would rather spend less on accommodation and more on experiences.

At the other end of the spectrum, Emanuel’s Closenberg Hotel demonstrates you don’t have to be a cool B&B to innovate. An 1860 British mansion built on an even older Dutch fortalice in Galle Harbour, the hotel could comfortably rest on its heritage laurels, but Emanuel and his team want to take ‘brand Closenberg’ in a more modern direction, while still playing up its colonial charm.

The most obvious manifestation of this is Luna Terrace – an outdoor event space with an electric blue bar overlooking the hotel’s lavish 180-degree infinity pool. A “platform for cutting-edge art, music and culture”, it plays host to local and international DJs, pool parties, gallery events, book readings and studio sessions. The aim is to eventually set up a professional music studio here.

The Galle Face Hotel Group has also given some of its existing properties a more modern edge by rolling out the Ekho brand. Shifting the focus to experiential travel, the new Ekho identity leverages local culture to offer an immersive Sri Lankan stay. Less a complete overhaul than an infusion of fresh ideas, the changes put the emphasis on delivering an authentic local experience. Then there are several new brands in the pipeline set to shake up perceptions of what a Sri Lankan hotel and travel experience should look like.

Malinga Arsakularatne, Managing Director at Hemas Leisure Travel Aviation Group, says the industry cannot afford to stay idle. He says the past few years of growth have set a solid foundation for the industry. But as competition grows, the onus is on local brands to venture into new territory to broaden and enhance then Sri Lankan hotel experience.

“Sri Lanka is in huge demand as a destination, which presents many growth opportunities. But it is also attracting new players to the marketplace,” he says. “The only way forward for us is to bring in fresh blood and fresh thinking. We need to change the perception of what Sri Lankan tourism is all about. And it’s up to local players like us to lead that change, and redefine the landscape of Sri Lanka tourism.”


The key to Sri Lanka’s long-term success rides on the protection of its assets. Development is already creeping along the coastline, with the government courting big overseas investors for golf courses and luxury chains, and smaller foreign operators descending upon the tiny surf towns. Local innovators must work together to steer development in a sustainable direction.

Thanks to a war that inadvertently protected the country’s natural reserves by preventing industrialisation, Sri Lanka’s jungles and beaches are still intact. So while eco-travel has proven a marketable trend around the globe, in Sri Lanka the movement is crucially important.

It is essential, as Ravi says, to “grow things positively”. Innovators should look to countries with an environmentalist approach to tourism, such as Bhutan or Costa Rica. For Emanuel, it’s important that Sri Lankans continue to offer Sri Lanka to visitors.

“We’ve got so much amazing flora and fauna. We should open up and really, truly focus on what we have in our backyard.”

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Bangkok: The Future of the World’s Most Visited City

In 2017, Bangkok was the most visited city in the world for the second consecutive year, according to the Mastercard Destination Cities Index.

The capital of Thailand has transformed into a megacity, a status confirmed by large-scale urban redevelopment and massive infrastructure projects.

The 50 billion baht (USD $1.5 billion) Icon Siam development is changing the skyline on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya river and will be the first project to integrate road, rail and river transportation. The BTS and MRT public transport networks are rapidly expanding, with the MRT Blue Line extension further opening up Thonburi while the BTS line to Don Muang airport will alleviate the delays and frustrations caused by traffic gridlock.

Other massive redevelopments underway in the Big Mango include One Bangkok, a 16-hectare mini-metro next to Lumphini Park, and the Grand Rama IX super tower, which at 615 metres will be one of the world’s tallest buildings and an unmissable landmark when complete. And these projects are just the beginning of Bangkok’s megacity makeover.

But what exactly is a megacity and how does Bangkok compare with other global urban conglomerations? Those questions and many others will be answered at the 2018 Thailand Tourism Forum (TTF), the country’s biggest annual hotel event. The 2018 TTF spotlight will shine on Bangkok and speakers from some of the largest Thai conglomerates will discuss Bangkok’s future growth in new districts as well as the reinvention of historic areas.

QUO CEO David Keen will moderate a TTF panel discussion about Bangkok’s brand and how the new economy will shape perceptions of the city. David will be getting the opinions of some highly respected names in the local hotel and development industries including Ingo Schweder, CEO at GOCO Hospitality; Thomas Schmelter, IHG Group’s Director of Operations for Thailand & Indochina; and Cobby Leathers, Head of International Business for Sansiri PCL.

Organised by the American Chamber of Commerce, TTF 2018 is a unique opportunity to hear Thailand’s hotel and hospitality heavyweights candidly discuss the economy, growth and other issues affecting tourism. Attendance at TTF is complimentary but advanced registration is required.

Date: Monday, 22 January 2018

Venue: Grand Ballroom, Level 4, InterContinental Hotel, Bangkok.

Registration: Send an email to or visit AMCHAM website

For more information and to register, go to