In the first of hopefully many regular Meet & Greets, our editor Tim Russell met up with Laurent Granier, Vientiane-based tourism entrepreneur and co-founder of Laos Mood, an innovative and distinctive Laos inbound operator with its own very determined way of doing business. Laurent had a lot to say about the perks – and pitfalls – of running a travel business in one of Asia’s most mysterious and least accessible destinations…
Tell us how you ended up working in the travel industry…
Well, I think it is the result of my teenage travels. I was fortunate enough to explore France and Europe on package tours. I have always been curious and I liked the idea of “creation” of tours – what to put in to make my time enjoyable. And I think I have developed some form of empathy quite early by telling myself: “If I was a travel agent, I would do it like this and would put this in…” – that kind of thinking. And I always wanted to get an education with a varied curriculum and studying travel operations first, then management, offered this. You need solid knowledge in so many areas from history to geography, from accounting to F&B, from management to hospitality, from transportation to marketing, from airlines to entertainment. It is very complete, endless, fun and never boring. All my education until my Masters degree has been in travel management. I managed to study in France, Australia, Norway, England and Spain.
Why did you exchange the South of France for Southeast Asia?
Opportunity! My first experience in Asia was as an intern in Laos and I loved it – I liked many aspects of Lao culture. And right after my Masters graduation in the UK, I went to WTM in London with my CV. A couple of days later, the DMC I did my internship for in Laos offered me a position in Vietnam, and I just had to go!
When did you decide to establish Laos Mood, and why?
After Vietnam, I was offered a promotion to GM for Laos. After two years of that, I felt my time was up. I had worked for five years in the travel industry and I was a little tired of it; I needed a break. I quit and worked for a while for a boutique hotel in Vientiane, during the launching phase, taking care of sales. It gave me time to consider what the next step would be. I still liked travel and after some thinking, Laos Mood Travel was born from my desire to take ownership and responsibility for designing and marketing tours that I am happy to operate. In my previous roles, I had to commit to some types of travel and management ethics that I was not necessarily very comfortable with, and I felt that opening my own business was the only way to address this. So, with three other co-founders, we launched the company on the 10th of October 2010 (10/10/10).
What makes Laos Mood different to other Lao tour operators?
We take a very themed approach to what we do. With our sample tours, we attract niche outbound operators who sometimes don’t even know where Laos is! We like the challenge of educating travel planners and decision-makers. We feel like ambassadors for Laos, by opening their eyes to new opportunities.
We also have a very product-driven approach. We spend a considerable amount of time researching and testing new products and services. We challenge the expectations of some agents by telling them what we think of them before we jump on a quote. We really talk “product” first, not money. If we have a good feeling for each other, then we do business with each other. If not, we walk away.
We do not do it all – if we feel we are not the right partner for an agent or a client, we tell them so. We are not willing to design, quote, and operate any kind of tour, just for the money. We decline business opportunities if we feel they are not for us. We are not a “one size fits all” type of DMC.
And we dare a lot! We venture into some outbound markets and industry segments without much assistance and resources, and it usually pays off. Today, we handle business from “exotic” destinations that traditionally do not know much about Laos. And this makes us proud.
Laos is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated destinations in the region. What do you think makes Laos such a special destination?
Laos is underrated mainly because it is not easy to access. It is a plus and a minus at the same time. Infrastructure is rather limited (no motorways, no capacity to accommodate very large aeroplanes, no railways, no access to the sea, tourist centres with limited hotel capacity etc) and we do not enjoy many economies of scale. Laos imports a good deal of what it consumes, and we have very little industry here. So, ultimately, Laos is not a cheap destination if you compare it with Vietnam, Thailand or even Cambodia. The country is opening up but at a moderate pace. Laos’ population is only 7 million in an area the size of Great Britain. Agriculture is by far the main occupation of people outside urban areas. Not everything is about tourism here, so it remains a genuine destination with a lot of character.
What challenges does the Laos travel industry face? What should it do to overcome them?
One of the biggest problems we have is actually the cost and ease of travel to/from Laos. We still do not have direct air links with the western world. We are overreliant on Bangkok and Hanoi to get in and out by air. Opening up the skies would be a good start.
Also, for instance, we do not have direct air access to any beach destination in the region. Laos is a green destination, fine. But if one wants to extend a trip in Laos with a stay on the beach, it is not easy and it costs a bit of money. If we had reliable and well-priced air routes to, say Danang or Phuket, we would attract more visitors.
We have no visibility. No publicity, either good or bad. With limited resources, it is difficult to rely on any official tourism authority to drive things forward. So, the vast majority of efforts are made by small private companies like ours.
Education is key, and it is only just starting to develop. Sadly, the jobs provided in the service industries (F&B, hospitality, tourism, travel) are not dream jobs for Lao youth. At the moment, more people are lured by jobs in the public sector, with NGOs, or with family businesses.
Do you think Laos should follow the Vietnam/Thailand model of going after large tourist numbers, or should it be more selective like Bhutan, and go for quality and sustainability?
No doubt about the answer: the model to follow is Bhutan. Laos’ tourism should go higher in positioning. We should develop more quality products and avoid crowds that give a poor image of the destination and ultimately do not leave many benefits to the locals. But today, with limited resources and abilities, Lao authorities are more in a passive mode and take what comes. Besides some mild restrictions to limit damage to the country’s image in Vang Vieng, the destination today is still more happy to count the increasing number of regional neighbour tourists than dealing with measures to increase long haul and more lucrative markets. There is a crucial lack of resources and genuine leadership, so it is resulting in a “let it be” attitude.
Personally, I would see more the model of Costa Rica as a role model for Laos. But from what we see today, we feel that direct investments from China will dictate the future of tourism, in locations that are eyed by entrepreneurs looking to profit from mass tourism from China. It’s difficult to turn down that kind of money.
Tell us about your favourite destinations in Laos…
All the ones with bad road access! From Luang Namtha to Muang Khua, via Oudomxay and up to Phongsaly. Then down to Nong Khiaw, Vieng Thong and the Plain of Jars. The northern routes offer stunning landscapes and opportunities to visit ethnic minority villages after a bit of gentle hiking.
The Bolaven Plateau Loop is also remarkable. The climate is cooler, the waterfalls are plentiful, the coffee and tea are amazing, and walking and outdoor/nature adventurous options are excellent. It is also where a good deal of vegetables and tropical fruits consumed in Laos are grown, on the fertile soils of the Annamite mountains.
Vientiane is also great. Not just because I live here, but because it is a typical example of a location that is underrated. Most of our clients either skip or spend way too little time in the Lao capital. It has so much to reveal though. Today, in my opinion, too many travel agents sell a “picturesque” Laos, that is more reflecting the Laos of the past. It is too postcard-like and hence focuses too much on the built heritage of Luang Prabang. I think it is too restrictive. Omitting Vientiane or just passing through is a mistake. It offers unique opportunities to understand better many facets of Lao culture.
And how about in the rest of Southeast Asia?
There are several, and all for different reasons. Personally, I love the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. These are the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. The quality of the service I experienced there is great and at reasonable rates. I am not a big fan of beach stays, but I was impressed by what I saw and did.
In Vietnam, Hoi An and Hue’s countryside in Vietnam are also great. I like the relaxed atmosphere, the less crowded smaller roads, the rice fields and all related activities. Dalat is also on my favourite list in the region, for its landscapes, outdoor activities and a mix of influences from former colonial times. The Mekong Delta region is also very pleasant. I like the atmosphere of the arroyos, the sandy lanes for bicycling, the bridges connecting the islets, the bustling barges and other boats that go up and down the canals, the fruit orchards, the remnants of colonial architecture, and the friendliness of the locals.
Living in Laos, we like the occasional attractions of Bangkok such as the street food, shopping and creativity one can witness in many shapes all around. Bangkok is a change that is best appreciated in moderation!
I also like the region of Khao Yai in Thailand. It is not far from Bangkok, yet it is little visited by western guests. It is more designed to please the tastes of the locals or regional visitors but there is something special about it. As a Frenchman who grew up in the vineyards of Provence, I like discovering the emerging wines that are produced in this corner of Thailand, including some great rosés and fresh white wines.