For our latest interview, our editor sat down with British expat Simon Philipp, founder of innovative small group tour operator Expique, to find out about tuk-tuk tours in Bangkok, the challenges of running a travel business in Thailand, and the Thailand travel startup scene…
Before founding Expique you were working for Spice Roads. How did you get into the travel industry, and how did you end up here in Thailand?
In 2009 I took a career break and went back to business school. I ended up spending the first 2 months organizing a ski trip for 100 of my classmates and the last 2 months organizing our graduation trip to Sri Lanka for 300 people. As I had done these both as a hobby I decided that the travel industry would be a good career change for me and it was during my graduation trip in Sri Lanka that I was introduced to an alumni who ran a travel company there. I ended up doing a 5 month project for him and through that was introduced to various people in Thailand which ultimately led to being offered a job at SpiceRoads.
Why did you decide to go it alone & start Expique? What makes it different to other small tour operators?
After a few years working in Thailand I again took some time off during which time I decided to stay in Thailand and that it was time to be my own boss. As I will elaborate further in the next question there are a lot of platforms now offering a range of unique experiences by locals. I looked at this model but decided a more traditional tour operator that adapted some of the ideas being offered by such platforms had more chance of survival – even if the ultimate size of success may be smaller. I am not sure I am that different from a lot of great small tour operators who are trying to do things differently; however at least through my initial offering I am focusing on two types of join-in tours that I believe are areas where few companies are doing a good job: Walking Tours and Tuk-Tuk Tours. Actually we overlap a lot with a lot of the bicycle tour companies who we often see along the way, but we cater for those who don’t want to cycle!
Local travel is a buzzword in tourism at the moment and there’s a growing number of startups in Thailand offering local experiences. Why do you think this is, and why do you think startups are proving more adept at offering such experiences than larger, more established tour operators?
Thailand is one of the largest and most established tourism destinations in the world so firstly it means that companies are always trying to differentiate themselves and offer something new. In addition when a destination has over 25M+ annual visitors even if only 5% want something super local that is still a significant number to try and target (Potentially it is still more people than visit Myanmar each year!)
Also in terms of the online startups ecosystem, Thailand is becoming an increasingly popular place for startups to be based, regardless of industry focus, and regardless of whether you are a Thai or foreign founder. Within the last 3 years the industry has grown as is becoming evident by the number of co-working spaces, incubator programs, startup events, and investors. There is even a Startup Weekend event at the end of the month that is purely focused on building Travel Startups.
Where do you fit into the local travel startup space?
I’d say there are two kinds of local experience startup:
1) There are online startups in the form of platforms and marketplaces and I get an email from a new one every week saying they are looking to be the marketplace for unique experiences. Some are Thailand-based and others just realise that Thailand is a big destination. Everyone is hoping to become the AirBNB of local experiences. These are great as they are really helping to change consumers’ attitudes towards local experiences and how they buy them. Whether any are actually proving successful I really don’t know.
2) There are the new small tour companies like Expique. For companies like us, our whole philosophy is to try and focus on the more local and niche experience, so this comes across a lot more clearly. I would actually say that there are several large established tour operators that do good jobs of offering local experiences; however, their main business still comes from the mainstream, and it is often not worth it for them to operate their own join-in tours when they can source then from small operators. However, despite the fact that we position ourselves as more local, our more mainstream tuk-tuk tour still sells a lot more than the more local walking tours! Sadly people still want mainstream! Small tour operators also have the advantage that we can still distribute through many channels including TripAdvisor (and Viator), most of these new marketplaces and existing larger tour operators.
Then there are actually some great companies which are almost a hybrid of the 2 models, such as LocalAlike and Hivesters who are creating platforms but also take a central role in development and support for a lot of their suppliers. Both these companies have got great support from the Social Enterprise Community and TAT who both encourage local and sustainable activities,
What are the challenges involved in launching a new travel business in Thailand?
One of the biggest challenges is probably that it is a very competitive and mature market. Therefore being unique is almost impossible as if it is worth doing it is likely someone is already offering it. However, Bangkok is continuously listed as one of the most visited cities even the world (even after our political issues) so there are opportunities for good companies.
Finding great staff and guides is always a challenge as is managing capacity. For example there is no point having 20 guides if you can only offer each one 2 tours a month!
Finally, there are of course challenges for a foreigner to start a business. Fortunately I have several great partners to help overcome that but it is always a challenge when you can not read the documents you need to sign!
Thailand has proved very resilient in tourism terms – despite political upheaval, floods and other negative publicity, tourist numbers keep growing. Why is this?
It is such a well-established destination with a lot to offer that people can look beyond these issues and if needed will just delay a little or simply try to avoid the hot spots. Mind you, I suspect that growth this year is partly down to people delaying from last year! There are also a lot of repeat visitors who already know what to expect and want to come back. I will confess I have not looked at the numbers recently but I do also keep hearing about the Chinese market which accounts for a lot of growth.
Expique is all about taking visitors off the beaten path – tell me 3 locations in Bangkok that I should see, but probably haven’t?
Firstly, we don’t always take people off the beaten track. Our attitude is more to try and show people things differently. This may simply be taking someone to a place at a time they would not normally go, such is the case for many of the places we visit on our night tour: As for places you should see:
1) Tha Din Daeng: This is a fantastic street right across the river from Ratchawong Pier (the main stop for Chinatown) and is great for buying street food. Also within 1 km walk from there are many interesting temples and the lovely Princess Mother Memorial Park
2) Don Wai Floating Market. If you are actually looking to cook for yourself then this is a great market and open every day. A little out of town. If you just want to eat the Lat Mayom Floating market is a great alternative
3) Bang Khun Tien. This is by the sea just a short drive out of Bangkok, on the border of Samut Sakorn. A great place to go to one of the numerous seafood restaurants for lunch but also take a bicycle and explore the salt farms and other local industries.
Outside Thailand, what are your favourite destinations in SE Asia?
I love Laos.
And finally, what about future plans for Expique?
Some of this is obviously top secret and we have too many ideas for our own good! However, in August we will be testing a series of events and dinners that give people the opportunity to meet and hear from locals outside of the context of a tour setting. We are also in the process of developing a new brand for kids’ tours in Bangkok.
Big thanks to Si for taking the time to answer our questions. Find out more about Expique at www.expique.com.