Creative Generalist Q&A: Daniel Fraser
Smiling Albino is a very special cultural adventure travel company based in Bangkok, Thailand. It was founded several years ago in 2543 (on the Thai calendar) by a couple incredible young canucks, Scott Coates and Daniel Fraser, and it has thrived delivering its original blend of unusual, intimate, inspiring, and all-out fun journeys around the remarkable Kingdom – and now Cambodia and Nepal too. As far as trip planners and guides go, these guys are tops. I had the privilege to work with Dan many years ago. He is truly a man of many talents: adman, model, consultant, athlete, tastetester, speaker, intellectual, emcee, and even feature film movie star. And now, Creative Generalist interviewee…
What has been your wildest adventure to date?
Wow, so hard to say. Which of your children is the most fun? Well, we did a high-end motorcycle, fine dining and chic hotels adventure in October (end of rainy season) that included some truly far-out routes, passages, venues and a wild group of clients. We did parts of Cambodia and northwestern Thailand, Bangkok, etc. Our trips involve some complicated logistics (bikes delivered on boats, service teams in multiple locations, etc.) but was a lot of fun. We also did a mountain and road biking adventure last Christmas in the coldest weather in recent history along the Thai-Myanmar border. One day it rained (almost snowed) and we rode through muddy rural trails for 3 hours, mud up to our knees, so much fog we couldn’t see in front of us, etc. That was wild!
What are your and Scott’s goals as cultural travel enthusiasts?
Essentially we seek to raise the bar in this industry and exceed the rising demands (and expectations) of our clientele. Anyone can book a few flights and hotel rooms, so our objective was to create a story book adventure for everyone who comes on one of our trips. From themed days around the city to active and culturally enriching programs around the region, we try to expose people to things they couldn’t do – and wouldn’t try – on their own. By fusing all the components together in a seamless travel adventure we create real value. Our clients expect real value.
“The Land of Smiles” as they say, is a fantastic venue for adventure. From cosmopolitan, modern cities, to remote and traditional tribal villages, great mountains and the adventure that they offer as well as world famous beaches, jungles, cuisine and people. The incredible contrasting themes in this country provide a fascinating intellectual framework for our trips. Thailand is a great playground for adventure and we’ve sought similar criteria for the new venues we’ve added, such as Nepal. We also had an added advantage in that I’d spent a year here in the mid-90s working under members of the Thai Royal Family which opened some interesting doors and experiences.
What were/are some of the peculiar challenges involved in starting and growing a business in Thailand?
For two guys who came here on a wild dream with no money, the challenges were significant. The need for Thai business partners and promoters – lots of them – a minimum quota of salaried Thai employees, official offices and business licenses, permits, work visas, certifications, etc. all before you’re allowed to get started. It was mammoth and we spent the first few years in a variety of awkward and highly creative partnerships in order to finally have our own foundations to “go legit”. In addition, we’ve been governed by the principles of ‘leaving the campsite better than you found it’ while doing business in a developing country. Sometimes these good intentions – and the hours and sweat they necessitated – were not always received with the same enthusiasm we expected, and we’ve spent countless hours, months and years convincing locals that we’re here doing business for very good and genuine reasons.
When I visited Thailand in 2001 I was struck by the country’s many stark juxtapositions – frenetic cities and serene countryside, raunchy nightclubs next to majestic temples, a distinct Eastern culture rubbing with a strong Western influence. As someone who lives there, how would you describe the dynamic that comes from this diversity and disparity?
It is indeed a land of seemingly enormous contradictions. Spiritualism and materialism, extravagance and poverty, friendliness and self-assertion, etc. These themes hang in a precarious balance and trying to grasp their complexities can be daunting. The magic in living here and running a business comes from not knowing what is going to happen next, and that despite all that might happen, this country is resilient and innovative. Living here is a constant lesson in self-adjustment.
How is travel “life-altering,” as you say in your bio? What role can travel and cross-cultural experiences play in inspiring ideas and facilitating creativity?
Try something you’ve been afraid to do for years and it is incredibly empowering. For some it is something as simple as dining on the street with locals, or learning to ride a motorcycle or conquer a mountain on bicycle. We manage community programs where we take volunteers (usually 60hr/week professionals in major industries from home) and bring them into scenarios where they’ll be teaching elementary school English in rural Thailand, or painting murals with disadvantaged children at an orphanage, or helping care for abused animals at a conservation project. We try and create the opportunity for accomplishment – with measurable risks and benefits – so that people go home with much more than a suntan and love for the local cuisine. We want people to find something new within themselves. The pollination of different experiences from high adventure to an emotional giving of oneself creates a very stimulating and cerebral travel experience. We’ve had several clients say, sometimes years later, that their experience with SA was life-altering. That is inspiring!
What is the state of the travel industry these days? Any predictions for the future?
The travel industry as we traditionally view it has been in a state of decay for years. There is a strong movement towards specialization and sourcing the “untouchable experiences” that people can’t access by themselves. The volumes of information one can dig up today on even the most remote locations means that people are really thirsting to know what lies beyond what they themselves can reach. Travelers have access to more resources, they’re more discerning – even young travelers – and the information-age travel company has morphed into something of a full-service personal consulting and management team. We don’t even consider Smiling Albino to be in the travel industry, per se, but more so an Experience Management Company. The dynamic travel company in a single travel program might be procuring a rare bottle of wine, helping coordinate the protection of a sacred fish, painting a fence with villagers, inviting a politician for lunch with guests and teaching a retired couple how to ride motorcycles. We’ve done all of this.
The future of the travel industry will have two opposing forces to deal with: one is the influx of large volumes of new market, lower budget travelers primarily from Eastern Europe and China. The tendency is for these groups to travel en masse with travel companies from their own countries and according to standards compliant with levels in their own countries. The relative purchasing power and desire to travel in large groups will result in a travel experience based around “volume experiences”, which are basically short, somewhat staged, easy to access, and of little real financial benefit for the local supplier and greatly disturbing to the local environment and culture. The expectation of this growing market may see ever more of a boom in discount hotels, cost-cutting tour programs, circus-like cultural shows and a general tendency to diminish the investment in quality in order to please the common masses. Profit-starved tour companies in this kind of market are forced to create revenue and kick-back/commission schemes along the trip in order to improve their bottom line and continue to be able to offer “cheap tours” to this market. Clearly the customer’s experience will be comprised for 3rd party gains and business alliances. There can be damaging long term effects to this type of mass tourism, namely a jaded and apathetic local supplier base. What could be worse than apathy?
The other – and completely opposite – force is that of the highly discerning traveler seeking ever more “sustainable” experiences and weighing the benefits of his commerce. No longer will just a luxury yacht or a quaint family run hotel be a good enough draw for this emerging market. Now people might want a hotel that actively recruits disadvantaged youths as staff to teach them skills for example, or a hotel where the furniture is made of recycled materials, or where the restaurant provides free history and culture lessons to guests as a way to preserve and perpetuate its heritage. Authentic, sustainable and highly innovative enterprises will be the target for tomorrow’s discerning travel crowd.
What responsibilities do travel companies such as Smiling Albino have to the communities and people they visit?
An enormous responsibility – and we clearly haven’t done enough. If a travel company could be providing experiences that provide a metaphor for life: challenge, learning, education, laughing, giving, growing, etc., then clearly part of its role should be drawing the less fortunate into the metaphor. As westerners living in Thailand we’ve been governed by a few principals, one being that we’re lucky to be here and fortunate that we’ve grown the business considering its meager beginnings, and that as we’re in touch with socially conscious guests from around the world we have an opportunity to be a real positive conduit (a catapult?) and facilitate real, valuable and engaging experiences between our guests and the Thai community. From teaching programs to orphan mentoring, institutional beautification projects, endangered species conservation and regular community donation projects, we try to pitch in where we can. We’re a growing company and would like to encourage more businesses to develop their social outreach ability. Everyone wins.
So what is it like to be a movie star in Thailand?
Well it seems to have worn off a bit in the last year or so, but it was a great, often hilarious experience and a surreal high. Being recognized – even thanked – for my role in a film in 2004 by complete strangers was an incredible honour. The media world in Thailand is fun. With its own language and dominant culture there is a thriving film and TV industry that is truly home-grown, like a smaller version of Bollywood. Countries like India, Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand have a star culture and media base unto their own. Being part of it in Thailand has been an immense privilege. I got lucky.
What have your journeys throughout Thailand taught you personally?
Over the past while I’ve learned to govern myself by this principle: take risks, add value, have fun. Thais are incredibly resilient and are the original silver-lining seekers. There are things we can learn from them and I’ve been learning how to have fun all over again – which can become limited when bogged down in the throes of a small growing company. Also, from our experiences here I’ve learned that a little extra creativity, a little extra ‘sugar on top’ so to speak can do a lot for someone’s experience, be it travel or any other. Working and growing a business alongside Thais, and striving to improve a product has forced me to find new ways to add value to everything I undertake. And, the incredible gift of being young and healthy and surrounded by a great network of friends and family is never to be taken lightly. I often see people with seemingly no hope of upward mobility, and it makes me realize that if you are lucky enough to be in a position to take calculated risks in your life – then you should. We almost owe it to those who don’t have such a choice.
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations, people, places, books or websites that you find especially inspiring?
Certainly stories of entrepreneurs that “made it” always provide inspiration. People that are ultra cool under pressure like my former boss in the advertising world, or people that constantly surprise with a solution for nearly everything like my sister and brother-in-law. Fear of failure provides a constant inspiration to get my @$%# in gear.
Do you miss Canadian winters?
Oddly enough I do find myself “thinking” about Canadian winters quite often. I don’t know if it qualifies as missing, per se, but of course in the Thai language the two are very similar in that context.