For Smiling Albino, a boutique luxury travel company based in Bangkok, the concept of innovation is nothing new. As a group of creative thinkers constantly looking to challenge the status quo, the team at this luxe-meets-adventure outfitter is much more than a group of professionals that know the ins and outs of how best to experience Southeast Asia. Often foregoing the buzzwords associated with big business—product, sales, operations—they instead prefer the likes of "adventure engineers" and "experience designers." So when the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by storm in early 2020, particularly hitting hard the travel and tourism industry, the team at Smiling Albino's shift in focus was requisite to survive.
Pivot, change, and innovation have been champion words of 2020, and now, 2021. The world looks different than it did in the years leading up to 2020. What used to work is less relevant for now. As the team at Smiling Albino often say, "that's so 2019!" And with that mentality driving their forward momentum, it's been this flexible thinking that has allowed them to not only survive but to thrive, while Thailand's borders have remained closed.
Of their new avenues in the pursuit of riding out the pandemic's unknown lifespan, Smiling Albino has changed itself from a travel outfitter that welcomes guests from around the world to a "by locals for locals" neighbourly business. As Smiling Albino calls it, they’ve been "going local." Though by their definition, "going local" doesn't mean what you may think. For Smiling Albino, their definition of "local" rejoices in the characteristic of a place. "We have always prided ourselves in going beyond the surface: introducing guests to the noodle shop owners, giving them backstage access to the nitty-gritty of Bangkok. And this is exactly what we've been doing for our neighbours and friends. We've been digging a layer deeper to have places like Bangkok re-appeal to locals and expats," says Daniel Fraser, CEO & Co-Founder of the Ramhamhaeng-based crew.
Though it isn't just Bangkok they've been sharing with those who are lucky enough to call Thailand their home while the pandemic still controls much of the world. Smiling Albino has also been exposing destinations that tend not to cross the minds of weekend-trippers looking for a break. "Going local also means exploring areas in-depth that may not have been high on the bucket list; places like Phayao, Phrae, and Lamphun. These destinations are culturally-copious with so much to offer."
And it was in these Northern Thailand locales that they've been reimagining how travelers experience the destination. Always focused on challenging the conventions of what travel is, it was in 2020 that Smiling Albino pulled off one of the wildest travel experiences Thailand has ever seen. This was exhibited when Smiling Albino re-imagined a railway journey between Lamphun and Phrae. Labeled "The Curious Carriage," the team put together a 5-hour train experience that was far more than an excursion by sidecar. Traveling in a privately hired train bogie with on-board performances, a revue show, free-flow bar, seated dinner, and a slew of surprises, the journey was a loco-emotive experience that transported guests into a whimsical fantasy world.
"We've always focused on making our experiences about more than destinations, and this is especially true when hosting adventures for locals. It's been the antidote to domestic familiarity." Their most recent experiences, such as December’s outrageous train escapade, have been aimed at surprises, surrealism, and unbridled fun.
When hosting a group of some of the country's most well-traveled locals at the end of last year, Smiling Albino delivered on its goal to share "beyond the norm" moments. From value-add gimmicks that included personalized airline safety cards in the guests' seatback pockets, to dramatic surprises, and even nightly personalized pillow cards written by none other than the guests' dogs. The mission was to create the experience of a lifetime. And no idea was too zany. No stone was left unturned for the dream makers at Smiling Albino.
So what does the future look like for the innovators that still aren't able to welcome their usual clients back into the wonders of Southeast Asia? "We're planning [more] new experiences in Thailand's lesser-visited realms. Our latest focus is Isaan," said Fraser. While many are itching to get out of the country, the team at Smiling Albino is taking this time to go deeper and further afield to highlight more of Thailand's underexplored villages, crafts, personalities and natural wonders.
Thailand's largest region, Isaan is more often than not overlooked. "Isaan is a mysterious region for both expats and Thais. Many people aren't familiar with the varied cultures and diverse ethnic groups. Southern Isaan is also home to stunning Khmer ruins, which can feel like you've crossed the Cambodian border without having to leave the country." And it's these paragons that Smiling Albino is committed to sharing.
While the travel world [extremely anxiously] awaits the opening of borders, the focus for Smiling Albino's team is always forward. Reinvention and innovation fuel the creative fires at Smiling Albino. This has been true since day one over twenty years ago and that drive has only multiplied as they've had to face adversity head-on. The COVID-19 pandemic has re-energized the company to explore and deliver the promise they set out to since its early days: deliver joy, deliver value, and think differently.
In their own words, "A Smiling Albino trip might be one of the most special trips of our guests' lives. It's different. Before they show up, they may not really grasp what's been created for them. But, when they’re done, they’ll notice the difference between what they thought was good travel and what is Smiling Albino travel. They'll have seen a different part of the world, differently, and it's those 'memory bank moments' that we've orchestrated that keep us creating."
Want to learn more about travel with Smiling Albino? Visit them at www.smilingalbino.com.