Simon Cameron of Lightfoot Travel says its sales for the third quarter of 2013 have increased almost 70 per cent year on year, boosted by their heavy investment in a digital strategy.
INCREASINGLY savvy travellers looking for one-of-a-kind experiences have been able to find them by trawling the Internet or checking out travel websites. It's also spawned fertile ground for enterprising individuals to offer specialised travel services that cut through the clutter of the Web and zero in on what people want, ie a customised itinerary that takes into account all their needs.
Bespoke businesses and websites offering everything from short-term stays in the homes of locals to designer holidays have proliferated in the West, but Singapore is fast catching up. A quick search online reveals that there are at least 10 such businesses based here, with four of them founded in the past year.
Simon Cameron is the founder and managing director of Lightfoot Travel (www.lightfoottravel.com), founded in 2009, which specialises in luxury customised holidays. Mr Cameron says sales for the third quarter of 2013 have increased almost 70 per cent year on year, boosted by their heavy investment in a digital strategy.
Mr Cameron, who has also seen more competitors popping up in the market, notes: "A lot of our clients are very well-travelled and therefore are looking for holidays that are all about the experience, the hidden elements that make the trip. That's what we provide with our insider knowledge as we send our team out to experience the destination and give our clients the little tips such as which is the best room for viewing the sunset, or where to find a gem of a restaurant."
One entrepreneur who has capitalised on this demand for special experiences is Clement Wong, the founder of Be My Guest (www.bemyguest.travel), which offers authentic local experiences in Asia and beyond. These range from cooking and massage classes in Bali, to a radiation survival course in Chernobyl. Customers have the option of booking multiple day land packages - for example, a nine-day tour in North Korea starts from $3,355 - or specific experiences provided by small travel suppliers.
Mr Wong, who used to do travel research and strategy, came home last March after a decade spent working in Europe, to set up the company. He notes: "Different sectors like accommodation and flights have all been aggregated and digitalised, and tours and activities are the final frontier."
He adds that companies like his are just the tip of the iceberg: "People are getting increasingly tired of the mass package tours, but at the same time, they don't really want to take the independent route like backpacking."
BT Weekend checks out four such enterprising Singapore-based entrepreneurs, who have turned their passion for travel into a business.
3 Canton Street, #02-01, S'pore 049745
Tel 9374 3550 | www.pandabed.com
The dream of setting up a bespoke travel business began when, as undergrads in the US in 2002, James Chua and Lester Kang became best friends and started travelling together.
"We didn't have much money," recalls Mr Chua. "We wanted to see more places, but didn't want to pay too much for the hotel." And it was while on holiday in Europe that they were struck by the quality and value for money of bed and breakfast establishments, and the idea for a possible business first struck them.
Mr Chua says: "We didn't have the money or the experience at the time, but PandaBed eventually came out of that experience."
That was 11 years ago. Last August the duo started PandaBed (www.pandabed.com), which is essentially an Asian version of Airbnb. The online service allows travellers to do short-term rentals in service apartments, villas, bed and breakfast establishments and private homes, often at rates comparable to or cheaper than hotels. PandaBed has an office in Boat Quay and currently employs five staff.
PandaBed now has almost 2,000 listings in cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Bangkok, including about 50 homes in Singapore. Room rates can range from as little as US$25 for a single room, to more than US$1,400 a night for a five-bedroom villa that accommodates 10.
Mr Chua notes that Asian travellers have a very different mindset from those in the West: "The idea of staying in someone else's place is still very foreign, even for people who are open-minded. Being able to verify the quality of the place they are staying in and the integrity of the owner is something that people are very concerned about."
PandaBed therefore has what it calls curated properties, where staff are sent to meet the owners and inspect the property. These are advertised on the website as properties which have been "personally reviewed and handpicked" by PandaBed. Unsurprisingly, the verified properties are the most popular.
"They like the verification thing, because they don't need to worry that they are staying with a serial killer," Mr Chua deadpans. "People who are older - in their 40s or 50s - need that reassurance."
Quotient Travel Planner
Vertex Tower B, 33 Ubi Ave 3, #06-04
Tel 6435 0922 | www.travelplanner.com.sg
THE six-year-old Quotient Travel Planner is the brainchild of Lim Hui-Juan and Javiny Lim, also frequent travellers who met in university. The company arranges private customised holidays - everything from land tours in South-east Asia to safaris in Africa.
"In our younger days when we travelled quite frequently, our friends would often ask for help in their own travels," says Javiny, adding that many of their peers were growing out of the need for package tours. "Then we thought, let's try and make money out of it."
It started in 2007 with, as former aerospace engineer Hui-Juan puts it, "an uphill task of educating the public about a new market that didn't exist then." But as Javiny, who used to sell cars, says: "It was always a dream to build a cool travel business."
Today, the company employs 14 staff and is engaging two more. It covers every continent in the world, and its packages consist of fully customised tours that fulfill every item on the traveller's wishlist, as well as predetermined itineraries that can be adjusted. The latter plans, started earlier this year, are available on the Quotient Travel Planner online store, which offers the "most economical solution", says Javiny.
A typical package consists of a 10-12 day European tour that starts from S$4,000 per person.
Javiny notes: "Everyone has his own definition of a good holiday. Some people like to spend time in museums, others want to do foodie trails, while some prefer to take photos." But whatever your interest, they'll find a way to turn it into a memorable experience.
Equipe Nomad Cycling Holidays
Tel 8399 9181 | www.equipenomad.com
IT isn't just Singaporeans who are chasing the dream of setting up a bespoke travel business - British expat and full-time musician Greg Lyons started organising biking tours to Malaysia last May, under the auspices of Equipe Nomad Cycling Holidays. At least one tour is held each month, and can last from two to seven days. Groups range in size from one to seven, and typically set off from Kuala Lumpur. The cost of each tour ranges from S$680 to S$2,418.
An avid cyclist who moved from Malaysia to Singapore seven years ago, Mr Lyons still maintains a house in Kuala Lumpur, where he often returns to cycle in the hills and countryside. He got the idea to start the cycling tours when he started getting enthusiastic responses on Facebook to photos he posted of his best biking moments, asking how to get to these places.
"I realised how few people actually had access to the kind of knowledge I had of the roads of the region, especially in Singapore which has a large - and expanding - population of avid cyclists," says Mr Lyons, who also saw it as a chance to diversify his business portfolio. He runs Equipe Nomad with his wife and two part-time drivers, while his daughter and brother-in-law also help out as extra drivers and photographers.
Mr Lyons, who has invested a five-figure sum in the business so far, says: "We have a lot of return customers, which is perfect, and we've made a lot of good friends. There's so much great cycling to be had in this region."
Next month, Mr Lyons will lead the company's first cycling tour in Thailand, starting in Chiang Mai and taking a six-day loop that will include Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain.
Wok 'n' Stroll
Tel 8338 3571 | www.woknstroll.com.sg
ISRAELI Karni Tomer is another expat who has made a business out of a big Singaporean passion - food. Ms Tomer organises food trails and culinary tours under Wok 'n' Stroll, which was set up earlier this year.
She personally leads up to three tours of six to 20 people per week, which consist of private and corporate events, sometimes employing part-time guides licensed by the Singapore Tourism Board. Her tours typically last two to three hours, taking in spots such as Tekka Market and Geylang. Most of her customers are expatriates based here. The tours start from S$60 and include snacks.
Ms Tomer, a mother of three, came to Singapore in 2009 when her husband was relocated here for work. She quickly discovered the delights of dishes such as chicken biryani and chilli crab, and realised that she was coming to a "gastronomic paradise".
Ms Tomer, who previously worked as a chef specialising in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, set out to educate herself about Singaporean food: "I started going to the markets with local friends who guided me on all the vegetables and fruits, then I bought all the books in the store and read hundreds of articles and blogs."
She often helps to recreate her first discovery of local cuisine for new arrivals to Singapore, via group food orientation activities: "I support companies when they bring in new employees for relocation, and usually take the whole family upon arrival to learn the basics of Singapore's wonderful kitchen. It's a great way to learn about your new home."