What was your background before making a go of it in Vietnam?
I left a corporate job in telecommunications in Hawaii to travel the world for a year.
What are the key factors in achieving success in business in Vietnam?
The most important attribute for success in business is to stick with it. Nothing comes easy, especially in Vietnam. Find something that you want to do, so when the bad times hit, at least you’re enjoying what you do.
Success doesn’t come without failures. Can you share a memorable one?
Failures are a vital part of the road to success. My failure stories are just as fun as the successful ones because of the lessons learnt. In 1999, I started a tuna grade export business in Vietnam. I did a 10-day crash course in tuna grading. At the end of the 10 days, I thanked my trainer and all he did was shake his head and wish me luck. I spent most of my time in Central Vietnam buying fish for processing in Saigon destined for Hawaii. We were in business for a year and never made a profit. The lessons I learnt from that venture made up for never making any money.
How is the state of the tourism industry here? How does its future look?
I have 10 years’ hands-on experience in the industry, but there is still so much to understand and the learning process is ongoing. Vietnam has unlimited potential for tourism if the industry takes the right path. It has so much to offer. The question remains as to how Vietnam can improve its visitor return rate. Less than 7% of visitors return while 50% of visitors return to Thailand.
Tourism is a rapidly evolving space. How do you keep ahead of the competition?
All you had to do 10 years ago was offer a decent product with good service and you had a successful business. That’s no longer the case. You have to keep up with trends, deliver unique products and consistently offer high-quality service. Tourists demand value for money and technology is helping that. Businesses have become more accountable for value. You can’t afford to have unsatisfied guests.
Customer complaints can be a tricky beast. What’s the best way to deal with them?
The customer is always right — as hard as that is to swallow at times. We always try to correct what guests complain about. There’s nothing wrong with constructive criticism. You have to be open to better your service. We have a policy: if a guest isn’t happy and provides evidence as to why, we give their money back.
What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had on one of your Vespa tours?
The best part of my job is taking part in developing new tours. I get to explore new places and learn along the way. Most of my memorable experiences are on the multi-day tours, exploring new roads and marvelling at discovering new landscapes.
You’re involved in research and development of biofuel production. How did that come about?
The idea started in 2005 when a friend pointed out an article about Willie Nelson riding across the US in a gas guzzling RV fueled by French fire recycled waste oil. So, I became the garbage man collecting waste vegetable oil. Before collecting the vegetable oil we needed to find the equipment to refine it into a biofuel or bio-diesel. My brother lives in Vietnam and he built one from specs off the internet. Things went well and many restaurants and hotels got involved with this environmental project, recycling oil waste. In late 2006 petrol prices started going up and we couldn't satisfy our biofuel customers with enough products. That's when we came across a crop called jatropha that grew on marginal land that other crops couldn't grow on sustainably.
What’s the way forward for eco-tourism in Vietnam?
Proper guidelines from people knowing what they’re doing. Too many people claim to be experts. Yes, tourism can have a negative impact on the environment and Vespa Adventures is no exception — two-stroke engines aren’t environmental friendly, so we’re countering that by balancing our carbon footprint. Vespa Adventures is also a founder of a non-profit organisation called Keep Vietnam Clean and Green (Sach & Xanh in Vietnamese). Its focus is on anti-littering and education, and we’ve developed strong partnerships with leading organisations like RMIT Vietnam.
Name one destination in Vietnam that everyone must see before they die.
Halong Bay. I believe the government is doing a decent job in keeping it from over-tourism and preserving the environment.