Exclusive Interview With Dan Fraser: Smiling Albino Co-Founder and CEO
Dan Fraser, CEO and owner of Smiling Albino
In late February I caught up with Dan Fraser, CEO and owner of Smiling Albino travel company, to talk about everything from starting a business as a Canadian in a foreign country, to Thai culture, to the tourism industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dan’s passion clearly shone through, as he recounted his journey with Smiling Albino over the years and what makes Thailand a special place. Smiling Albino’s unique sense of innovation and authenticity is undeniable, and continues to make the company one of Thailand’s leading travel businesses despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s challenges.
What exactly does Smiling Albino do?
We are a travel business, meaning we design and execute customized travel programs for people from around the world. That could be something very simple, like a one-day trip in Bangkok for a family, right up to trips that are 25 days long for people crossing all of Southeast Asia, through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. We also do corporate events, where we add a lot of fun, adventure, team-building opportunities for companies who want to take their staff on an incentive reward. We’ve done everything from executive-level scavenger hunts, to motorcycle trips, to a train adventure in private train carriages. We’re always looking to put a new, fun spin on travel in Southeast Asia.
How did Smiling Albino get started?
21 years ago, a friend and I moved to Thailand to start this company. We didn't know anything about travel, except that we knew how to have fun. We loved exploring, we loved adventure, we loved motorcycling, we loved bicycling, but we didn’t know travel as a business per se. We looked at the travel industry, and we thought that it seemed a bit predictable, a bit boring, so we wanted to do something different. We knew people wanted to travel in a more customized way, in a private way, where they could feel like they were seeing a destination with friends. That’s the spirit and soul of our business, that's why we started it.
On a Smiling Albino travel adventure
How did you first connect to Thailand?
When I was in university in Texas in 1995, I had a really unique experience, an opportunity to take a year off and come to Thailand. I was teaching English and speech communications at the Royal Palace school, in the King's palace. It was a very privileged opportunity, but it was not a holiday, it was hard work. I felt like I saw Thailand from the inside out. I felt connected, or at least enough of an insider, to fall in love with the country and want to come back and start the travel company. After going back to finish at the University of Texas, a great friend became my business partner. We just looked each other in the eye and said you know, we love travel, we love adventure, we've been talking about building our own travel company so let's do it. Let's quit our jobs, let's move to Thailand, let's build this dream company and show people the real Thailand.
Wasn’t that a bit of a leap of faith? How did you know it was going to work?
When you’re 25, debt-free, and you don’t have anything to lose, it’s more of just a big move rather than a leap of faith. Somehow, we knew it was going to work, and it was fun because we were young, ambitious, and we had this drive and energy. Slowly and surely, bit by bit, we built it into a team, a company, and 20 years later we had a team of 35-40, operated in 5 countries, had guests from all over the world, and before COVID made several million US dollars in revenue. I guess you could say we did what we came here to do, however it wasn’t an easy road by any means. 20 years later, looking back on that, I don’t ever feel like what we were doing was brave, I just thought it was fun to try and do.
How has your identity as a Canadian shaped your journey?
Coming from Canada, it’s a privilege. It’s a great country, it has an amazing education system, it has a very interconnected economy and society, so we felt we were coming from a great place that we could always go back to and land on our feet. I guess that comes with part of the joy and privilege of being Canadian; I think there’s a pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit in much of Canada. So we had that, it was part of the DNA, and that was definitely integral to those early steps in 1999/2000.
I recommend living abroad as one of life’s great experiences, whether it’s one year or 20 years. It really changes your outlook and perspective, gives you an appreciation for where you come from and an appreciation for the opportunities you have in the place you adopt as your new home. You should always try; failure is one of the greatest gifts. Especially as a Canadian, you can’t really fail. There are so many opportunities, so many safety nets, and so many opportunities to rebuild and rebound, being Canadian. We should be a risk-taking culture; we are a risk-taking culture.
What resources helped you along the way?
We came here in 1999, so at the time the Internet was not nearly as well-developed as it is now. In the early days we spent a lot of time travelling, following guidebooks and textbooks, and learning about how other people viewed Thailand and then how we did as insiders. In terms of living, lifestyle, and how to set up, the biggest resource we relied on was friends and family, here in Thailand and back home. We probably wouldn’t have been able to sell travel experiences to people had we not been lucky enough that a lot of friends, family, and other people came and tried out our trips. Also, our friends at CanCham—once we met a lot of people from the Chamber—we learned from their experiences. These are people that have been here for many years, people who can offer advice about how to set up a company, work VISAs, and all these things that are really just boring headaches for any entrepreneur, but you have to navigate. Making friends and having a network of relationships you can rely on is absolutely the best resource, and any business will probably tell you the same.
Now, 20 years later, there are so many more resources available. There are small business grants, there are co-working spaces where you can go and sit in a room with 30 entrepreneurs and share, there are young entrepreneurs’ associations, there are young foreign chamber organizations, and there are chamber events… the resources now are phenomenally stacked in favour of young people starting businesses, you really have so many great leverages when you come to a place like Thailand.
What were the linguistic and cultural adjustments that come with living in a foreign country like?
We set out from day one saying we don’t want to live in an expat cocoon, rather we want to walk the walk. We didn’t want to look like imposters. If we wanted to start a travel company, we had to show people we could live here and integrate, so we moved out to the eastern suburbs of Bangkok where there was no English, not even any English signs. Bit by bit we learned the language, and because of the type of company we wanted Smiling Albino to be, we had to be culturally curious. Going anywhere to open any kind of a business, you have to exude the lifestyle or else people aren’t going to buy it. Here we are, two Canadians coming to Thailand... we weren’t experts, so we immersed ourselves in all things Thai. We did everything we could in those first two years to breathe local, live local, learn the language, become culturally immersed. Within a few years, I spoke Thai reasonably well and I learned to read and write, and that builds a bridge to so many things you can never accomplish without it. It was a way to prove to ourselves that we were doing the right thing and building the right kind of business and to be authentic. Authenticity matters, and it’s a must for anyone living anywhere: be culturally curious and learn as much of the language as you can. It’s an absolutely invaluable tool.
What’s your favourite thing about Thai culture?
There are so many things! The nickname of Thailand for most of the past century has been the land of smiles. It sounds a bit naive when you hear it at face value, but it really does show there is a love of life, there’s both a wild side and an innocence about Southeast Asia—particularly Thailand. You can go to the poorest part of the country, and you will see people having fun, laughing, playing games, with big smiles on their faces. There’s something endearing about that in the culture, something undeniably charming that in the West we’ve never really had in the same way. I don’t know if it’s a thing I love about the culture, or if it’s just something I find charming and endearing, but that wild, honest, authentic innocence that is the “smiling culture” is charming and I think it doesn’t matter where you go in Thailand, there’s something magnetic about that. Thais are the best smilers in the world, we just can’t compete. It’s humbling, an absolutely wonderful aspect of Thai culture that makes it unique to the West.
What’s the most challenging thing about COVID?
Well, most of our clients at Smiling Albino come from abroad, so the most challenging thing of course is what we sell and who we sell it to: that market just suddenly evaporated. 95-98% of our business has always been from overseas, and when that business dries up, you have an immediate cash problem. You have to learn how to survive with very little revenue, very little clients, and just on cash you can make locally. Trying to survive on a limited budget, finding other jobs for the 30-40 people we have on the team, cashflow, finding new clients, reinventing yourself to be a local company and not an overseas company, there's no end of challenges! Right now we are semi-hibernating, but we will rebuild, and we do have quite a bit of local business which is new for us. At the end of the day, nobody knows how long this is going to be, and we can't just sit around and hope and wait. We have to be proactive, have to try and find local clients in Thailand. We were very lucky last month, because we had a great group of Thai and foreign locals who did a train trip with us. We have to keep promoting that, keep promoting ourselves locally as travel experts, and keep promoting other experiences we do that are great for companies. We hope next year or at the end of this year, we will start coming back. We’ll be back.
Can you tell me more about the train adventure?
You know, I think that was one of the most complicated and exciting things I’ve ever done. I’ve been in business now for 20 years at Smiling Albino, and this train experience was something Thailand has never seen before. In fact, I think globally, doing train parties could be—and should be—a new thing. We had 25 people plus performers, dancers, magicians, DJs, and bartenders. We had everyone dressed up, we had music playing, we had activities and games and at each stop new performers came on... we had it all. Everyone had the time of their lives, because it's different than being on a cruise or on a flight. There’s something magical about being on a train, where you're having a celebration inside this cabin, but outside you can see the world going by. It was really surreal. We're going to do more and more of that, hopefully in other places as well.
Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs in the region?
Southeast Asia right now is a real petri dish for young budding entrepreneurs. There’s an emerging creative culture in cities like Bangkok and Ho Ching Mai, these vibrant, growing, international, youth-led cities. There’s a lot of energy that comes from young people all over the world wanting to come together and build businesses, and there is also a young generation of Thais, Cambodians, and Vietnamese that are starting businesses. Anyone who has an idea to start a business, if you want to build a business overseas, this is about as good a place as you can find. Thousands of people have done it before, and thousands of people will continue to do it… what’s most important is to find out what you want to do and why you want to come to Southeast Asia to do it. For Smiling Albino, 95% of our market is in Canada, the US, and the UK, places like that. We came to Southeast Asia to build a business, but we didn’t come to Southeast Asia to sell to people in Southeast Asia. For us, we’ve always had the best of both worlds—one foot in Southeast Asia and one foot in North America. I think that’s what keeps you aware and culturally sensitive, culturally curious, because you’re integrated with your own culture but you’re also connected to Southeast Asia. I think it’s important to never lose a sense of who you are and your own culture, and we’re lucky that way, to have a foot in two places.
What are you most proud of with Smiling Albino?
One of the things I’m most proud of with Smiling Albino is that we have stayed to our roots. We always wanted to be a great, authentic travel company that is based on fun, value, and doing things differently. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, those things are signatures to success. Have fun, and make sure your clients are having fun and experiencing your brand in a fun way. Add value—every step of the way you’ve got to add value. Be real, be authentic, do things differently. That’s been part of Smiling Albino since day one and that’s part of Smiling Albino today.
I’m proud of what’s just happened in the last couple months, because this year has been really tough. We’ve had 98% of our clients and our revenue drop because of COVID, but we had the opportunity in December to host the big, high-pressure train trip for a group of locals—quite an affluent, well-known group of locals, mostly Thais and expats. That was a lot of pressure for us, because we had never designed and delivered something really high end to a completely local group. This is their own backyard, and here we are a Canadian company showing them around, so we really went back to our roots. We said, how do we really add value, how do we make each destination more meaningful? How do we make each part of the journey more exciting, have fun, and make sure that they have fun? How do we let them know that this is not a tour, this is a lifetime experience? We did experiences that really honour and cherish the beauty, culture, and traditions of Thailand. From indigo workshops to a traditional language preservation workshop, we did things that go well beyond travel. It was part of cultural integration, tradition, preservation of old cultures, and we had a lot of fun doing it.
I think what I’m most proud of is that I felt what I had been doing for 20 years—adding value, doing things differently, being authentic—I got to show the hardest critics, well-travelled, affluent, local people. I got to show and prove to them that Smiling Albino has a really magical formula.. I’m proud of that, I think our whole team is proud of that, and to me that is a real career milestone that I hope to build from.
Author: Samantha Rae Harriss