Social Entrepreneur Pai Somsak: LocalAlike is a social enterprise with a mission to promote community-based tourism in Thailand and the region
I first met Pai few months ago in Bangkok as we’ve shared common interest in travel field. We’ve kept discussing about travel and tourism in Thailand. Then last week we accidentally met each other again in Web in Travel 2014 in Singapore, the most prestigous travel conference in Asia. And Pai was always lucky with prizes and contests. LocalAlike was voted to be the favourite start-up of WIT 2014 start-up Pitch. Pai’s startup LocalAlike seemed to be received lot of attention from different organizations as LocalAlike is focusing on sustainable tourism and part of eco-tourism, a bit different from many main-stream startups. Let’s ask him some more details.
Can you brief about the main concept of LocalAlike?
Local Alike is a social enterprise with a mission to promote community-based tourism. We believe community-based tourism as a tool can contribute positively towards the preservation of local cultures while providing economic opportunities for them to improve their livelihoods. Through this we also enable our travellers to gain valuable experiences through immersing into indigenous cultures, seeing things from a perspective other than their own, and making genuine connections with locals. We believe that these experiences will be the key to building sustainable economies in local communities.
When and why did you come up with the idea sustainable tourism?
Local Alike started because we wanted to solve three major problems related to tourism in Thailand;
- Thailand generated around 1000 billion Thai Baht per year from the tourism industry. The economic opportunity from tourism is huge in this country. Yet, the income from tourism mainly disperses around urban areas in favor of large enterprises (hotel chains and large travel agencies) and only a handful of local people benefit from this seemingly good opportunity. We would like to help distribute at least 10% of this huge income to local communities that are the true owners of all these beautiful resources.
Our local leaders are the biggest proponents of true sustainable tourism service.
- While general mass tourism may create jobs and income for locals, the majority of the industry does not answer to the actual need of sustainable development. There are plenty of examples where mass tourism has been and will continue to be damaging to the local communities environmentally and socially. Often times, local communities were treated merely as a supporting role or worse; like a labor in some communities by many travel agencies who offer eco tourism, sustainable tourism as their other choices for their customer. We don’t want that practice to continue happening in our region. Local Alike would like to showcase of how sustainable tourism in the region should be treated.
- There are actually 200 established community based tourism (CBT) in Thailand. They lack of reliable channel or platform that will connect them directly to prospect customers. Local Alike platform is dedicated to be this channel for them. Though, we work with them beyond a platform. We planed with them for a long-term development by utilizing tourism as a community development tool.
After that how did you find support from outside to solid your idea into a real business?
I started the project by submitting my idea to BanPu social enterprise business plan competition in Thailand, and couple more competitions later. I used grants from being a winner of these competitions to spend for my project operation in the first years.
What can travellers get from “the real” local and culture of Thailand?
“Real” locals and Thai culture bring travellers a lot. First of all, local are very enthusiastic about pass their traditions, beliefs, handcraft on to foreign, but also Thai travellers! They feel they are carrying on their culture. Travellers get from local communities a growing awareness about sustainable activities, which is one of the main concerns of our future!
In the meantime, communities provide travellers with authentic, unique and meaningful experiences in their local environment. We are convinced that travellers come back from our trips inspired and more aware.
Your site might be different from some other local tour guides websites that LocalAlike provides a community instead of one independent local guide, but a community seems hard to build and manage. How can you deal with this?
The communities we are currently working with were already built and self-managed. As a social enterprise, we only help connect travellers to these self-sufficient communities that are willing to welcome and share their way of life with our tourists. Local Alike and the community leaders to created these tours with a major objective: not harming their culture, or their local environment. We create “community guidelines” which are given to travellers before their departure, so they can adapt easily to the local way of life.
As a social enterprise, we try to change the less things we can in the community, so they can continue to manage themselves as they have always did.
Dealing with communities takes time. In this sense, business objective cannot be really put in the front. The most important thing is to build trust among the locals. Doing so by using three steps:
- We listen to their needs. Simple as it is, just to be a good listener and to listen for the benefit of the villagers
- We create sense of ownership by planning with them not to plan for them
- Learning by doing. We organized many test trips. This is just to bring in tourists and to encourage them to give village real and direct feedback so that the villagers can improve their service offering.
Your team looks young and dynamic. How have you built the team? Any fun things or accidents on the go?
I used quite different and unique way to recruit my core team. I let them join the trip and have them communicate directly with locals. After the trip, they have to decide whether they want to join Local Alike or not. I believe that it’s not easy to say no for those who have direct experience with locals, listen to what locals think, and witness their eagerness to develop their community. I don’t care much about their past work experience, but rather whether or not they really do care about others.
Currently how can people know about LocalAlike? And how can you make money from this model?
Currently, people have several ways of knowing about Local Alike. Depending on the customer, we have several channels. Travellers looking for pure community based tourism can hear about us in reaching tourism organizations like CBT-I which is the Community Based Tourism Institute of Thailand. Then, for customer looking more for authentic experiences and activities, we have been featured on print publications like Bangkok Post, Marie Claire, Lonely Planet and ELLE. We also feature our events on specialized platforms like BKKevents, Bangkok Post calendar, Couchsurfing, Chiangmai Daily, CNX Events Chiangmai. Then, social networks are also very important as we have more than 14.000 followers on Facebook, and more than 300 on Instagram. Lastly, word-of-mouth from our previous travellers is also one way of hearing about Local Alike!
With this model, we make money basically by increasing our sales. However, it also allows Local Alike to extend its network and so to make new partnerships with sales or content partners.
Your team’ve got some money (?) how have you spent it and how about the next phase?
We have had some money from our investors yes, and the money is currently spent in developing our activity and capacity: work with some other communities, marketing campaign, advertising on social networks, developing activities in the communities we are currently working with, finding new sales / content partnerships, web designing.
The next phase would be to penetrate the mobile application market.
Building sustainable tourism is not a single thing a company can do in Thailand. How about support from community and government?
We work with CBT-I as I states previously, they help us enhance capacity of Thai communities in order to manage sustainable tourism. What we want is for travelers to have the most authentic experience while keeping communities away from important changes.
Your most challenging work for the next 12 months?
The most challenging thing in the next 12 months is how secure more funding to scale Local Alike and to expand to other neighboring countries.