Unlocking SE Asia

This is a transcript from my recent talk for blooloopLIVE Asia.

I moved to Bangkok in 2004 and have been in a relationship with SE Asia ever since

Working for AccorHotels I was in charge of 3 countries and I loved them all but none of my colleagues wanted to look after them or even go there. They were Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

And now everyone is telling me the future is in these 3 countries. How did that happen?

Throughout my time in SE Asia, I have been very lucky to experience the rise of ASEAN to what it is today: one of the most dynamic regions in the world.

So I thought I would share with you 3 of my keys to this fascinating region and a bit of my journey on the way!

I now live in Malaysia and I travel a lot, usually with Air Asia (fascinating success story by the way).

Each time I go to KLIA2 I get reminded the region has a population of 600 million, that’s way more than the US and almost as much as Europe!


So my first point today is on the need to understand a large and diverse population unified by a few common values.

And religion probably being the most important: Islam in Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world) and Malaysia. Buddhism in Thailand and increasingly in Vietnam. And Roman Catholicism in the Philippines.

All of these religions are very strong and deep inside the lives of people.

Even Singapore is not immune to this phenomenon and religion is almost everywhere, even on your mobile on the way to work!

Education is another one. On average families have 2 to 3 kids, regardless of their religion.

Making sure that kids learn and develop skills that will give them better chances to succeed (and therefore to look after their elders) is very important.

Recently I sat down with Claudia INGKIRIWANG who used to run the Jungleland theme park south of Jakarta. She told me she used to run educational visits of the park, where school kids would learn about the mechanics of rides and coasters. That’s a big stretch!

But elsewhere in Indonesia it’s the same. TranStudio Bandung has a science centre as one of its attractions and Jatim Parks a Natural History Museum! So there you go, send your kids to the theme park so they can learn!

Also regardless of religion, family comes first. And doing something with the family is always a top priority.

Now moving on to my second key to the region: making sense of urbanization.

Whoever has not sat for hours in traffic in Jakarta or Manila has not experienced SE Asia! This is the reality of millions of people coming to the big city to look for opportunities, be it education or a job. In Indonesia alone, 5 million people enter the urban consuming class each year!

In addition to traffic there is pollution, high cost of living and lack of space, which is why urban dwellers are always looking for ways to escape, whether out of town or within the city in what I would call a ‘bubble’.

In Jakarta alone, there are more than 20 water parks!

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And if you look at the region, all large theme parks are within 1 to 2 hours drive from the major cities. That’s a fact. But these parks were often built in the 90’s and today it is more difficult and certainly more expensive to develop new parks given urban areas have expanded so far out.

Now according to research by Nielsen in SE Asia, as they urbanise people are willing to spend, they want better not more and they seek new experiences and offerings. This is what they call premiumisation!

And this premiumisation is to be linked to another trend towards concentration of commercial development in the hands of a happy few I call the ‘lords of urbanization’. Think Central Group in Thailand, Ayala Land in the Philippines, Agung Podomoro in Indonesia, Vincom in Vietnam or Sunway in Malaysia.

Their entire strategy relies on leveraging such premiumisation, which is the key driver for business in their glitzy malls.

So if a big theme park outside of a big city is no longer possible or viable maybe there’s room for a premium product designed for the lords of urbanization. Think Kidzania, LEGOLAND Discovery Centre and similar indoor visitor attractions playing the role of ‘bubbles’.

My third and last key to the region is balancing technology.

People in SE Asia are fast adopters and hyper social; they like to share everything.

The Top 4 countries with the highest time spent on social media in Asia are in the region: Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. 3 and a half hours per day, that’s definitely too much!

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And I find this to be a dilemna for our industry. Because technology has such a big impact on the way we design and manage attractions.

So on one side this means we should provide an experience that fits the latest technology trends and probably even push the envelope to close the gap

But on the other side our role is possibly to provide places where people can connect for real (not just with their device), where they can engage all their senses and build lifetime memories with each others (especially family members).

So how do you find the right balance?

And this is probably our biggest challenge in the region. To successfully bridge the online and the offline. To use the latest in technology (probably involving some sort of leapfrogging) to achieve a more ambitious goal of educating and bringing people together.

Now if I go back 10 years ago and look at the factors of change that enabled ASEAN to be where it is today. Such as population and economic growth, urbanization and technology, I see these are the very key to understand this region that I shared with you today.

So here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself before designing or investing in a new visitor attraction in SE Asia:

No.1 Are you designing a place that is VERY family friendly? Are you designing a place that is respectful of traditions and religions?

No.2 Do you provide a strong sense of escapism and togetherness for urban families?

No.3 Are you offering better not more? Are you crafting an experience that is new, unique and authentic?

No.4 Do you engage the lords of urbanization and provide them with solutions, which will attract their support in return?

No.5 How do you plan to bridge the online and the offline? Is your attraction technology advanced for a reason other than just following trends?

Now, no one has the perfect answer to all these questions but if we work together, share our experiences & knowledge in occasions like today’s event, I am convinced we can build collectively a very bright future for our industry in the region. A future where ASEAN leads visitor experience.



Google launches Open Gallery to help museums create online galleries: what does it mean for museums?

Google has been showing an interest in culture for a while. With the Google Cultural Institute they have been working with museums, associations and artists to bring to a free online world a selection of great exhibitions, art projects and world wonders. The way I see it for now is more like an opportunity for museums and institutions to have a digital brochure in the Google environment, a bit like you and I would have our Google plus account.

But Google just announced that now any cultural institution can create a digital exhibition with Google Open Gallery. One of the first to use Open Gallery is the Belgian Comic Strip Center to create an exhibit around it’s Art Nouveau building. Here is how.

The interesting thing with Open Gallery is the ability to curate exhibits with many different points of view and storylines, without to worry about the physical artifacts, paintings, etc. Cultural institutions can possibly let their imagination loose and rearrange their collections in many different ways, addressing different audiences.

In a way Open Gallery is sort of taking over from the coffee table books, only a lot cheaper for both the museums and the readers! It opens great opportunities of collaborations between museums and artists, designers, etc to come up with a new genre of exhibition experience.

I think Open Gallery is a very interesting way for museums to approach the digital world and engage with a different kind of visitors through a series of contextual dialogues. It is definitely more than a digital brochure! Do you agree? How would you use Open Gallery?

My meeting with Sojern: Towards a new approach of concerted destination marketing

One my way back from the IAAPA Attractions Show in Orlando I stopped over in NYC to meet a few people and companies I had come across in my past research work on the new trends in online travel. One of them is Sojern; although based in San Francisco I met with their NYC team in their very cool Soho office.

Sojern started with boarding pass advertising. They later saw an opportunity in leading data-driven marketing in the travel industry and invested massively in developing data treatment systems and platforms. Today the company is huge in the US, working with most key travel stakeholders on multi-million dollar campaigns.

At the origin are data partners who share precious data (cookies, IP addresses, emails) in exchange for a fee. Such partners include airlines (e.g. Delta, United), OTAs (e.g. hipmunk) and online retail companies. Then Sojern will create traveler profiles and work with clients to engage them with media channels. Essentially they are identifying the best audience for their clients and then bidding on media channels to display rich content in real time, allowing a much better campaign result.

I was interested to hear what Sojern does for destinations. They told me that they “engage potential visitors to a destination during the early planning/dreaming phase of the travel cycle”. Sojern’s ability to identify intent in travelers’ behaviors, including travel preferences (e.g. length of stay) and past trips, allows destination marketers to follow search and book patterns to influence decisions and destination choice.

Sojern is also banking on geolocalization. They are increasingly working with destination clients on their drive market. For example, Sojern can identify San Diego residents and serve them relevant, destination-specific ads from LA.

Then I asked about their attractions clients; I was told they don’t have any. Although a bit surprised I quickly realized it’s because attractions probably don’t have the same budgets to spend as tourism boards or big travel companies on big online advertising campaigns.

This took us to an interesting discussion about collaborative campaigns at a destination level, incorporating attractions and other stakeholders (restaurants, events, etc). One example would be for DMO’s to use rich content (pictures, videos) provided by the attractions to serve ads to different audiences based on preferences and then track views, therefore providing some sort of accountability for their efforts to promote attractions. I see a win-win proposition here with DMO’s being offered great content and destinations stakeholders getting visibility from a highly targeted audience.

What do you think? Could this approach work in Asia?

This could be a revolution in contextual marketing

Last week I had the visit of a friend from the UK who recently relocated to Australia to start a new digital agency called Digital Fuel.

He was telling me about a proprietary product – Social Connect – they launched last week, which simply blew me away. I thought I would share with you something that could revolutionize the way our (travel) industry looks at targeted marketing messages in a truly contextual fashion.

This is out it works. Simply export a database into the application and enter a few key words. It will then interrogate social networks to 1) qualify your database and 2) filter the people in your database speaking about your set of key words on social networks at this very moment. You can then choose to send them an email or a rich media text message, which will be absolutely relevant to the key words you entered.

Social Connect has been in Beta for a few months and one of the tests they did was for HMV for the release of a new album. They entered the artist’s name as key word and sent out promotional messages to buy online with HMV. The success rate was an incredible 25%!

Now let’s see how our industry can benefit from Social Connect. Take the new River Safari in Singapore for example, which houses two very cute pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia. Owned by Wildlife Reserves Singapore, the park can tap into a very large database of Singaporeans. How about interrogating the database and see who is talking about pandas on social networks? Then send them a nice email with the latest video of the pandas having fun and inviting them to buy their tickets online now with a special discount!

River Safari

What I find particularly interesting with Social Connect is that it makes databases very relevant again; only with a whole new dimension. The recent focus on social media took us away from the importance of nurturing our databases. But really we should because, unlike fans/followers on social networks, contacts/members of a database belong to us and we have been authorized to send them promotions.

So, everyone back to our databases and let’s do some cool contextual marketing!

The 3 Steps to a Successful Digital Marketing Approach

Lately I have been doing some work with Amas, Celebrating Life’s new chief digital officer, and we’ve been looking at digital marketing strategies in our (travel) industry. Here I share with you some of our simple tips when looking at your digital marketing approach.


If you are reading this and wondering about your digital marketing model it is probably because 1) you have some problems you would like to solve, or 2) you are thinking you can do better, or 3) all of the above.

The first step is to assess your current situation by reviewing your external environment (what is happening in your destination, best practices, etc), your market position (what your competitors are doing, where do you stand in various digital platforms, etc), your current digital marketing activities and more importantly your internal resources.

This will allow you to identify where it hurts and therefore easily set some measurable and achievable goals. And remember, your business is unique and you should identify your very own objectives. Maybe you want to be a market leader, or you just want some percentage growth, etc.

If you work with consultants and agencies it is important that they listen to you and participate in this assessment process with you. If you have only limited resources (manpower and budget), are you capable of thinking outside the box and leveraging your existing strengths?


There are amazing resources out there. Digital marketing is (naturally) a very popular topic online. People share best practices, valuable knowledge and ideas. Get someone in your team or your consultants to pull these resources together and apply them to your case.

What we need nowadays is not an “expert” in each field, but a “dynamic thinker” to help you grow.  This will allow you to leverage your strengths and reduce the amount of money and efforts needed to achieve your goals. There is not point investing in an expensive media plan if you are not engaging with your audience, activating your brand and generating loyalty. You will find most agencies just emphasis on optimization by their so-called best practice, knowledge or golden rule in all their standard exercises such as SEM, media buy, banner, social, EDM & SEO, but won’t adapt to your situation, which you will have identified in Step 1. The reason is agencies tend to sell what they get used and comfortable with, but not always what you need.


Once you have done a good assessment of your situation and digested resources available, you will be ready to formulate a roadmap and decide the amount of money and human resources you are prepared to allocate to achieve your goals. You may then ask your consultants to propose different approaches within the framework you have identified.

It is important that your consultants understand your priorities and adhere to your roadmap, which should include KPIs that are both measurable data (sales, etc) and content driven (campaigns, partnerships, etc). The industry is dynamic; it is perfectly OK to reassess the situation on a regular basis with your consultants. Because of the nature of digital marketing you are learning and growing together.

I hope this helped. If you wish to ask a question to Amas, feel free to send him an email at amas.li@celebratinglife.asia