Question: What do you do when the opportunity of a lifetime arrives at your most dire moment?
Answer: You go back to your roots.
COVID-19 has been anything but predictable for a travel firm like ours. With the light at the end of the tunnel still an unnervingly long way off, 2020 – and, increasingly likely, at least the first half of 2021 – has been a soul-searching, punching bag of hardship. Like every company, we’ve tried to aggressively innovate while radically scaling back just to keep our heads above water. Now, a year into the pandemic, even small bits of business cause us to leap at the opportunity, almost surprised at what it feels like to design and host experiences again.
One unique opportunity happened late in 2020, and it turned out to be bigger than anything we’d done before. The irony was not lost on us – in the middle of a once-in-a-generation global slowdown that’s caused our entire industry to grind to a halt and put millions out of work, we were being asked to craft an experience that would have pushed us to our limit even if we were firing on all cylinders.
A well known and well-to-do group of locals invited Smiling Albino to design an epic cross-country honeymoon adventure for 15 people just before Christmas. The areas they wanted to explore were some lesser-visited parts of Northern Thailand – areas that even well-traveled scallywags like us had scant experience with. This was going to be a challenge.
The group in question knew of the zany imagination and stubborn perfectionism Smiling Albino was known for. Like a deer stunned by oncoming headlights, we nervously took it on with a gut-wrenching feeling that it might just be the last trip we’d ever do. COVID has made every job in travel feel like this – shrouding the future like an opaque curtain. But COVID be damned – if this was to be our last trip, we were going to go out with a bang.
The guests joining this trip were mostly Thai, or long-term established expats – an eclectic group of cultured and brilliantly traveled success stories. Some were professors, writers, or owners of flagship corporations. Others were designers and experts in the fields of arts, history, and all things Thailand, and a few were known for their work on palaces for Saudi Princes and mansions for Wall Street billionaires. They go fly fishing in Mongolia, charter helicopters in Patagonia, and get side-door access to the finest private galleries in Europe.
While ecstatic at the prospects, we couldn’t help but wonder what the group would expect. These were the people at the top of their game, who had seen everything, been everywhere, and knew everyone. We called them simply “the un-wowables”.
So how in the heck do you “wow” the un-wowables?
A million thoughts raced through our minds as we worked to nail down a theme for the trip, an angle of attack, a concept that would leave jaws on the floor. What are we trying to do? What has the group who’ve hired us come to expect? In fact, let’s go further. What is Smiling Albino’s reason for being? What exactly is our purpose, anyway? How do we fulfill that early mission to “transform lives through meaningful travel?”
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