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 is 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”?
We didn’t have a simple answer to these questions at that moment in time. Neither did the guests. After a short list of preferences, they simplified the brief and challenged us with a mission request that was both frightfully simple and maddeningly complex: “surprise us”.
What unfolded over the next couple of months is one of the greatest stories in the twenty-year history of Smiling Albino.
As we thought more about it, it became apparent that it had nothing to do with the canvas. The location. The destination. How could we have momentarily forgotten our purpose on earth? Nothing we ever did was about the destination. It is about value. The journey. The pleasant surprise. The spontaneity. Our journeys have always been a metaphor for life.
We went back to our roots. I mean 1999 roots, where theatre-of-the-absurd was a business model and Bond films inspired trip ideas. Our singular mission was to start a company to deliver the ultimate commodity: joy. To this day, it has nothing to do with destinations. At its most basic level, travel is merely about dates and destinations – but for us travel is the medium through which we create joy.
We zoomed in on innovation and Imagination. We needed to gain this group’s trust from day one, flight one, meal one, evening one. We had to send a message that we were about to unfurl the world as we see it with only them in mind.
We conceived a bold cocktail of firsts. From a private train party in a Gatsby-esque pageantry of locomotive fun, to a soulful Lanna-inspired cultural evening with heritage crafts and preservation projects. We concocted an armed-forces style themed dance party in the forest (think of that crazy scene in Apocalypse Now, and yep, that was pretty much what we did), and biking, hiking, rafting, painting, picnic and BBQ adventures. We met artists and ancient text experts, chatted with foodies and took textiles workshops.
The soul of what we created had nothing to do with destinations. It never does.
From individualized nightly pillow cards for each guest, written from none other than their pets back home, to customized menus, personalized historical overviews of each region, bottles, face masks (damn you, Covid!), personalized indigo robes and more, we stopped at nothing to remind everyone (ourselves included) how lucky we are to be in a business like this.
Joy is the commodity, not the destination.
The trip was peppered with raw pranks, wholesome touches, raunchy gimmicks, and meaningful moments sprinkled liberally throughout. One evening we presented a painted portrait of the host couple done as a “Whisper of Love” rendition from a famous mural painting in Nan. There were twists, both whimsical and thoughtful, sometimes absurd and sometimes charming. We focused intently on the brief, “surprise us”, and ensured we delivered that departure from normalcy. After all, isn’t that what travel – and by extension, a meaningful life – is all about?
Unexpectedly, the trip became one of surprise and self-discovery for both the guests and the Smiling Albino team. Instead of fear of failure, we were driven by the mission to impress. Our viewpoints changed from being “the last trip we ever do”, to “this feels like the first trip we’ve ever done”. We achieved a mind shift from the end zone to the starting blocks. It reminds me of the simple potency of Jeff Bezos’ “day one” reference in his annual reports. Never lose sight of this. We had to prove it to ourselves as much as the guests.
This amazing adventure rekindled the essence of what Smiling Albino is all about. It shined a light on some metaphors for life we’ve built our business around. Those being:
We bring that sense of duty to impress on all of our trips. This feeling re-kindled our 1999 mantra: Do it differently, do it better, seek to wow.
Covid isn’t over. But we’re back.
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