Taking the Next Step in Travel

Our behaviour, when it comes to travel, is changing fast – largely thanks to new technologies. One woman embraces this, and has carved her career out of it.

Yeoh Siew Hoon made a career out of her love for travel.

Penang lass Yeoh Siew Hoon, a prominent figure in the Asia Pacific tourism industry, has enjoyed successful stints as journalist, editor and business entrepreneur. But what is common to all these roles is that they have all been tied to her love for travel.

In 2005 Yeoh established Web in Travel (WIT), Asia’s leading digital travel media and events platform, and was awarded Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014 by the Singapore Tourism Board. WIT was later sold to US travel publishing house Northstar Travel Media, where Yeoh is now the editorial director for the Asia Pacific region.

This April 13, she will be launching WIT Indie, the latest edition to the WIT flagship, in Penang. The event will provide a platform for independents, creatives and small- to medium-sized businesses to share, learn and network. Penang Monthly talks to Yeoh to find out more.

You were bitten by the travel bug at a young age. What was it about exploring the world that fascinated you, and what was travelling like then and now?

Growing up in Penang, I was always curious about the backpackers I saw wandering around the streets of George Town and wondered about the carefree lives they seemed to lead. I’d see them lying on our beaches as well and thought, “This is the life”. I wanted to be a beach bum and travel the world.

Reading books also awakened my imagination to experience different worlds. I recall reading James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, and it made me so determined to experience the islands that in the late 1980s, I joined a pilot friend on a private aircraft island-hopping trip through the islands of Kiribati, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Rangiroa, Western Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

My first flight ever was from Penang to KL. I remember the anticipation and excitement of getting on that airplane and wondering how this metal tube could stay up in the air and fly like a bird. The aircraft may have changed today, but the magic of flight hasn’t. Flying is so affordable and accessible today that we take it for granted, but it’s still magic to me.

You were a journalist before establishing WIT. How did you make a career out of your love for travel?

I’m still a journalist! I went from mainstream journalism in KL to travel trade writing when an opportunity came up for me to become the Malaysia-based correspondent for the Asian edition of an English travel trade publication, TTG Asia. It was a great way to combine my love for travel and journalism. I’ve been lucky to have realised my dream of travelling, writing and generally being a beach bum whenever I can.

What is WIT about? What new frontiers of the travel industry do you foresee technology dominating next? Is virtual reality the next big thing?

WIT is a news and events platform focusing on how technology is changing travel and consumer behaviour in Asia Pacific, and therefore, how travel suppliers have to adapt and evolve their businesses in changing times.

It started in 2005, and at that time, the internet was just beginning to make its presence felt. In the last 13 years, we’ve seen massive changes in travel – the rise of lowcost airlines making travel more accessible and affordable, the growing affluence of consumers in Asia, and new technologies that change consumer behaviour.

The first wave of change was centred on how people searched for travel, then it was how they booked flights and hotels, and later, how they shared and reviewed their trips. Now it’s about how they experience a destination while on the ground through mobile – how they book the tours and activities to do while in a country. This is the hottest space right now for startups, with investors putting money into this category. In Malaysia, AirAsia took a stake in Touristly and the most recent development was Taiwan-based KKday raising US$10.5mil in a round led by Japanese tour operating giant, H.I.S.

The rise of the sharing economy has created demand as well as emboldened travellers to seek more local and authentic experiences – and we can expect to see technology enabling more travellers to connect more easily with local hosts, guides, drivers, etc.

Virtual reality remains a promotion tool used by travel suppliers to inspire travellers so that hopefully they will go see the real thing. As long as VR devices remain relatively expensive and unwieldy to wear, there will be a barrier to mass adoption, but it’s certainly a great tool to use to educate and inspire travellers with a more immersive experience than just looking at videos or still images. Imagine the power it could have to excite kids, especially underprivileged kids, about the possibilities of travel. It’d do for them what books did for me.

Do you think the permeation of technology in the travel industry has diminished the element of spontaneity in travel?

In a way, it’s made us more spontaneous, not less. We travel on impulse. We see a good price and we book, never mind when or where to. We do things more last-minute because we can. We book hotel rooms while on the road – this is why last-minute booking apps are quite popular. Fly today, book your accommodations on the day itself. We feel we can always find something to do no matter where we are and we won’t get lost (hopefully) because of Google Maps.

Yes, it may have taken some of the adventure away from our travels. Social media means we go to the same places, eat at the same places and congregate around the same attractions and then share the same posts. It really depends on what kind of traveller you are – if you are more adventurous and want to go off the beaten path, technology gives you more confidence because you’ve read about it and are able to connect to the locals if you know what communities or networks to plug into virtually before you get there.

Again, technology is just a tool. How you travel is up to you.

WIT Indie will be held on April 13 in Penang. What can we expect from the event?

WIT Indie is our latest edition that aims to gather independents and creatives around the idea that not only can they compete in the digital age, they are also able to thrive.

When WIT started, we gathered what we called the outliers of the industry around that same notion – how startups and small and medium travel enterprises can compete in the coming digital age. Our speakers came from startups like MakeMyTrip, Qunar and Skyscanner – all of which have grown into household names and successful businesses, and their founders have since then made great exits.

Thirteen years later, there’s a new generation of outliers that have emerged in travel: the independents and creatives – passionate entrepreneurs and artists who make wonderful contributions to the diversity of travel experience.

It is said that technology favours the big because of scale and the network effect, but it has also become more affordable, accessible and relevant to independents and creatives. The idea of WIT Indie is to offer them a platform on which they can learn, network, collaborate and share best practices. So in a way, for me personally, it’s like bringing WIT home to its roots and me to mine.

How will it benefit Penang’s travel industry? Tourists come to Penang to experience its heritage, culture and food. Do they primarily get their information from websites like TripAdvisor and Expedia?

Penang is a good example of a destination that’s come into its own in the social and mobile age, and I think it goes beyond the Expedias and TripAdvisors. Word-of-mouth on social media has allowed travellers to seek out unique, local experiences. Friends sharing pictures of street food and street art have increased the desire in others to visit Penang.

Boutique hotels, cafes and restaurants have popped up, enriching the experience someone can have in Penang beyond the beaches it used to be known for.

WIT Indie will put the spotlight on the entrepreneurs whose passion and artistry have enhanced the Penang experience for visitors, and brings in those from outside Malaysia to share their experiences so that learning can be two-way.

And of course, we want our guests from outside Penang to experience what we know and love about it by creating an event and giving an experience that will give them a sense of place.

For more information on WIT Indie, visit http://myindietravel.com/

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