The Company: Smiling Albino, Co-Founded by Dan Fraser and Scott Coates.
The Elevator Pitch: Highly customized tours and adventures in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal. Ranging from carefully appointed and luxurious itineraries to more adventurous and rugged trips, Smiling Albino gives tourists an opportunity to “stretch the limits of what’s possible so that your journey is unforgettable” – exploring regions at their own pace, and with the safety and assistance of seasoned locals. All Smiling Albino adventures are built from the ground up and there is no out-sourcing.
How it all began: Both guys moved from Calgary in October of 1999, leaving marketing jobs behind. First year was spent getting up to Thai speed…although Dan was a bit ahead as he had worked for the Royal Family of Thailand from ‘95-96. By November 2000, Smiling Albino was running day trips. Two months later, their first 12-day adventure.
I recently caught up with both of the guys over Skype from their Bangkok office.
Dan cycling along the Mekong river
First, what’s the name all about?
Dan: Initially it was a working title. Thailand is known as the “land of smiles,” a country often referred to as the Land of Smiles after its endearingly friendly people. There was a lot of Heineken involved in choosing the name [laughs], but we always came back to Smiling Albino.
Scott: Additionally, the name reflects something unique about Thailand’s pageantry: white albino elephants have been given as gifts to Kings of Siam for centuries and have come to represent the sacred power, grandeur and glory of the Kingdom. We have since grown to host adventures in many countries and our name still reflects the reverence that people in the region accord white elephants. The inscription – est. 2543 – on the crest indicates the year in the Buddhist calendar when the Smiling Albino concept was conceived.
How many staff?
Dan: We now have 10 people in the Bangkok office handling everything from selling trips to blogging. We have a Canadian girl doing trip design. Other contractors are exclusive, some freelance. Our field team totals approximately 20 with guides, drivers. Guides always come from the area [they work in].
What is the most balls-out rugged tour you have ever organized?
Scott: One was to a remote area in Nepal where we took a group whitewater rafting. The other was a 5-day dirt biking trip through Thailand riding very remote trails and footpaths. Thankfully we have a 100% safety rating.
Scott riding behind an elephant in Chiang Rai
The most luxe trip?
Dan: That would probably be the one we organized a year and a half ago for a family of four from Toronto. It was the best of the best: private helicopters taking into remote areas; photographers hired to document each day; Thai boxing sessions; staying at a Six Senses hotel; gourmet chefs; elaborate picnics.
Any celebrity clients?
Scott: A few big names. We’ve also had renowned writers, authors, as well as famous DJs. For some reason those trips tend to be quite basic and not very exciting.
What is your favourite place out of all the destinations SA offers?
Scott: I have two favourite places that SA offers adventures. As a country I really love Nepal. If you like the outdoors you simply can’t beat it. While the country is only 230km from south-north, it rises from 71m-8,850m, covering pretty much every environment on earth. From unbelievable trekking, biking, mountain biking, white water rafting, paragliding, amazing cultures and more, Nepal is an adventurers paradise. You don’t have to be an athlete either to enjoy a trip there.
My favorite town is Doi Mae Salong in the far throws of northern Thailand. Bordering Myanmar, it’s in the kingdom’s northernmost province Chiang Rai. It was settled by many hilltribe groups, notably Ahka who came by way of Tibet and Burma. Very interesting are the Kunmingtang Chinese from Yunnan province, who came here in the 1970s after fleeing China, moved south in to Burma and finally northern Thailand. They helped oust the communists from the area and rid it of opium, planting Oolong tea in its place. The scenery is stunning and outdoor opportunities abound.
What kind of impact has Smiling Albino had on the tourism industry in those regions?
Dan: I think we’ve had great impact (all of it good and soft) in the areas we operate. There are so many aspects to how we operate in a responsible fashion, but some of those are:
– Paying guides and staff more than any other company to ensure a good quality of life and pride in their jobs.
– Paying local suppliers a more than fair price for their products and services, allowing them to live a happy lifestyle.
– Directing much of the tour money to small business like bicycle shops, motorbike shops, family-owned hotels, guides…We generally only work with small businesses and direct as much money as possible to them.
– We provide training throughout the year to our guides and in-office staff. Things like environmental issues, leading clean-up missions while hiking, donating needed items to small villages while hiking and our Community Projects, which we get our team involved in, all show that we consider the areas we lead trips to be our backyards and appreciate we’re guests.