Six ways tour and activity operators in Southeast Asia can scale through outsourcing

One dangerous assumption that a tour and activities operator in Southeast Asia can make is assuming that their brand needs to assemble a robust in-house team. Sometimes, this notion can come from a founder’s traditional mindset, comparing mechanisms of their firm to those of bigger players. Other times, a brand will have just started up with no particular staffing plan to speak of. If the business succeeds in gaining traction, she will start to think about new hires. 

After all, a business can’t grow without adding several new internal departments, right? Wrong.     

Some experts would argue that tour and activities operations are actually deceptively simple to grow (from a staffing perspective). Despite the fact that they are service-based in nature and require hand-holding with each and every customer, there are many ways to scale an experiential travel company brand without hiring an army of team members. Hiring a bunch of people inevitably means more headaches, including but not limited to administrative burdens, fixed salaries and annual bonuses, HR woes across the spectrum, company culture issues and more. 

The point is, building a larger team doesn’t always equate to more efficient operations. 

Operators need to focus on delivering the best experiences to their customers without getting too bogged down with managing dozens or hundreds of people. In no particular order, here are seven ways that tour and activities brands in Southeast Asia can scale their businesses without hiring too many in-house team members.   

1. Use a BPO for back office hygiene

Operators who are based in Southeast Asia get to enjoy the benefit of close proximity to markets like the Philippines, where affordable business process outsourcing (BPO) firms are ubiquitous. Brands can see a significant productivity boost and a substantial decrease in costs by outsourcing administrative duties to specialised English-speaking professionals in cities like Manila. 

Admin tasks and secretarial work like data entry, database management, email responding, setting appointments and conducting online research are all key to making sure your brand functions well and stays on point. But at some point, these time-consuming tasks will become too heavy to rest on your shoulders, and alas, hiring in-house is not easily reversible. 

An experienced BPO staffer in the Philippines may earn somewhere between US$400 and US$700 per month, according to sources. However, hiring someone in-house to do the exact same job in Singapore or Hong Kong would be significantly more expensive. It also comes with more management responsibility that you as a nimble entrepreneur simply do not need.

2. Work with a lead generation agency

On a similar train of thought, smart operators will look for boutique agencies that specialise in lead generation. This is one great way to cut out expenses and preserve precious focus required to run efforts like email marketing, cold calling and repetitive customer relationship management processes in-house. 

One additional thing to consider is that these efforts need to be made on both the B2B and B2C fronts. As a tour and activities brand, alliances with other businesses to build out new sales channels are key. But so are leads from potential customers around the world. 

Great boutique agencies may offer your brand exclusivity (depending on your market and sector). They will also have ready-made playbooks that can apply to your business type. In the end, this can save you time and bandwidth, but most importantly keep your headcount to a minimum.

3. White label your tech

For the love of all things sensible, don’t try to build your own technology from scratch. There’s a lot to be said about the futility of operators trying to develop proprietary tech in-house. One of the key reasons that white labeling digital products is the best route is the fact that hiring a development team is extraordinarily costly and distracting. 

As mentioned in a separate post, serious tech plays incur fixed overhead costs and several new hires. Teams will need a chief technology officer, front-end programmers, back-end programmers, a product manager, one or more UI/UX designers and sometimes more. All of these roles you as an activities operator probably know little to nothing about. 

Apart from avoiding costs associated with adding more humans to your bench, white labelling new tech will help your brand shave years of development time off the clock. This is not to mention the headaches you’ll save from trying to solve technical problems that are not directly related to your bottom line. 

And let’s not forget that good technology should always evolve in response to the changing needs of your business. And things do change. But do you really want to allocate a heap of funds to research and development each year, and more importantly, can you afford to? After all, you need an electrician for your power issues, a plumber for your pipes, and a doctor for your health, so why build a hospital?

This is likely the most valuable piece of advice on the list, especially if you hope to scale your service model. 

4. Leverage the gig economy

This one is sort of a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many seasoned operators forget it. In the modern gig economy where everyone is a Grab driver, there’s no need for operators to hire in-house drivers to cart guests to and from the site. Instead, adopt an asset light model. Keep a call sheet of drivers in your area that you can count on. 

Instead of hiring a full-time tour guide, maintain a spreadsheet of multilingual freelance locals who can take your customers on a culinary tour of Ubud in Bali. This is even more imperative with 80 percent of travellers throughout Asia, actually being Asian, with English not their first language. Operators can even put these people on retainer month-to-month instead of installing them as fixed overhead cost centres. The more operators can farm out the repetitive mechanics of the business, the more they can focus on planning the activity content and bringing in new sales.    

5. Explore commission-only sales

This strategy is tough to master for many, but if done correctly, it’s a game changer. Activating out-of-house sales representatives that operate on a ‘commission-only’ setup is something brands should consider doing in parallel with in-house sales efforts.

To be effective, your commission-only sales representatives need to be experts on your tours and activities and be able to articulate the unique value to inbound travellers. Be advised, recruiting and training commission-only sales representatives can be tough. Make sure you prepare well. Many people fail at doing this. That said, the potential upside on income versus expenditures is worth the effort if you can get it right.    

6. Work with a savvy tech solutions provider

On the human labour side of things, some of these tips may not be anything new to seasoned operators in well-trodden tourist destinations like Phuket or Kota Kinabalu. However, if digital platforms are an unexplored world for your brand, consider getting aligned with a reputable tech solutions provider. There are many in Southeast Asia that can help tour and activities operators tap a lucrative global market via the power of the internet. 

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