In our latest Meet the Boss interview, we talk to Sam Clark, co-founder of Experience Travel Group, a tour operator specialising in authentic travel experiences in Asia. We recommend the company’s holidays to Sri Lanka.
Q. Please tell us about a great holiday memory from your childhood.
My strongest holiday memory from childhood was a visit to the Orkney Islands. We stayed with some friends of my parents. They lived in a crumbling mansion with only a small part of one wing still (just) habitable. The journey to get there, the catacombs and the general otherworldly atmosphere really must have blown my mind as I remember it so vividly. I must go back.
Q. What three items are always found in your hand luggage?
The Economist magazine is essential reading for waiting around and take-off, a fleece keeps me warm and a book for when I get through the magazine.
Q. If you could spend next weekend anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?
It’s got to be Hanoi. It’s my favourite city I think because it’s what I imagined an Asian city would be like, before I had ever been to Asia – if that makes any sense! The winding alleys, the ad hoc upwards development, the constant stream of bikes – life generally going on all around you. On top of that more recently it has become a hub for some very interesting Vietnamese artistic projects and also has one of the best museums in Asia – the Museum of Ethnology. Most importantly though, we have an unbelievably great street food tour, run by a couple of food bloggers – and Hanoi street food is the best in the world.
Q. Please tell us about a particularly challenging booking your company has handled.
We had a Brazilian chap who insisted on seeing six main sites in Sri Lanka within five days as part of a round the world trip. Money was no object, but even so the logistics were a nightmare. The laid back “it will be alright in the end” attitude in Sri Lanka made the kind of military logistics necessary tricky to pin down. However, it worked out in the end…
We had a lot of fun recently putting together a holiday in Cambodia for a guest who has travelled with us three times already and is a very keen railway enthusiast. Apart from wanting to enjoy the holiday, see the famous sites and enjoy the experiences we would do as a matter of course: he had a specific set of obscure train engines and works he was determined to see. Our local partners had to wade through a fair amount of bureaucracy.
Q. What has been your most enjoyable holiday in recent years?
This year I took the family to Sri Lanka for a wedding and we had a brilliantly relaxing holiday – the kids particularly enjoyed living in the jungle for a few days in The Mudhouse and then we stayed in a lovely tea estate near Kandy called Rosyth.
Q. And what has been your all-time worst holiday experience?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad holiday experience! I doubt I’d be in this industry if I had – I love going to different places too much. I guess my wife might point to a few times I’ve turned a supposed holiday into a work trip…
Q. What luxury would you take to your desert island?
I’d take a book such as Middlemarch or War and Peace which bears a lot of re-reading.
Q. What one thing would most improve people’s overall holiday experience?
I think that an element of doing something you wouldn’t normally do is essential to any really good holiday experience. There is a liberation in travel which generally comes from that I think. I took my father in law from New Zealand on a food tour in Bangkok and it was something he would never have done on his own. He didn’t even really like spicy food beforehand. However, he absolutely loved it and I watched him become increasingly exhilarated by the thrill of discovery.
It is very personal what that might be – for some it might be an overnight sleeping on a rock (to keep safe from elephants) in the middle of nowhere in rural Lanka as one of our clients did recently, for others it might be exploring Saigon on the bike of a Vespa motorbike or getting up early to see the birds at sunrise or a particularly luxurious hotel. I think it’s this kind of experience, different from the norm that you’ll take away from a holiday as lasting memories.
Q. Tell us your favourite hotel – one for business, one for pleasure.
My favourite hotel for business is a bit of a guilty pleasure: the Intercontinental Saigon. At Experience Travel Group we generally prefer small characterful hotels to chains such as the Intercontinental. However, on business, I appreciate the fact that everything is ultra-comfortable and works exactly as it should do, the wifi is fast and free, the breakfasts are amazing (particularly the Japanese food) and it’s right in the centre of town.
For pleasure, it would depend on the moment – but if I have to choose one, I’d probably go for Horathapola Coconut Estate in Sri Lanka. It’s a gorgeous hotel: luxurious, comfortable and understated.
Q. What is the most exciting project your company is working on right now?
We’ve just appointed a ‘Local Experience Manager’ in Sri Lanka who will be responsible for strengthening our local experiences. We think we already offer some of the most unique experiences available in Sri Lanka – but we want to tighten up the more general experiences. For example, once the ‘low season’ starts, we will embark on a project to train local guides in Jaffna to work alongside our more generalist chauffeur guides. Employing these guides will enable our guests to enjoy a fuller experience at these incredible sites and allow our guests to get a better feel for the local story. To my knowledge, this is the first time this has been attempted in Sri Lanka and I think the results could be really exciting.