Interview: Massimo Mera, Founder, Kingfisher Ecolodge, Laos

"We can clearly see the economic benefits that tourism has brought to the local community thus reducing activities like poaching and logging plus giving a prospect for some community members to create micro businesses."


Massimo and BangonIn his mid-30s and with no previous ecotourism experience and thus gathering all relevant information online, Massimo Mera, an Italian along with his Laotian wife Bangon set out in 2004 to create what became a highly successful ecolodge in Laos: Kingfisher Ecolodge located in the southern Champasak province. Massimo has a diploma in business management and he has worked as a chartered accountant, an administration manager in a garment factory in Laos and as an assistant to the export area manager of a building machineries manufacturer in Italy. Below he provides a valuable insight into the mindset of lodge owners idealistic enough to work for change yet practical enough to succeed. In the course of just a few years, you have managed to receive brilliant reviews in major guidebooks as a genuine Ecolodge and have also received a high Rating by Members. Does the Internet including online social networks provide most of your bookings compared to traditional channels (such as guidebooks, magazine advertisements and travel fairs) or do online and offline channels work in complement to each other?
Massimo Mera: I believe that the Internet is already the main channel to help small or medium ecolodges, or other related business, to promote themselves. Roughly 70% of our income is generated through direct bookings and sales while the rest comes from collaboration with travel agencies and tour operators. Guidebooks are still a good complement in order to promote our kind of business even if I do not have any data that allows quantifying the direct impact of such. We do not use at all printed material like brochures and flyers, firstly because of the limited outcome of such means of marketing and secondly to avoid the use of printed materials. We also make a very limited use of advertisements on magazines or similar. Definitely word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote a lodge, either through websites like Tripadvisor or from past guests. This of course implies that clients’ feedback is positive therefore customers’ satisfaction is your best marketing tool above all. How important are major hotel review websites for you and how easy it is to deal with malignant reviewers? A related taboo subject of course are fake reviews in favour of a hotelier, perceived as a common practice to counteract bad reviews.
Massimo Mera: Internet reviews are important, studies shows that more and more people rely on other’s judgment before taking a decision to where to go and, in particular, where to stay. The drawback is that we are not always able to reply to particular negative reviews explaining our point of view on the reported issues. Luckily the best-known and most-visited website of this kind (Tripadvisor) gives you this possibility and we always reply to guests that often exaggerate small drawbacks of even blatantly lie (in good or bad faith) in order to give all viewers the information to better understand the situation and make a judgment. Many of our guests reported that they had actually read the reviews and found my replies correct and informative; so do not be shy and always reply, if only to apologize, to criticism! One of the guidelines for ecolodges is to promote themselves honestly and without exaggerating what the guests should expect; we firmly believe in this and we never used poor tricks such as fake reviews and the like but I also think that it might be a real problem, in some cases, that could undermine the credibility of such system as a whole. Unfortunately I don’t think that there is a valid solution for this issue therefore the honesty of business owners is the only valid parameter which sadly cannot be really measured if not on a long term. Many small hotels fail because the proprietor(s) are overenthusiastic but lack experience and specialized skills. Did you posess such experience when you set out?
Massimo Mera: No, Kingfisher Ecolodge is my first and only experience in this field. My wife had past experiences in the restaurant and catering service sector but that is all we had at the beginning. I think that, as long as we are speaking of small or medium size businesses, most of the challenges that one will face in order to build from scratch a business, can be overcome through information gathering -  the internet is vital for this - and a lot of commitment. This does not mean that one will not make mistakes but, in my experience, as long as you try to prepare yourself with at least some basic knowledge about what you are going to do the lack of specialized skills is not a real limit. Another thing is being overenthusiastic, because on this I would like to warn anyone looking to start an ecolodge or similar business. People like us are often very idealistic and look at the beginning of such ventures as an "adventure" that they "have" to do and often underestimate or really cancel from their mind all the possible difficulties than surely will arise, especially during the first stages of a project. You need to prepare a detailed business plan, consider and weight all the possibilities and conditions that can be forecasted and be also prepared, as much as possible, for the ones you cannot forecast (you will have plenty of those). Collaborators are also very important, especially when you are not operating in your country. I have seen projects fail because too much trust was put in the hands of people that did not deserve that trust so my advice is to use people’s collaboration of course but always supervise them closely, it can be a challenging task but you will be rewarded with much higher chances of success. Why did you choose Laos to set up your business and this specific location? Why should an aspiring Ecolodge owner choose Laos and indeed your Ecolodge since it is currently for sale?
Massimo Mera: We choose Laos because it was a country where I had already some working experience in the 90’s even if in a completely different sector. My wife is a Lao native and that is really a plus when you start a business in a foreign country, furthermore Laos is a new destination in South-East Asia with still many unspoiled places and a "non-westernized" society which seems to be one of the main attracting points for tourists visiting the country. The exact location was chosen after visiting different places in Laos.
We found here the right conditions to set up the lodge, such as the presence of Xe Pian protected area. We are just in front one the biggest wetland in Laos, now included in the RAMSAR Convention on wetlands. We also found a village with tamed elephants that were on the way to be "converted" from logging activity to bringing tourists around (the third option, most probably, would have been for the village to be sold to much more commercial and dangerous businesses in Laos or Thailand). This was a location that was under sustainable tourism development through Asian Development Bank funding and therefore with more attention and focus by the local authorities. This was also a remote area but still within the reach of the provincial capital and airport within one hour driving. Local people were also very much positive to have us starting the project near their village.
Any potential buyer/investor should choose Laos because there is still plenty of room for operators in this sector since tourism is a relatively new business in this country (It only since beginning 2000’s that tourism really started in Laos) and it is still seen as a new destination thus giving a very good prospect for future tourism flows, furthermore its relatively unspoiled land is the only one remaining in the Indochinese peninsula. Laos is also a safe country with friendly people, criminality is still a minor problem here and mostly relegated to the main cities, while politically it is stable even if we know the price for this to be. Another important point is that the Laotian law on foreign investors is the only in the area that gives you the possibility to be legally owner, as a foreigner, of your business so you won’t need to use a dummy owner with all the implicit risks as it happens in other countries (Thailand as an example).
Benefits of acquiring a well-established lodge like ours are quite obvious, such as avoiding the risk of all new born ventures to not be able to pass the first critical years of operations where you need to create a reputation amongst customers and business partners, establishing logistical and marketing links, train and form a good staff which is vital for the existence of a lodge. In a few words any new owner of the lodge would have a key-in-hand project: a fully operational lodge and thus avoiding all the problems and challenges of planning, building and starting a new ecotourism business in a remote area and being able to focus more on further development from the start. Would you consider selling your Ecolodge to its workers or the community if funding was available? What are your views on worker-managed / recuperated hotels?
Massimo Mera: While the idea is good I do not think that, on the long term, our workers or local community would be able to manage the lodge as requested by the market as they still lack the "vision" of running a somewhat complex business. We have to remember that while some guests fully understand the difficulties of providing a "western" kind of service in such a location and therefore do not expect it, many others are not so understanding and their demands are pressing and I do not believe that locals would be able to perform accordingly to the expectations without supervision as we are doing now. This could lead to an inevitable downgrade of the lodge reputation and consequent economic failure. Deforestation due to illegal logging but also commercial development even inside protected areas (rubber plantations and hydroelectric facilities) is an ongoing problem in Laos. A few years ago, Sompawn Khantisouk, also an Ecolodge owner and a pioneer of Ecotourism in northern Laos, who was critical of some local development projects was abducted and is still missing. Do you think Ecotourism can really provide an economic and policy alternative to such destructive activities and at the same time also promote human rights and minority rights in a region of the world not so famous for either, or rather should ecotourism actors in Laos better confine themselves to their business?
Massimo Mera: I had the occasion to meet Sompawn before the tragic event that occurred to him and I still deeply regret it. Unfortunately what you say is a reality that often, if not always, occurs in countries like Laos and it is something of very difficult solution. I also believe that ecotourism can be a partial solution to those problems, at least at the local level. I am speaking from my experience at Kingfisher Ecolodge therefore my view may be limited but we can clearly see the economic benefits that during these years tourism has brought to the local community thus reducing activities like poaching and logging plus giving the possibilities for some community members to create micro businesses related to tourism: small restaurants and guesthouses, homestay and all "jobs" linked to elephants and eco activities like trekking guide. From the social point of view I do not see any particular deterioration in their habits and customs so far. At national level unfortunately I am not so optimistic that ecotourism and ecotourism operators can play any important role in changing positively the state of things as they are now but nevertheless it is surely one, if not the only, of the few economic fields that can help promoting a better understanding about human rights and environmental issues and I think that a little is always better than nothing.  It is common for Hotel and tourism developers in 'developing' countries with no past tourism activities to state that they "provide jobs to the local community" reversing the fact that it is the local community which provides its labour to the hotelier or developer, often in return for a low (unskilled labourers) salary, and foregoing their traditional subsistence-agricultural lifestyle. If tourism succeeds their homeland, especially if it is scenic or coastal, becomes a resort and they are displaced by rising prices and foreign investors. If/when tourism fails, they are left unemployed and dependent. Is Laos, which is after all one of the last remaining 'socialist republics' aware of this danger in your view, and are its 'public-private partnerships' policy a suitable instrument for sustainable and socially-just development, or will they lead to exclusive golf resorts, casinos and gated developments for millions of newly affluent asian visitors?
Massimo Mera: Luckily at the moment we do not have any of the above mentioned “collateral damages” brought by tourism here in the local area. Where we are located development is still very limited, actually we are the only lodge present and the impact on the local community is really low. We employ around fifteen people, mainly from the nearby area and we are giving them the possibility to learn a job that otherwise they would not have as it is very difficult to find any skilled labourer in Laos and especially in the countryside. Therefore I believe that our experience here is very positive for the local community as they learn new skills that might be of use in their private life as well as in the professional one. In addition I would like also to say that Lao people are mainly poor but seem quite satisfied with their lifestyle and they do not see working as a need or a duty. Especially in the countryside people have always been living like this and they do not really need a "job"; it is very common that people try and leave their employment at any moment just because they prefer to stay at home and continue their life as before or, for female workers, that they marry and decide to stay at home to take care of the family even if it means a smaller financial income.
On a national level I would say that there is some kind of acknowledgement by the authorities about being prudent on tourism development and impact on the population, most probably also thanks to the presence of many foreign NGO’s advocating sustainable tourism and advising government officials of the dangers and opportunities that tourism can give to the country, because one of the first problems here is the lack of know-how and expertise by the decision makers. As long as I can see I would say that tourism has been adequately managed in Laos so far, most probably because we are not speaking of mass tourism yet, and hopefully it will never be, since Laos it is more a country for travellers  rather than tourists, in my opinion.
That said, we all know the power of money and the damage it can create to the population and land if there is an ill use of it but I am confident that, in the short and medium term, Laos will be able to minimise the inevitable drawbacks that development in the tourism sector might bring to the social tissue. Certainly the "pressure" that the country receives from neighbouring states like China, Thailand and Vietnam is strong (and certainly not only in the tourism sector) and it may prove to be difficult for the law makers to take the right decision under such powerful influences. Finally, if you were to choose an example of ecological and socially just tourism in Laos, besides your own, that ecotourists should visit which one would it be and why?
Massimo Mera: It is not easy to answer this question but for the results and impact on people I would suggest, even if it is not properly an ecotourism related project, to everyone visiting Vientiane to try MakPhet restaurant where they train disadvantaged boys and girls, especially from ethnic minorities, in the catering field. It is a very successful project also due to the lack of skilled labourers in Laos and I can assure you that businesses have to line up to employ them! From a more strict ecological/ecotourism point of view I would invite readers to visit the Tree Top Explorer project, an example on how ecotourism can have a small impact on the environment and the local population but still giving and unforgettable experience with nature to tourists. Thank you very much.