de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Looking across the seas. LMD. July 2009. Page 171. Volume 15, Issue 12. ISSN 1391-135X.
On why travelling overseas on business development enables us to see ourselves better from a client’s perspective.
December 2008 was a difficult month for companies world-wide. For many, it was a month of making staff redundant before the year end. For others, it was not so traumatic but it marked a period of no bonuses. I wear the twin hats of a Director for EcoTourism of a large hotel chain in Sri Lanka as well as being the CEO of a small specialist wildlife tour operator. As with many companies in the leisure sector, we found ourselves not being able to declare bonuses.
But yet in January 2009, I found myself traveling with two of my team to Bali to develop Bali as a destination for eco-tourism at the invitation of Alila Hotels. Why should we at a difficult time for us expend a week of staff time on a new destination? I asked everyone in the specialist subsidiary to jot down their reasons in bullet points before arriving for a team meeting.
Some of the obvious reasons were there. This assignment was not going to cost us financially as everything from flights to ground transport, entrance fees, meals and accommodation were to be paid for by Alila Hotels who were commissioning us. The needs to diversify out of Sri Lanka and to reduce exposure to a single country was well understood by all of the big companies in tourism as well as other industries. I probed my team further for reasons. Our existing core business was in Sri Lanka although we were already running tours to India and had expanded our portfolio of tours to cover Singapore and Malaysia. However, as the critical need was to try and end the year end at break even or a reduced loss, was this the best thing to do now?
Part of the answer to this question is that there can never be a best time to devote time for diversifying to other countries. When things are good, one is content and busy with handling the existing business. When things are bad, no one wants to spend time and money to expand the business. In terms of timing, it would make sense to diversify now and be prepared for the economic turn around which could happen in a few years. Doing it immediately made sense especially if our product expansion was being commissioned by another party who was benefiting from our collaboration.
But there was another reason that I was looking for from my team. But for cultural reasons I did not expect them to come up with it. With the pressure on us to book more business in a falling market and with just three months left for the year end, we needed to fine tune how we pitched to prospective clients. We needed to wear the shoes of our clients and understand how they will see us. With many clients how they see us will be what our web site has to offer. With specialist business the quality and quantity of relevant content on a web site if a key factor.
Overseas assignments I find help both the operations staff and the field staff. The benefit to the field staff is more obvious. They are forced into refining their technical skills as they encounter unfamiliar species and at times even families of animals or plants which are new to them. Even a common species at home has to be looked at critically to avoid confusion with a similar species. They are forced to delve into more field guides and other technical books and learn new facts and new species. It is like progressing from the Ordinary Level examinations to the Advance Level examinations and looking back and seeing that the Ordinary Level is easier. A new environment deepens field skills which can be deployed back at home.

The operations team also benefits. They come away with more ideas on making it easier for clients surfing our site. They also come up with ideas on how to make content more relevant. After our visits to Singapore, Malaysia and Bali, our website underwent dramatic changes. For example when we traveled to Malaysia and Singapore we found that there was a lack of imagery on their parks and reserves on the web. We placed images of those sites on our web site. It then struck us we had not taken the trouble to place a generous quantity of images of our own parks and reserves in Sri Lanka on the website in the nature sites section. We had placed a few images and relied on our clients downloading pdfs of a book on the parks and reserves which was image rich. However, it made sense to duplicate image content if it made it easier for clients to find it through two pathways of surfing. Paradoxical as it may seem, sometimes the best case for traveling overseas, is to see ourselves better.