In Amsterdam for Phocuswright Europe last spring, I stayed at the Grand Amrath Hotel. It's reputed to be haunted. I didn't know it because unlike the 80% of travelers who read reviews before they book a hotel, I didn't do any research.
I stayed there because it was the hotel of choice for the Phocuswright team. It's a very old hotel -- actually, ancient, because to us in Asia, any hotel over 30 years old is beyond old. The structure was built in 1912 as the head office of six shipping companies.
Called Scheepvaarthuis, it was located on a site from which many sea voyages departed during the 16th and 17th centuries. I guess this must be where they departed to colonize Malacca in the Malay Peninsula as well as most of what is Indonesia today.
Amsterdam's Grand Hotel Amrath. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon
The first room they gave me looked out on a construction site and had a thin layer of dust everywhere. I asked for a change because it reminded me too much of home. A new train station is being built in my neighborhood in Singapore, and I now live amid piling, digging and drilling.
All the things hotels say about making guests feel at home is rubbish. We don't want to feel at home. We want to feel like we've been transported to another place. It's why we travel.
Anyway, I got moved to another room, this time an inside-facing room, which means it was pretty dark all day and all night.
I am pretty fearless when it comes to ghosts. In Asia, we have a deep and abiding respect for the supernatural. I grew up on stories of Pontianaks, a kind of demon in Malaysia, and my own family has its stories of exorcism and possession, a few of which I witnessed growing up.
My friends are always asking me how I can sleep in strange hotel rooms all over the world, especially the old hotels, and I guarantee you if you ask any of your friends from Asia if they've had spooky encounters in hotels, they'll have a story to tell you.
In fact, I remember when I first tried to write a book of fiction, my publisher told me to write a ghost story, it being the best-selling genre in Singapore, and he suggested a travel book of ghost stories. I am still working on the idea.
Anyway, I have to confess that at the Grand Amrath, I slept each night with the lights on. This is an ancient tactic we in Asia think keeps ghosts away. Well, one morning, I woke up with all the lights off and my wardrobe doors open, and I imagined someone had come in through the night and tried to dress in the dark.
On checking out, I met two Chinese men who asked if I would be their translator with the staff at reception. My Mandarin is rudimentary at best, but because I look Chinese, I've found myself co-opted to be interpreter on a growing number of occasions as more Chinese travelers fan out on their air and sea voyages around the world.
It's a good way to improve your Mandarin on the road. Anyway, we managed to make ourselves understood to each other and to the staff. They needed a taxi to the airport.
I asked how they liked the hotel. "Gui," (ghosts!) they said. They, too, knew its ghostly reputation.
The Jolly Joker, a coffee shop in Amsterdam. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon
At WIT Europe, held for the first time in conjunction with Phocuswright Europe, we put the spotlight on Asia and the growing numbers of travelers from our region to the continent.
There's no doubt we are changing the face of travel around the world. In Powerscourt Gardens in Ireland, there were more groups from Asia than anywhere else the morning I was there. There's no doubt we love our selfies. Every statue, every bush, every tree is an excuse for a selfie. It's why we stand out.
Here are the key takeaways on the travel trends that matter in Asia.
1) The next tailwind of growth is from secondary cities, whose population is young and whose first experience of the web is on mobile. Low-cost airlines are fanning out to connect these secondary destinations, giving more people their first taste of travel.
AirAsia, the low-cost pioneer in opening up these secondary routes, now has 22 hubs across its network and three low-cost longhaul airlines in its group, from Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
2) Mobile will become a world from which you can't leave. It has already become an all-encompassing world with the rise of super-apps that keep you within their ecosystem.
Alex Shen, strategic partnerships, China, of GetYourGuide spoke of how she wanted to buy cherries while out walking the streets of Beijing and had no cash. The cherry seller asked her to add him on WeChat and she paid for her cherries through the app.
Alibaba during its single's day sales in 2016 saw 82% of the $17.8 billion revenue happen on mobile. China is way ahead of the U.S. in third-party mobile payments, she said: $5.5 trillion compared with $112 billion in the U.S.
Timothy Hughes, vice president for business development at Agoda.com, said: "The most exciting thing is the rise of apps and the rise of platforms on the phone. The Agoda of 2012/13 based its life on how much money we could spend on Google [search]. By the end of 2017, half of our business will be on our app. We've done that off the demand from our Asian consumers who want to see things on their phone."
The author, center, with Alex Shen of GetYourGuide and Blanca Menchaca, the co-founder of BeMyGuest.
An Amsterdam canal. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon