Ghosts and bikes rule Amsterdam

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Phocuswright Europe was held in Amsterdam last spring, where one of the topics of discussion was growing Asian tourism to the Continent.
Phocuswright Europe was held in Amsterdam last spring, where one of the topics of discussion was growing Asian tourism to the Continent. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon
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.
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.

3) Personalizing your experience. Choon Yang Quek, chief technology officer at the Singapore Tourism Board, explained how a future individual traveler arriving at Changi could experience Singapore.

A report from Travel Dudes explains it thus: "When you walk off the aircraft, the immigration authorities already have most of your information. The minute they stamp your passport, you are already checked into your hotel. Your mobile phone becomes your [room] key. As you walk through, you don't have to pick up your bags because we already know which hotel you are going to. Just go outside and you have an Uber or a Grab taxi waiting for you. So within five minutes of leaving the aircraft you are on your way to your hotel!"

Quek said STB was gathering data, analyzing it and using it to shape products and offers for different types of visitors.

The Singapore Tourism Analytics Network (STAN) analyzes data from cellphone network towers and geo-location networks, tourism receipts, expenditure information from credit card providers and sales data from retail outlets, then combines it into a data mashup.

Through this, it could identify group behaviour. For example, STAN has spotted that South Koreans like to upgrade their hotels on the third day of their visit.

"Now if you are a hotel chain," Quek said, "that's potentially quite an interesting piece of information, right? If you have a range of hotel grades, that might be something you can package for South Koreans."

STAN has also been analyzing how people move around and how long they spend at individual attractions. They've discovered that Chinese tourists like to visit temples before going on to visit casinos or shopping centres.

"Makes sense in hindsight, right?" Quek said. "Go to the temples to pray for good luck before hitting the poker table."

4) It's all about the technology -- if you can't build it, buy it. Travel companies are all vying to buy the right technology to help them ride the next wave. AccorHotels has been buying among those buying tech, its latest being AvailPro to add to its Fast-Booking acquisition to bolster services for independent hotels.

Agoda's Hughes said the company was acquiring not travel companies but companies offering technology, especially around mobile.

5) The new hot space is in tours, activities and food. Blanca Menchaca, co-founder of BeMyGuest, said mobile was changing the way tours and activities were being booked on services such as Handy, the mobile device being placed in hotels in Asia. Now people can book, pay and enter the BeMyGuest platform to get their tickets.

"Fifty percent of all bookings in Asia already happen on mobile, even if they are advanced bookings," Menchaca said. "The behavior in Asia is different because of language and payment barriers."

In food, a huge category in Asia, Louise Daley, deputy CEO of AccorHotels Asia Pacific, is working hard to own that space with the acquisition of concierge services such as John Paul and with building out a restaurant booking platform called TablePlus.

An Amsterdam canal. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon

6) Local players still rule in Asia. Unlike Europe, where Google has overall dominance in search, Asia is more fragmented, with local giants still commanding the gates. Similarly with metasearch, local players still top the charts although global brands are definitely snapping at their heels.

Kei Shibata, CEO of Venture Republic/travel.jp, likened meta searches in Asia to hipsters who still make money and who are staying edgy by innovating to keep up with consumers who prefer to use mobile.

In South Korea, outbound travel is setting new records, and new services such as Jin Air's flight to Okinawa, Japan, is a good example of how a low-cost airline can change travel patterns. Inbound is also soaring with a 30% growth in visitors, to 17 million in 2016. It remains to be seen if the current diplomatic rift between South Korea and China, which has meant a suspension on Chinese tour groups to Korea, will affect numbers this year.

Min Yin, CEO of Tidesquare, said low-cost airlines were gaining market share, growing from 15% to 20%, and a new terminal is opening at Incheon airport to cater to the 60% increase in low-cost capacity last year. While traditional players such as Hana Tour, Mode Tour and Interpark still lead in sales, new players are snapping at the heels, with marketplaces like Tmon, Coupang and Gmarket coming to the fore. Global OTAs dominate in the overall hotel market, but it's local OTAs that rule in the local-budget segment.

7) A new giant is acquiring: Zhou Shiwei, head of investments and investor relations, at Ctrip, has been busy the past 18 months meeting with every travel company he can. When I asked him what the company is interested in, he said, "New markets, new relationships, new technology" and "if it is an industry vertical, it has to be market leader."

8) A fresh wave of innovation is happening, and a new giant will emerge. Fritz Demopoulos, co-founder of Qunar and CEO of Queen's Road Capital, spoke about the innovation that's happening in cities like Shenzen and Beijing, which is beyond what's happening in the West.

"In 10 years' time, who will be the biggest travel company in the world -- Alitrip, Ctrip or Tencent?" he asked.

Meanwhile, back on the streets of Amsterdam, I realized, too, that tourists actually have more to fear from bikes than from ghosts -- there seem to be more bikes than cars (or houseboats) in Amsterdam, and they have the right of way.

Crossing the roads in Amsterdam is beginning to feel like Saigon.

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