Sapa O’Chau is the first ethnic minority-owned tour operator in Vietnam. Its main activity is providing treks and tours, and also runs a café and handicraft store. The money that is earned with the treks, the café and the handicraft store is reinvested in the community.
For this interview, which is the third in our series talking with all the finalists for this year’s World Responsible Tourism Awards, Anula Galewska speaks with Shu Tan, Founder and Director at Sapa O’Chau.
Anula: How do you communicate your efforts towards sustainable tourism to your guests?
Shu: We had a volunteer, who is a graphic recorder, she helped us put our sustainable tourism model on our cafe wall. Our guests can see how their money is being used to support the trekking guides, homestay host, high school students, tour staff, handicraft staff and cafe staff.
We also highlight our sustainable tourism efforts on our website. We have placed it as the first tab so that our guests can recognise that it is our core operating principle. All our trekking guides are our ambassadors of sustainable tourism, some of them went through their training program with Sapa O’Chau.
We highlight our sustainable tourism approach on our Facebook page. We had the privilege of a volunteer who is doing his post-graduate studies on social impact assessment. He helped us to assess our social impact for 2015. We only share this assessment with our donors and only snippets on our social media pages. There is a copycat business in Sapa that always copies information and uses them as their own publicity materials. Hence we have to take precautionary measures to prevent our information from being misused to their advantage.
Anula: What’s your biggest challenge in communicating sustainability?
Shu: The biggest challenge is when our trekking guests are price sensitive. Supporting sustainability is the last thing on their mind when deciding to book their tour with us. Regardless of how much community work we do and how fair our wages are, these group of people only see our tour prices as overpriced. Many of our trekking guests also have no regard for the cost already spent on arranging their treks when the weather turns bad. They will demand a full refund or write bad reviews on Trip Advisor.
Anula: How do you engage the local community in what you do?
Shu: Sapa O’Chau is fully ethnic minority owned and run for the improvement of the ethnic minority communities. Thus it has full board level commitment to local ethnic minority community issues. We strive to provide opportunities for ethnic minority families to lift themselves out of the poverty cycle. Policies for community engagement are embedded across the organisation. Our trekking guides, office staff, cafe staff, handicraft staff, board of directors and students are our ambassadors of empowerment. They are our living proof of how their lives and their families’ lives improve in standard of living.
Our handicraft department also sources materials from local supply chains so that they will continue the art of making them. We engage the community by encouraging high school youth to continue education. Our boarding facility supports 35 high school students yearly. We also provide scholarships to support 10 ethnic minority youth tertiary education. Sapa O’Chau is pleased to announce that all 21 of our grade 12 students 2015/2016 batch graduated successfully. Our Founder and Director Ms Shu Tan also graduated grade 12.
14 managed to get into university/college. 12 are also being supported by our scholarships in addition to the 10 we support from last year. This year we will increase our student intake to 40 students. We plan to take in students in batches after carefully interviewing the teachers about their family condition and capability to study. Sapa O’Chau rented a residential building opposite our main boarding facility. The rental is about USD400 per month.
In the months of August to October, Sapa O’Chau partners with Ministry of Labour – Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) to provide accommodation and classroom facility support for 25 youth to be trained as tour guides. MOLISA will provide the trainers. The tour guide students pay for their own food expenses that Sapa O’Chau cooks for them.
Our social enterprise business provides sustainable careers for 48 ethnic minority staff out of a total of 52 staff. We maintain a sense of place and cultural heritage by preserving our unique cultural identity and ensuring that tourism activities do not disrupt the lives of communities or dirty the environment. Each trekking group is kept small, no more than 6 people.
“People nowadays do not pay attention to advertisements, advertisements have become an annoyance. We grow our fans by attracting people who are passionate to our cause.”
We made significant investment in creating and maintaining community projects. Sapa O’Chau started the cooperative in 2011. It invested in building the first Black Hmong homestay in Lao Chai Village, Sapa. In 2013, Sapa O’Chau obtained its international tour operator license having earned the deposit USD12,000 required for it. It is the first ethnic minority owned tour operator in Vietnam.
We insisted on setting up a handicraft department although the market is already flooded with handicraft products. The rationale is that these handicrafts out in the market are not authentic handmade ones or are second hand goods. We hope that by setting up a handicraft business to sell quality handicrafts, we can preserve the art of making them. The craftwomen will continue to make the handicrafts as they see value in them. They will also pass on the art to the next generation. We hope to set an example to street touts who are increasingly using their young children to sell on the streets that what they are doing is not sustainable.
Anula: How do you engage your suppliers in what you do?
Shu: We are the main supplier of our services. We have small partnerships with suppliers like Halong Bay cruises, transport partners, tour partners from other countries that like our social enterprise model, etc.
Anula: What is unique or innovative about your marketing and communication approach?
Shu: We mainly use Facebook marketing and other social media pages like Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and You Tube. uch marketing is effective in reaching out to our fans with information about our community efforts. Furthermore, many people are referred to us by our fans.
TripAdvisor is also effective in reaching out to potential guests, though there are many challenges. For example hundreds of our five star reviews get deleted because they are multiday reviews inclusive of homestays; or we have fake/unfair negative reviews which are written by disgruntled guests or competitors. We subject ourselves to reviews by Lonely Planet, World Travel and Tourism Council and World Responsible Tourism Awards judges. This earns us accreditation as well as publicity.
Anula: What have you learned about marketing so far, what works and what doesn’t?
Shu: Facebook marketing works the best. Our fans follow our developments and they refer their friends to us. Our friend referral network after 3 years of operation is very big, estimated by randomly surveying guests on how they found out about us. Many said their friends recommended them to us. We never paid for any advertising and it works better than those who paid for advertising. People nowadays do not pay attention to advertisements, advertisements have become an annoyance. We grow our fans by attracting people who are passionate to our cause. This is the surest way to retain and grow fans.
Anula: What motivated you to apply for World Responsible Tourism Awards?
Shu: We want to be accredited by third parties so that we know we are moving in the right direction of assessing our social impact; and also to learn from similar organisations. This helps to increase our visibility to potential guests who do not know which tour operator to trust when everyone claims to be socially responsible.
Anula: What expectations do you have if you win?
Shu: We expect to increase our visibility to potential guests so that we can support more needy students. We can also receive affirmation that our social impact assessment is done comprehensively and will continue to document our work.
This article is part of the interview series with the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2016 finalists, with whom we explore the best practices in marketing and sustainable tourism communications. The rest will be published between now and the opening of World Travel Market on November 7th.