We’re uncomfortable about blowing our own horn so, instead of telling
you what great trips we run, let me explain why our trips are so good.
Since we started ‘Natural History by Sea Kayak Since 1983’, we’ve stuck
to some basic concepts that keep us going through thick and thin.
They may seem conservative, but our guests constantly say, “Best
experience of our entire vacation” and “Best trip we’ve ever done,
I don’t know about all that, but guests tell me they selected
Phuket for their vacation just to go on ‘Hong by Starlight’ – often on the
advice of a friend who already did our trip.
‘Labour of Love’ is our bedrock motivation for ‘High Quality, Low
Volume’ and ‘We Put You in Your Own Documentary’.
Before we came to Thailand, we ran overnight expeditions with a
maximum of 12 people. ‘Hong by Starlight’ is 32, but the boat’s big,
efficient and the group dynamic is spiritual. To protect the caves from
unaware tourists, to protect tourists from the caves, and to provide jobs
for Thai people, we put a guide in each kayak.
Our most important – and limiting – factor is quality staff, so we
develop career professionals with excellent working conditions and
pay. A happy staff performs better than sweat-shop labour and many
guides have been with us between 15 to 20 years. Their experience
shows in our guest comments, and they in turn rapidly develop the‘new generation’ guides. Ours is a service industry, and our experienced
guides make the difference. While others may spend five minutes in a
hong, our guides are just getting
started on their nature rap.
Of course our guides actually
have something to talk about
because management knows
the science and takes the time
to teach it.
We emphasise ‘Labor of Love’.
We started as an environmental
education platform, and we
never lose that focus. We believe
in high quality because we care
about our clients. More than just
making money, our trips are our
personal statement. We don’t
run ‘City Bus Tours’ in pristine
Nature. We ‘Walk the Talk’, always looking for ways to make ‘Hong by
Starlight’ even better, and always living by Mother Nature’s rules. Never
feed the monkeys!
All this dedication costs a bit more, and keeps our profit margins down.
Serving net caught shrimp instead of farm shrimp, using glass water
and soft drink bottles, special order meals (but no red meat!) as well
as customised transfers all add up. Guides with 15+ years seniority are
great, but not cheap. But we respect our customers, understanding
that ‘Value for Vacation Time’ is even more precious than ‘Value for
Money’. Travellers know every day of their vacation is precious; the
smart ones know that saving a few baht on an ‘experience’ makes no
sense when you add up the cost of just being here.
We also night paddle, a bold exercise requiring years of experience. My first night paddle was in Hawai’i in 1985. Everybody was a Honolulu lifeguard, and we were very conservative. We still are. Night paddling is an experience like no other – one that requires perfect organisation and top attention to safety. The sea caves take on a different.
configuration after dark. With no ambient sunlight to illuminate
entrances, caves start at ‘first closure’, presenting a configuration unlike
that seen in the same cave in daytime.
Daytime or night, we literally place you within your own living
documentary, an ambiance that comes only with years of pride
and experience. It’s impossible to copy the concept unless you’ve
dedicated your life to environmental conservation. We don’t just
round you up, dump you in a kayak and say, “Have a good day.”
Our management goes with you to do their job: to manage your
experience. That’s the only way to “put you in your own documentary”.
Only two years after we started commercial trips, the concept became
reality when our first documentary, ‘Moloka’i’s Forgotten Frontier’ won
an Emmy Award – and the US National Outdoor Writers Council ‘Teddy’
for the ‘Best Environmental Education Documentary’ of 1985.
‘Walk The Talk’ doesn’t stop with operations. Environmental activism
includes journalism, video productions, teaching in university and nonviolent
activism such as our ‘Phang Nga Bay Clean-Up’ – five days with
84 Prince of Songkla University students and another 30 friends and
travel industry volunteers. The 74 bags of rubbish we collected were
inconsequential, not only in Phang Nga Bay but our seas worldwide.
But we did create awareness and cultivate general respect for the sea.
We hope the Clean-Up grows into an annual festival that kicks off every
high season with clean fun.
Long hours, hard work – and constantly tweaking trips to consistently
make today’s experience better than yesterday’s – pays off. Many
managers are tyrants, but a hard-ass manager only masks his
incompetence. Our quality is directly connected with our management
philosophy: we practice family-style ‘enlightened human resources’. It’s
great fun working with a staff that really cares and responds to a smile.
None of this is easy, but the best reward for conscientious work is
standing on the pier at trip’s end with bright eyes and big smiles from
kids to grand-kids thanking us for such a wonderful day.
That’s really why I do what I do.
John Gray is the founder of John Gray Sea Canoe and the first to bring this
type of adventure to Thailand. As you can see, he remains passionate about
what he does.