Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey there! I’m Nok, co-founder, and director of Five Star Thailand Tours. We've helped over 30,000 travellers in southern Thailand connect with local boat captains to experience incredible and authentic private snorkelling and boat tours.
Five Star Thailand Tours is a sustainable, eco-friendly travel business, based in Krabi, Thailand. Since 2015; we have welcomed customers onto our tours, from 119 countries across the globe, to share incredible memories with.
Our Phi Phi Island Tour provides our customers with a unique service that cannot be found anywhere else. Our focus is on quality and service, over quantity. We pride ourselves on delivering amazing experiences every time, without fail.
Starting from humble beginnings, our first ever boat tours were sold from our rented wooden beach shack, in tropical Koh Phi Phi. Nowadays, our revenues are in excess of $750,000 per annum, with plenty of room for growth.
We are able to compete in the leagues of bigger travel providers such as Tripadvisor or Expedia. However, unlike these bigger players, we are proud that our business is directly contributing to the growth of the local economy.
Creating an incredible and memorable experience for travellers has always been at the forefront and core of our business model. We take pride in offering premium services, at affordable prices. Our structure has proven itself invaluable, time-and-time again, with word of mouth advertising proving an essential asset for the company.
We are proud to employ 100% local tour guides and boat captains, contributing money directly back into the local economy, and providing a sustainable income for those who need it the most. Throughout our time in business, we have ensured our prices remain fair and competitive to our customers; while prioritizing a fair and sustainable income for our hard-working team.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Travel had always been a passion of mine. Growing up in a popular tourist destination in the United Kingdom - I was immersed in the travel culture. Granted, Blackpool Beach can’t be compared to the beaches found in the south of Thailand. However, one thing remains the same- beach destinations attract tourism. So with a flow of adventure-seeking travelers passing through, paired with awesome and high-quality service to offer. A winning recipe is brought to life.
I’d spend every summer of my early twenties, grafting my way through countless European cities. A new tourist destination every few months. Picking up low-paid promotional work for events, clubs, and bars across the continent. In return for a bed, a meal and a beer or two. Barely scraping by, earning just enough to fund my travel habit. But I loved it, every moment of it. I loved helping other travelers find what they needed in a new location.
My passion for travel, saw me relocate, moving in with extended family in Thailand, at a young age of just twenty-something. I didn’t know what the plan was. And I certainly didn't plan on founding a boat tour business. I knew that my love for helping travelers, staying open-minded, and being in the right place at the right time had, (usually), worked out in the past.
After spending many an evening mingling with travelers in local dive bars, speaking with travelers first hand, listening to their experiences. Something that quickly became apparent was the lack of quality choices when it came to booking activities in the area.
Travellers would, dine in up-market restaurants, reside in luxury resorts. Yet when it came to booking boat tours, the current market focused solely on backpackers.
Due to heavy competition, tour companies of the time were focused on pricing their services as low as possible. But low-cost came with a catch, service, and quality would be compromised- completely alienating a huge portion of the market.
It became clear, the majority of travelers did not want the cheapest possible tour; when that meant compromising for poor service and being crammed into a boat with countless others. The demand for quality service at a reasonable price was massive.
So the idea of operating Semi-Private Boat Tours was devised. A mid-range boat tour option, which could focus on providing a great customer experience, all while keeping costs at a reasonable price. We needed fewer sales to turn a profit and we’d be able to spend more time and focus on each individual guest, providing a better overall experience.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Legal work, licensing and registrations. Customer support, inquiries, planning, logistics, marketing, partnerships, sales, web design; development, content creation amongst all else. Became taking up every waking moment of my time. Not forgetting, securing a deal on a shopfront was essential.
If you need something done right, you need to learn how to do it yourself. I was convinced, adamant. The hard work would pay off. I’ve always seen myself as an entrepreneur.
Starting out was no easy challenge. After landing the first few sales; approaching potential customers in bars, and on the beaches, and establishing there was a definite demand for our services. I began taking on all the needed work. To turn a concept into a reality; into a real business.
We found an amazing deal on a rickety beach shack, which was the perfect place to use as a base for Five Star Thailand Tours, it was about as authentic as it comes. And, it was from here, from where our first ever boat tours would be sold. We managed to secure a too-good-to-be-true deal with the landowner, a happy go lucky type of guy. Securing a prime location for absolutely nothing! Instead of paying a fixed amount in rent, we’d pay the landlord a commission for each sale we made.
Well, that worked perfectly. It opened the door for us, with absolutely nothing as a start-up budget. And with that- Five Star Thailand Tours was brought to life. Finally, with a physical location, and a real address. It was time to start thinking about the long-term plan.
I’d find myself coordinating and organizing logistics for our guests in the mornings. Afternoons spent charming sunbathers and passers-by; signing them up to our tours for the following day. And come night I’d find myself reading through a ton of legal documents, or taking online coding or web design classes; in preparation for launching our first online sales platform, without the need to hire a developer. Taking on the work myself saved us thousands of dollars.
We would have needed to spend a ton if we were going to hire a developer, that was money we didn’t have. I’d work seven days a week, almost 24/7 to get this business off the ground. There was always something that needed to be done.
It’s amazing what you are capable of, with enough drive, dedication, will, and all the time in the world. When you have no other options, it’s make-or-break. With no plan B, there was never a doubt in my mind, any alternate universe where Five Star Thailand Tours would not be a success.
Describe the process of launching the business.
There was no ‘hard’ launch for Five Star Thailand Tours. To be honest, I wouldn’t say there was even a soft launch. To begin with, there was never any money to launch a business. The first few months were trial and error, establishing there was a demand for our service.
Sales were made in person, for the first two years we’d really on foot traffic, stopping passing by beachgoers, and word-of-mouth recommendations. As the brand became more established offline, word of mouth began spreading further afield, amongst travelers online.
There was no launch, it took over two years for us to get to a position, where we would have been able to launch a company. But somewhere along the line. I guess a launch had naturally occurred. If I had to put a date on it, it would have been the day we secured our first online reservation. That glorious notification, Five Star Thailand Tours [New Booking] - Booking Number #00001.
But don’t get me wrong, it was no easy feat to get the first online reservation. It took years of learning to code an online booking platform. It was a learning curve for myself and everyone else involved. There were no start-up loans, no Kickstarter campaigns, no equity, and no funding.
With no budget for marketing or for paid advertising - it was a waiting game. Patience, determination, and faith were everything.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I finally had a little breathing space, from time working in the field. We finally had our first website launched, with a built-in online booking platform. Our social media was beginning to grow, bookings were becoming more stable and steady through online channels.
It’s a tough market to retain customers. Most travelers visit the islands once; so it’s more important for us, that every one of our guests gets a great experience.
An experience they want to share with their friends and family. As I said before, word of mouth advertising is invaluable. That being said, we do have some customers who take their vacation to the same place every year, and these travelers love booking with us every year. Just as much as we love welcoming back a familiar face onto one of our boat tours!
We implement a lot of tech into the business, even creating and coding an app our staff use for in-person sales. Cash or card payments, in-person sales are all automatically imported to our automated planning system, alongside any online, OTA or B2B bookings. This helps us to smooth our tour planning and preparations, with jobs being automatically to our boat captains and guides. This automated set-up really makes planning a breeze. And allows us to spend more time doing what we love, listening to our customers; and showing off our incredible island home!
Social media was a fantastic opportunity, and I believe every business should be utilizing at least, a Facebook Page. Being in such a unique, visually driven market, our customers would generate content for us! Being in the tourism sector, and with so many Instagramers around. Everyone wanted to get the best shots of their vacation. So at the expense of stocking up on a few Go-Pro cameras, and issuing these to our guides. We had another unique selling point, another way to keep our guests happy and referrals coming through. We’d provide guests with a free photography service and in return, most customers would be more than happy for us to use the content on our social channels. It was a win-win
But the real game-changer came with enlisting the help of third parties to sell our services. Well established travel brands and package holiday provides, are always on the lookout for awesome experiences to bundle into their vacation packages.
Our revenue more than doubled, the first year we began to focus more heavily on B2B relationships with package tour companies.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’ve seen consistent month-over-month growth since day one. We average healthy profit margins; which allows us to invest more locally than ever before. All of what we earn, still find a way back into the business or local economy one way or another!
Nowadays, it feels like we’re running a real business, and we are. With over 25 captains on our books and partnerships with 50+ B2B package tour providers, we are excited to see where the future will take us.
Most of our sales and planning have been mostly automated, this leaves us with time doing what we love. Engaging with our customers, and creating incredible memories for us both.
There’s no better market research than spending time with your customers, real travelers and finding out what they loved, and what they would prefer to have been different. We’re growing learning, and always looking to improve our service. With plenty of competition out there, the title of Phi Phi Islands #1 Boat Tour Company, isn’t earned easily.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Running such a visual business, customer-generated content can be huge for us, in terms of marketing. So, for the most part, I try to accept as many reasonable offers from bloggers, and Instagram influencers as I can. Some deals are worth their weight in gold others not so much.
I discovered early on that partnering with smaller influential travelers was vital to our success. As a lower-cost alternative to traditional advertising, we’d see a much higher engagement when the content put out was real and authentic.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I love using Google’s G-Suite range of services, it’s perfect for internal communications, and, the APIs for tools like Calendar, Drive, Analytics & Gmail are incredibly important tools for us. There are a thousand and one useful programs included in the subscription, all as useful as each other.
Google My Business helps customers easily find us while creating a trustworthy place for customers to leave reviews and feedback. Plus, listing ourselves here allows for rankings in local search and helps customers find our physical location on Google Maps- Reviews Welcome!
FreshDesk, for customer support. This interface has become crucial to how our customer support is operated. Merging all our Emails, Phone Calls, WhatsApp Messages & Facebook Messages into one platform has really simplified and improved how we are able to handle our customer inquiries.
WordPress. Without this incredible content management system, Five Star Thailand Tours would not be in existence. It’s the backbone of the company - and is the software powering our entire website. I launched our first website, with no coding experience, all thanks to this awesome open-source CMS.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
These books really paint an authentic picture of the struggles that must be overcome in order to achieve success. I find some of the most influential books are not ‘business books’, but rather biographies about successful entrepreneurs.
I’ve also got to mention The Beach here, by Alex Garland. After all, it was the blockbuster production based on this book, which initially brought Thailand's islands to the public’s attention for the first time. Great book, terrible film.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Go out and get started. So many people never make the first step. Taking that first step is everything. Don’t overthink things. Start first. Everything else comes second.
You don’t need to know what you’re doing, no-one knows what they're doing, to begin with. Have passion, pride, patience, and care. Don’t expect overnight results, and you’ll soon learn.
Take risks, think big, think different, break some rules along the way. Any revenue you generate, invest that back into the business. Invest in yourself, plant the seeds that will grow in the future. Do whatever it takes, but you have to be in it 100%.
Oh, and never pay anyone to mentor you, or for any kind of course. You don’t need it. You learn from trial and error, from free online resources, but more importantly from your mistakes and your failures. Don’t waste valuable time that could be better off out into building your business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are not actively hiring, but we are always on the lookout for the right people, people who can prove a valuable asset to us. If the right person comes along, with an interesting story or skill set; we’re always open to consideration.
We are in a unique position where our customers are travel bloggers and love to write about their experience with us... So if you’re a travel writer or Youtuber; planning on traveling to Phi Phi Island, we’d love to hear more about your work!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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