Lord Puttnam Tackles Lao Tourism Challenges

Published on : Tuesday, March 15, 2016

downloadOscar-winning producer Lord Puttnam was recently walking along Luang Prabang’s streets. He notices a fine-looking four-storey hotel topped with a terrace. He hikes up the stairs and takes in the view. He then asks the staff if he can order a drink. The smiling worker replies, “Yes sir, on the first floor.”

Lord Puttnam’s anecdote kicked off his keynote address at the 18th Lanith Symposium on the challenges and barriers in growing Lao tourism. Lord Puttnam has been coming to Laos for 30 years, and considers himself, “A real friend of Laos,” but also a “critical friend.” He is currently the UK Prime Minister’s Trade & Cultural Envoy to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

He ended his Luang Prabang story to the 70-plus attendees at the event, held at the British Embassy in Vientiane, saying the experience shows the “half-shaked attitude” of many Lao tourism and hospitality staff.Lord Puttnam’s ensuing observations covered an array of challenges facing Lao tourism. He confronted the confusing arrival experience. “It’s like entering the Third Word,” compared to its neighbors, said the producer of the classic film, “Midnight Express”. “The visa process in Laos is cumbersome. It’s the reverse of nice.”

He referred to the well-worn “Thai smile”, and asked, “Can we develop Lao tourism without losing its charm?” In Laos, Lord Puttnam sees a “discontinuity in development”.He warned about Lao tourism’s reliance on donor funding. “Laos needs to unhook itself from donors… Donor dollars are stretched in favor of crisis areas. It’s a struggle to make a case for the tourism and hospitality industry.”

Lord Puttnam addressed Laos’ tendency to place too much weight on arrival figures. “Arrival numbers are only half the story…Laos needs to add value to this statistic…What is certain is Laos needs more tourists who spend more money.”

He suggested boosting value with more creative products. “This country is blessed with the Mekong,” Lord Puttnam said. He noted Laos’ river cruise offerings and itineraries are limited. He said the traditional transportation boats and upscale vessels may suit some visitors. However, others want smaller boats offering niche experiences and charters, “but this doesn’t exist in Laos.”

He stressed Laos must deliver an authentic experience and instill a desire to return. “Tourism is about memories. This is what tourists take home,” he said. “Laos can provide these memories.”

Hospitality plays a large role in positive memories, but, “Restaurants in Laos face challenges,” Lord Puttnam said. He noticed some eateries serve international dishes, but waiters don’t know English. “It’s a topsy-turvy relationship.” He added that a restaurant can display a large gap between good and bad. The décor may be nice, but the menu doesn’t live up to the atmosphere, and the food is often “skuzzy.”

Lord Puttnam stated that getting a qualified workforce requires a strategy. “Talent is scarce, but it is a global asset. Laos wants to be talented, but there is a war for talent.”Oliver Horn is battling in the war for talent. He is the general manager for Vientiane’s soon-to-open Crowne Plaza of the InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG). He described his hunt for Lao staff, “We want to fill positions with local talent, but there is a small pool to choose from that meets IHG standards.”

He added, “We’re trying to find the jewels…(but) we can’t even find department heads, so have to go with expats.” He noted that for every 100 interviews, the hotel hires 10. “Usually, we hire three out of four. This is a big challenge.”

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