Belinda Shillcock loves what she does. For two decades, the avid traveller has worked her way through the industry covering diverse roles and exotic destinations. She returned home to Australia in 2015 and co-founded a business combining her two passions, philanthropy and travel.
Soon after, Belinda swapped her Sydney life to return to Bangkok, where she joined the leaders of luxury travel, Abercrombie & Kent (A&K). “Every day, we’re providing the chance for somebody to have an unforgettable experience,” Belinda says. Her passion is evident and so is her mission: to show people the marvels of the world.
“Whether that’s enjoying a delicious Thai treat on the street or a having a philanthropic experience in Cambodia, where the travellers can donate a water well to give families access to clean water for the first time. We have this opportunity to constantly excite, educate, entertain, surprise, delight and intrigue travellers to learn about a destination. These novel experiences enable people to open their minds and hearts. Travel fuels the soul and creates opportunities beyond the norm.”
“I first visited Cambodia over 20 years ago,” says Belinda. “The ancient temples of Angkor are truly magnificent and breathtaking. I’ve visited Angkor Wat many times over the years, but I still get that same awe-inspired feeling every time I see it.” It’s also the feedback from guests that makes Belinda happy. “I love learning how a destination has changed someone’s life, whether it’s someone’s first time in Asia, an experience with a local community and discovering human connections, or having a chance to bond with your partner or family – this is what travel is all about.”
In the past 12 months, a shift has occurred in the five-star sector luxury sector. “The wants and desires in luxury are starting to evolve,” Belinda explains.
“While having that five-star luxury hotel is an absolute must, travellers are becoming more adventurous in their chosen experiences during the day.”
The A&K brand is the pioneer of experiential travel, she states, whether that’s meaningful experiences where people give back to the communities in the destinations they’re visiting, or meeting with an expert of a particular niche organisation. Belinda reinforces that those are the encounters that people are after.
“Our greatest strength lies in our people and teams around the world. Their knowledge, abilities, professionalism and dedication all come through in ensuring customer satisfaction and long-term supplier relationships. That is at the core of what makes this a successful travel company.”
As the Regional Managing Director of A&K Southeast Asia, among many other responsibilities, Belinda’s purpose is to inspire people to choose places like Cambodia and Laos to explore – an exceptionally challenging mission in light of COVID-19.
“Travel is the most resilient industry in the world,” she says. “By nature, humans are inquisitive, social, wandering beings. Travel will bounce back; it’s just going to be a slow process. Some people already want to travel at the end of the year, and we also have inquiries coming in for the first quarter of 2021.”
Despite the impact on the travel industry, Belinda is optimistic. “People will travel again, it’s in our human nature,” she says.
“But it will be about a new style of travel, especially with physical distancing and new health and safety standards. We are already seeing some emerging trends from our clients worldwide, including requests for longer stays that visit fewer locations, private yachts, beach and island villas, and experiences that seek out nature, wellness and relaxation.”
A&K’s strategy is to go slow, and give people time to feel comfortable travelling again.
“There’s a long road ahead of us in the various measures that airlines, destination management companies, hotels and various suppliers need to take before people can travel healthily and safely,” she says.
Belinda believes that domestic travel will be the first to rebound – an area that A&K is closely monitoring. She notes that Vietnam and Thailand are already in the process of reopening.
“Domestic flights in Vietnam and Thailand are now operational,” she says. “Businesses are also back to normal. Then it will probably be regional travel, including reciprocal travel bubbles between ASEAN countries and greater Asia, including Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.”
There is no rule book for something like this. Much like other industries, the travel sector is also playing it by ear, hoping to recover as smoothly as possible. Looking on the bright side, Belinda says the pandemic has encouraged further industry collaboration.
“It’s happening on many levels, especially here in South-East Asia, at an SME level,” she says. Travel is an industry built on relationships, and increased communication can only bring additional benefits to an already loved and missed sector. “Relationships are key to the success of a travel business,” Belinda reinforces.
“This pandemic has shown that whether we’re industry colleagues or industry competitors, the amount of information sharing that’s going on right now, especially in Thailand, has to be commended. Everyone has come together to share their experiences of what’s working and what’s not working. This is another reason why we all know the industry will survive. There is light at the end of the tunnel. We just have a little bit to go before we get to that light.”
Belinda has observed the company hold its ground in a crisis. Its ability to do so is due to the individuals behind A&K and the company’s collaborative nature.
“The collaboration we’ve had from our colleagues in the US, to the UK, Australia and around the world has shone. It’s such a tightknit family. Even though it’s a company of 3,000 employees, it still feels like we’re part of a family.”
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