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, anywhere." 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 non-violent 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.
Feature by John Gray, Photos from John Gray Sea Canoe
For more information contact: John Gray Sea Canoe Co., Ltd.
124 Soi 1 Yaowarat Rd., Taladyai, Muang, Phuket
Tel: +66 (0)76 254505-7, +66 (0)84 844 1807