Customer Experience in the Jungles of Kuala Lumpur

Photo by David Lemus

Photo by David Lemus

What can hospitality companies like Marriott and Hilton learn from a small bamboo guest house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? The answer: a ton. A typical vacation experience for a Malaysian guest is very different than the American vacation experience back in the U.S.A. How so? 

The great thing about traveling through Southeast Asia as a Westerner is your ability to have a "beginner's mind" everyday. Each day you wake up to a new experience, where you learn the nuances of the culture and the unspoken rules of how to navigate daily life. Recently, at a volunteer site outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I got the opportunity to immerse myself deep into the local culture. In the span of a just a few days, I glimpsed how a small business is run, experienced the journey of a Malaysian on vacation and learned from a local design thinker (who may not know he's a design thinker).

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The Bamboo Village is located in the Malaysian jungle, just about 20 minutes outside of Kuala Lumpur. I couldn't imagine a more different reality from the one I had been living in Washington, DC:  the entire village is made from bamboo, you sleep on the floor, toilet paper is a luxury, you have no access to the internet and even the simple process of booking a room is a complete mess. Despite what may seem, to some, to be shortcomings, a Malay blogger just named this local vacation spot  one of “Top 10 places to visit in Kuala Lumpur.” During my seven-day stay at the Bamboo Village, I had the privilege to help the owner, Ramadhan, organize his business a little better and make the guest experience (before they arrived for their vacation) a little smoother. Here are a few things that I learned about the requirements of a Malaysia vacation experience and the way business is conducted in an emerging market like Southeast Asia.

  1. Cash banking transactions: In Malaysia, it is perfectly acceptable for a business owner to email a potential customer their bank account information and have them deposit cash (at their local bank) to pay for the room. No secure websites, no direct deposits, just cash and a bank account number. 
  2. Unregulated market: Ramadhan bought the land, cut down some trees and flew over some Indonesians (and bamboo) to build the Bamboo Village. No need for permits or government interference.
  3. Visit before you vacation: Families will come to the resort and walk around to see it in person before booking a room for the following weekend.
  4. Six guests to a room: Some of the guest rooms, which, to me, seemed appropriate for one to two guests, sometimes slept five to six people! Malays have large families and are used to small amounts of personal space. 
  5. Cook all day: Unlike most Western vacation destinations, there is no food served at this resort and barely a kitchen! Vacationing Malay women know to bring all the food and cooking equipment they'll need to cook for the family. These women literally cook and clean dishes all day— for all the meals. I briefly talked with a Malay woman who told me it brought her great joy to relax and cook all day for her family and other guests (including me!). 
  6. Cold showers and no drinking water: Yup.

This vacation experience is very different from any trip I've taken to New York City or even rural Maryland, yet to Malaysian vacationers this is a typical, acceptable and relaxing experience. 

Ramadhan, the business owner, is a classic design thinker. He didn’t have the typical “build it and they will come” mentality for his report. Like many aspiring hospitality businesses, he could have poured money into making the resort just a little nicer: dressing up the rooms, building more accommodations, hiring permanent staff to run the place more efficiently. But he didn’t. Entrepreneurs often spend so much time tweaking and scaling their businesses until what they assume is  "just right. " However, Ramadhan is a “one man show,” as he likes to say, and gets help from four to six international volunteers, making his overhead costs reduce down to nearly zero. This allows him greater flexibility to be in-market with his business without draining the bank. As more and more guests come, he listens to them and discerns where he should spend his resources to make the guest experience better.

Ramadhan's way of doing business is in total contrast to his friend down the street, who also owns a vacation resort. Before the resort opened, he scaled his business to accommodate 100+ guests, but nobody is coming. His friend is in a crisis with a broken business model and no idea where to spend his resources to improve it.

Western companies seeking to launch a business in Malaysia must have a clean-slate approach to developing both the customer experience and the business model. Exporting the western mindset to the emerging markets simply won’t work!

What are your thoughts? Where have you seen the customer experience completely differ in Southeast Asia or other developing nations?

Message me @davidlemus