Saturday, November 06, 2010

Bloom Garden Guesthouse website and the business of commission

You can visit the site here at We've had one reservation via the website already! Thanks to Singaporean friends, Jean and Fern, for the great website!

We've had a steady stream of visitors since we opened 2 months ago and one guest, Jenica, is returning to stay with us, this time with her parents. Yay! I'm glad we're getting returning guests - it means we must be doing something right!

It has been slow going, though, and I've been told it takes 6 months to 1 year before a guesthouse really takes off, cos it takes time for people to know you exist. It may take us longer, since I refuse to play the commission game. We will not pay tuktuk drivers commission to take people to our guesthouse and to the Bloom bag shop. Since opening the guesthouse, I am learning so much about how tourism works in Siem Reap.

For instance, there are guesthouses that pay bus companies and tuktuk drivers to take tourists the moment they pick them up from the border towns directly to their guesthouses. Then there are guesthouses that let tuktuk drivers take customers to their establishments at inflated prices. So the tuktuk driver may tell a tourist that XYZ guesthouse charges $30 a room a night, when the price is really $15. The guesthouse lets the tuktuk driver keep the difference ($15 in this case). It costs the guesthouse nothing - the owner gets his $15 and the tuktuk driver, whatever he can get away with.

I was amazed to find this out - don't tourists learn what the real prices are and won't they be angry when they do? My Cambodian friends laugh. How can they? How can the tourist find out? They only stay for 2 or 3 nights. Nobody volunteers the real rate. They won't know the real price unless they talk to some other tourist, but this rarely happens.

In fact, I was told by well-meaning Cambodian friends that this is what I have to do, if I want to make it in the guesthouse business. Otherwise I just won't be able to compete with the other guesthouses.

I keep explaining, patiently, that this is not how I want to do business. It make take me a longer time to get our name out, and to get customers, but I think about the long term, not the short term. It was the way with Bloom bags, now more than 4 years old, and it will be the way with Bloom Guesthouse.

I explain to my Cambodian friends that I want to be in business for a long time, taking time to build a good company. And in business, your word must mean something. You cannot cheat customers and you must be honest and have integrity because, if you are dishonest, word will spread and you will start to lose customers. What is the point of ruining your reputation just for a quick buck?

Too many people here think short term, just take a tourist to the cleaners while they can, without thinking of the longer term consequences. An Australian friend explained to a group of young university-going Cambodians that because of the scams, many Australians she knows will not return to Cambodia.

The commission business extends also to tour leaders. I was stunned the other day when a Westerner came into the new Bloom bag shop in Siem Reap. He fingered a bag, asking how much it was, and saying it was very well-made. Then he said "I am a tour leader. I can bring you many customers. But you pay me commission."

He was young, tattooed (not that it means anything, but I mention it as an identifier - in case someone reading this recognises him as his/her tour leader) and had a Russian or East European accent. It took me about 5 seconds before I understood what was going on. Instinctively I said no, we do not pay commission. Disappointed, he tried again, "My customers will spend a lot of money in your shop. You pay me a little commission." I repeated "we do not pay commission" and he left.

Tour leaders even get commission from restaurants. I was having dinner at the Soup Dragon with friends one night when this British man from Plymouth (as he told my friends), a tour leader said he was bringing in 24 people (who were right now at a cultural show, while he did his negotiating with the restaurant in advance).

I heard him say to the Khmer manageress "you pay me this (figure - I did not know what it was) and I think it is fair. Otherwise you will not have 24 customers. This way, you win, and I win." I was so disgusted I could not even bring myself to be friendly with him when he came over to our table for some small talk while waiting for his group to arrive.

I know this happens with the tuktuks, but I was honestly surprised to see Westerners behaving in the same way - accepting kickbacks as part of the job. It shows just how naive I am - even though I've lived in Cambodia for almost 5 years. I am sure many tourists to Cambodia are similarly naive.

I'd already had the experience with tuktuks. One day, I had a call from a tuktuk driver whose customers were trying to find the new Bloom shop (now opposite the provincial hospital on the same street as the U-Care Pharmacy, round the corner from the new D's Books). They had bought bags from us previously and returned to get some more.

After they left, the tuk tuk driver returned to ask for a commission. He did not believe Kagna that we do not pay commission and asked to speak with me. I repeated we do not. Angry, he said he would not take any more customers to our shop. Fine, I said, that's alright with us. Indignant, Kagna and Bora told him, you did not take them anyway, they *asked* you to take them here. In that sense, *we* helped you get a customer. But of course he did not see things that way.

Subsequently, I found out all the big shops in Siem Reap pay commission - to tuktuk drivers, tour guides, travel agents - whoever makes the reference. My tuktuk driver told me the apsara dinner shows pay 50% commission to drivers. 50%!

The going rate is 20%. But with so much competition, the stakes are high. One very large, expensive, workshop/shop in Siem Reap which makes its own handicrafts had a lottery last year, specially for tour guides. They stood to win a motorcycle. This year, it is a car.

I refuse to be part of this, even though I know it will cost us business. But that's fine. Bloom customers are not run-of-the-mill shoppers anyway. Neither are they sheep-people, following some tour leader, guide, tuktuk driver to whereever he or she takes them. In my experience, Bloom customers are independent-minded, sincere and honest, and genuinely care about people and the planet. They fully deserve my respect. No way will I disrespect them by making them pay for someone else's kickbacks.

So I made this sign and stuck it on the wall outside our shop:

I had met people from the two tour companies mentioned who told me they do not condone this practise of accepting kickbacks. I'm so glad not all are like that.

A customer asked if this sign made us controversial. I guess it may, I said, but the truth is the truth. It did occur to me that our beautiful wall may get defaced, though (will post pics soon - it's so beautiful tourists take photos of it, even pose with it!)

1 comment:

adelinelum said...

You made a good choice for standing firm with full integerity, impressive Diana!


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