The past year has proven to be both a daunting and exciting time for Buddyz, an experiential travel platform launched in early 2020 to connect travellers with in-the-know local guides and explore destinations in greater depth.
Until Buddyz came in and started getting all these niche experiences in, I realised there were many offerings I was not aware of as a travel agent – and that is even more so for the consumer.
From the onset, Buddzy was conceived to provide a “curated” range of travel activities and experiences that were not merely “sightseeing tours”, said co-founders Nigel Wong and Eric Yap, who actively seek out and handpick niche products as well as guides – called hosts – to bring on board the platform.
“As a travel agent, I thought I was quite exposed to domestic stuff happening in Malaysia. But until Buddyz came in and started getting all these niche experiences in, I realised there were many offerings I was not aware of as a travel agent – and that is even more so for the consumer,” said Wong, who is also CEO of Urban Rhythms Tours, Adventures & Travel and the secretary-general of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents.
In Melaka, a destination where many visitors associate with food, Buddyz's passionate cyclist host take guests on a pedal through rubber trees and paddy fields in the outskirts to uncover the city’s other renowned products beyond the famed Jonker Street.
In Penang, outdoor enthusiasts are guided by a biologist through the Seraya Hill in Bukit Mertajam in search of local flora and fauna as well as colonial remnants in the area, or they can step into the shoes of a wildlife researcher and accompany the naturalist expert in a fieldwork session to observe the dusky langurs at close quarters.
Being the “hybrid version” of an OTA and a traditional travel agency further stands Buddyz apart from its peers in the competitive online marketplace, in what Yap says is differentiated through the platform's touch of “personalisation and customisation”.
“Like how travel agencies are in the service industry, we understand that every customer has different needs and preferences, so we want to bring all these into the digital space and hence [the launch of] this kind of marketplace,” said Yap.
A biologist guides guests to uncover local flora and fauna as well as colonial remnants in Penang’s Seraya Hill.
Unlike other OTAs that get customers to pay first in order to confirm their bookings, what Buddyz advocates is for interested guests to first register their interest for any tour through the website and put forth any queries or adjustments they may have, whether it’s requesting for timing changes or opting for wheelchair-friendly route, etc.
Payment is only made when Buddyz hosts have responded, typically within 24 hours of enquiry, on whether the requests could be acceded to. Customers will not be charged any additional fees for such accommodation made.
Ongoing discovery and reinvention
Like many travel businesses, Buddyz was left scrambling when the pandemic threw a spanner in its works, but Yap also sees the global crisis as “a blessing in disguise” when the young and small outfit was able to “quickly tweak, pivot and sustain the business”.
According to Yap, Buddyz was among the first travel operators to switch to virtual offerings during Malaysia’s first MCO in March 2020, pushing out novel offerings such as ‘Tribute to Praya Lane, Melaka’ and ‘Virtual Safari Experience with Bornean Sun Bear’ that have since found a steady reception among the domestic and foreign audience.
As well, these virtual experiences are conducted live at the destination to enable guests to ask questions and engage with their hosts in real time, so that they are “not a one-way interaction like livestreaming on Facebook or Youtube”, said Yap.
With more time on their hands, travel industry members from tour guides to hotels are more willing to “listen and experiment with” new formats. He added, “We are always open for collaboration with all parties within the industry to help each other."
Buddyz’s Sabah Virtual Safari experience is a favourite among families, as a local conservationist is at hand to answer questions from children in real time.
And for both founders, the Covid-induced travel slump also offers an opportunity to sharpen and fine-tune their vision for Buddyz and roll out “exceptional products” that resonate with travellers’ new expectations and trends when markets reopen.
“Not only has this crisis forced businesses to pivot, it also forces people to explore other options of consuming different products, including travel and tour services,” said Wong. “The pandemic has retrained people think and view travel and how they will consume travel after the pandemic normalises.”
This is especially evident for domestic tourism, opening up travellers’ mindsets to explore their own backyard. “[The pandemic's] given a push to independent touring. We are seeing more independent tourists who used to holiday out of Malaysia paying more attention to domestic travel, and people who generally travelled in groups, who, due to the current circumstances, cannot tour in groups and are now finding it not as scary to travel on their own,” Wong added.
At the same time, Wong sees an opportunity to overturn the “traditional paradigm of tours and tour guiding”. He remarked, “There are a lot more value that can be offered by tour guides – it’s not about taking you from A to B. Finding the value-adds that you can put into this kind of products, whether they are consumed online or offline, is where the gap is [in the market].”
Ultimately, keeping engagement level with customers constantly high is a key objective for Buddyz, said Yap. “We keep curating stuff and engaging customers, offering people a chance to remain continuously connected with the experiences that they had, and leading on to different experiences. It’s a business model that is yet to be fully developed on the tourist side of things – basically making travel more lifestyle and less touristic.”