I have recorded an audio version of the article to make it more accessible and for those who enjoy to listen rather than to read.
I am writing this article from a hotel room in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. I want to share a slightly longer than planned article about our journey through four countries in Asia on our year long world travels. Over the last five months, my family and I have travelled to UAE, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia. Along this trip, there has been a recurring theme that I haven't been able to shake, and that is that WhatsApp is the silent force underpinning the Asian tourism market, and no one knows about it.
In 2020 back when we were in the UK, like many others I told friends and family to leave WhatsApp and move to Signal. I had deleted my WhatsApp account and was very happy with my tech elite self. But then we started our trip and we entered Asia, WhatsApp slowly gained its place back on my phone home screen and I was left feeling I had no choice as it is near impossible to travel/live in Asia without WhatsApp on your phone.
WhatsApp is prolific across Asia but not as a messaging app (which it also dominates) but as core business infrastructure in tourism and the adjacent industries. It is shocking that WhatsApp is so fundamental when nobody in the west seems to be aware of this and in my opinion, is the future platform of commerce in Asia and the rest of the world (if Facebook doesn't mess it up).
The power of WhatsApp in Asia
As we left the UK in August 2021 it was time for our pre-flight PCR test, one of what would be 14 PCR tests just for flights so far. We gave our personal, medical, passport and payment details to an "established" company via a online system that had the visual resemblance to something built over a weekend at a pizza and Redbull filled hackathon. But it worked and felt as secure and trusted as anything does in the UK, where you hope GDPR rules, ISO standards and payment processes have been followed even in the rush to create pandemic software. PCR test negative we were off on our adventure, starting with Dubai.
Over the years, we have travelled to the UAE many times and love it there; it could be because of our friends or the three fantastic water parks within an hour of each other. Anytime we would visit, I would always notice how people don't text message via WhatsApp. They send voice notes back and forth, particularly prevalent with taxi drivers. I would see threads of voice note chats over the headrest with friends, family, and colleagues. I asked one driver why voice and not text "I am driving so quicker and easier to record voice than type".
This year when we visited Dubai we saw the same again but this time when I asked why voice notes it was because they spoke different dialects or languages, and it is much easier to communicate in verbal English than via text message, where things can get misinterpreted.
After a couple of weeks in Dubai, we planned to visit Abu Dhabi, and though it is within the UAE, there was a hard border at this time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi due to the pandemic, so it was PCR test time again. A nurse came to our hotel, took our samples and advised us the results would get sent via WhatsApp the next day. We explained how we didn't have a WhatsApp number and could we use email instead; not a problem. As the nurse was processing our samples and taking photos of our passports and vaccination certificates from the UK, I noticed these images weren't being uploaded to some hospital's HIPAA based software system. They were being added to a group chat on WhatsApp that other team members at the hospital were sharing. I asked him, "errrm, what is this system" and he explained that was the way they do it 🤷♂️ and it turns out he, his hospital and the UAE as a whole were not alone in this thought process. Each country we would visit would get more engaged with WhatsApp as a platform for data and communication. For the rest of our time in the UAE, we managed to avoid WhatsApp mostly as we were staying with friends, using it for checking restaurant opening times or as a communication tool with new friends we met there; no one has Signal.
During our time in Abu Dhabi, we planned our next country, a visit to Sri Lanka, where we wanted to hire a driver to see all the sights. Though I have visited Sri Lanka a few times, it has been over 15 years since I last visited, so we started at zero. We tried Airbnb experiences, GetYourGuide and TripAdvisor and only found two people, who hit us with crazy tourist prices. Then we found a blog post from a European family who recommended a driver they had used countless times and listed his WhatsApp number. No website, no reviews, no nothing but in the spirit of travel, we exchanged a few messages and booked him for ten days. After a crazy flight and immigration experience getting into Sri Lanka (one for another article), we woke up at our hotel to Pradeep (our driver) waiting for us. Over the next ten incredible days, we would use WhatsApp to communicate with him as you would expect, and WhatsApp made it back on my phone to stay.
Simplified communication over WhatsApp
Then to Thailand, where we see the WhatsApp power move from customer service to infrastructure. We fly into Phuket under their trace and go program , which means a one day quarantine as you await your arrival PCR test result. As we arrive at the airport (well organised for the pandemic), it is paperwork and QR codes time. As we go from booth to booth, passing paperwork and QR codes, we see photos of our passports and vaccination certificates being snapped by phones and tablets similar to the PCR tests in Dubai. These photos were not uploaded to a Salesforce CRM system but to a WhatsApp group chat. What was surreal, this wasn't a private company; we were in the airport with the official immigration services. This was the government using WhatsApp to pass data back and forth, it was an eye opening experience of the trust WhatsApp has. In Thailand, similar to the UAE we then used WhatsApp for communicating with drivers and restaurants for opening times, we booked some hotels just via WhatsApp from friend recommendations; some hotel check-in forms even state WhatsApp number, not phone number.
WhatsApp for tourism
Things were taken up a gear when we visited Indonesia (the 4th most populated country in the world after China, India and the USA). In the land of motorbikes and apps like Grab, there isn't much you can't get locally from beyond the hotel walls. After the exit of a ten day quarantine we start the build up to Christmas and decide to stay at a nice resort hotel, and we need some laundry done, but the thing with nice hotels is their laundry services are stupidly expensive.
We Google "laundry Bali" and find a place; there is a website but no contact forms and no ordering system, just a WhatsApp number. I sent a few messages, and in under ten minutes, our order was booked. We left our bag of laundry at the front of the hotel for collection. An hour later, we got a photo of our laundry bag being picked up; thirty minutes later, a photo of the bag weighed with a price to wash, dry and press. I send the money via wise.com and then a screenshot of the payment confirmation via WhatsApp. Less than twenty-four hours later, I received a photo via WhatsApp of our laundry at the front of the hotel. This entire interaction with the laundry company took minutes and when asked for confirmations I could do this when I had time. I didn't have to install any third-party apps, create any new accounts or fill in forms with data fields that weren't even relevant. A clunky but smooth experience.
At one hotel in Bali, we went baller and got VIP level access, club lounge level, but with something special, instead of pressing 7 in your room to contact the concierge, we were given the head of VIPs WhatsApp number. If you want anything or have any issues message me on this number. At first, this felt weird, and we didn't use it until one day, we had a problem with the bill in the restaurant (being charged for water). The issue gets resolved, but later that day, I spoke with our VIP contact, mentioned the billing issue, and was greeted with, "Why didn't you WhatsApp me to sort?". From now on, we would request reservations, book spa appointments, and request a Christmas tree for our room via whatsApp. I even asked if I could meet the pastry chef at some point because they created the best lemon cakes I have ever eaten. All hotels should do this; it was a game-changer for guest customer service and now makes a standard hotel concierge outdated. With a WhatsApp number, we didn't have to be in our room to make a request or even on the hotel property, we could be anywhere.
With hotel occupancy levels at around 20% in most places we visited, hotels would have limited food and beverage services. If the hotel had five restaurants usually, then two would be open. Breakfast would be al-a-carte on the weekdays and only buffet on the weekends when the staycationers were visiting. Some restaurants didn't exist anymore and had closed down during the pandemic. Others had their latest reviews 18 months ago. We often would turn up, and the restaurant would be closed or only serving 50% of their menu due to supply issues. We needed real-time information; this meant calling restaurants to ask. This was problematic without having a local phone number and the general language barrier. We didn't realise that 90% of restaurants use Instagram and WhatsApp (well played Facebook 👏), and on their Instagram profile, their bio link would go to a web page or typically to a service known as LinkTree. This page would list offers/promotions, menus and most importantly, a WhatsApp number for questions. No contact forms or phone numbers, just a WhatsApp number to message. Strangely this WhatsApp number wouldn't appear anywhere on the company's website or visual material.
The hotel I am writing this article from the Balinese jungle (Ubud) is listed on hotels.com for £500 for two nights. I visited the hotel's Instagram and found their LinkTree page via the bio and their WhatsApp number. A few Whatsapp messages back and forth and the price is down to £195 for two nights, this wasn't all my tremendous negotiating skills (though they are improving from our travelling) but because we were offered two rooms on hotels.com as there are four of us. We only needed one room because our children are young, but there was no way to request this via hotels.com or their website. I needed to speak with someone and sent a few messages via WhatsApp. A room reservation was confirmed within thirty minutes, with a promotion applied and an invoice sent. I paid via wise.com, sent a screenshot of my payment confirmation and a day later, my reservation was confirmed via WhatsApp as a pdf. There was no booking system, website, visa or MasterCard transaction, just WhatsApp and a BACS payment.
We wanted to order some room service in the same hotel one evening. We scan the QR code for the menu and press 6 to make an order. I ask for some food from the menu and get told, "you have to WhatsApp your order through". This wasn't a fancy service they were offering but due to the hotel having franchised restaurants on their property rather than a hotel kitchen. Though to them, the situation of a guest calling for room service and being told to WhatsApp their order is acceptable (the first time this happened, I took this as poor customer service). To assist me, the lady on the phone said, "it's ok, give me your order, and I will send it through". After the hassle of this process, I just got the WhatsApp number and did it myself the next time and the time after that and that. If the hotel had put the WhatsApp number or a link on the menu and some nice marketing messaging, this could have been flipped into a fantastic guest experience.
A few days later my wife wanted a guided walk through the nature of Ubud; she Googled for options and found a guide via TripAdvisor. She checked the reviews, found a WhatsApp number and booked the guide for the next day in less than five minutes, it was that simple. When she was running late she messaged the guide. When they met she could pay her guide in cash. I would never associate WhatsApp as a payment method but if this was added there is potential to unlock billions of dollars of untapped revenue for both WhatsApp and businesses around the globe.
A WhatsApp first world
As we leave Indonesia and return to the UAE as Asia battles hopefully the last wave of the pandemic to resume our travels later in the year, I reflect on my views of WhatsApp. Will it remain on my home screen for the next six months in the UAE? I feel it will, not because it has to but because life in Asia is much easier with it. In the continent of mopeds and motorbikes with WhatsApp on your phone there isn’t much you can’t get within moments.
What is stopping WhatsApp
The biggest problem with WhatsApp as a business platform currently is reply time; when sending a message to friends or family you expect a reply in minutes or at worse hours. During our experiences with WhatsApp as tourists response times were largely below ten minutes during business hours. Though if a business was busy or the WhatsApp number was an actual persons phone, not a business account, we might not get a reply until the next day.
We had this in the hotel with the WhatsApp based room service ordering. I sent a message for some food and got a reply an hour later, with them apologising that they got busy in the cafe. The issue with messaging apps is that there is an expected response time similar to email, you wouldn't be surprised if an email reply from a business took a few days but a message reply is expected in minutes or at a push hours. If the WhatsApp system is trying to replace a quicker method such as the room service example, when originally I could dial 6 to order something 24 hours a day, the expectation will become the same for an ordering channel via WhatsApp, 24hr availability is a must and the tools are needed to support this.
Many CRM platforms will integrate with WhatsApp for their messaging proposition. Still, no one has built small business tools for WhatsApp. Addressing the needs of the customers and users that would help the response time issue and turn WhatsApp into a businesses website, ordering system, marketing channel and customer service centre. WhatsApp could become the true global business directory (yellow pages) and all in an app that is already on the devices of over two billion people across the globe.
WhatsApp needs integrations
In Asia, you rarely hear about WhatsApp; it is usually Line (from Japan) or WeChat (from China). Still, WhatsApp is killing it both as a messaging platform and the tourism industry's silent platform. Where local players such as GoJek or Grab take 20-30% cut, WhatsApp's dominance lies in being free and on billions of devices, but how do they monetise this opportunity?
WhatsApp needs integrations
Seeing WhatsApp prevalence across Asia despite most interactions on the platform using poor makeshift forms or image uploads on a group chat. You can integrate with WhatsApp business API if you are a medium or large company for messaging needs such as automated order confirmations but that is all and if you are a small business, there is nothing.
So why hasn't WhatsApp doubled down on this opportunity as it must see the numbers and engagement on its platform; maybe it doesn't want to rock the boat with AppStore rejection or government intervention currently. The platform is working well even in its basic feature set. However, it is only a matter of time before WhatsApp becomes similar to WeChat with a catalogue of 3rd party apps or integrations built-in. This would create an ecosystem that is what small businesses worldwide are in desperate need of.
So I will sit back and see what is instore for whatsApp's future and where they will take the product but for now I am enjoying the ability to get my laundry sorted all via a simple message.
Thanks to A,I,L,S,S and Q for the pre read of the article and the suggestions ❤️
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