Klook Co-Founder Eric Gnock Fah on How the Company is Transforming Travel Experiences
It’s been nearly six years since Eric Gnock Fah co-founded Klook, the travel experiences booking platform that has grown at such an explosive rate it’s already reached unicorn status—a startup valued at more than US$1 billion—and he’s not planning on slowing down anytime soon.
In fact, the mobile-first business—more than 75 per cent of bookings originate on the Klook app—which harnesses the power of technology to satiate our 21st-century appetites for instant gratification experiential entertainment, is in the throes of rapid-response expansion, pivoting to meet millennial and Gen Z market demands as they emerge. Because, as it turns out, kids these days want way more from a double-decker city bus tour than to tick the boxes off a must-see attractions list—they want a social media moment.
(Related: 5 Bucket List-Worthy Travel Experiences)
“I think just within these five years, this whole social-driven type of travel has gotten a lot more prevalent,” Eric tells Tatler. “Now, we focus a bit more on customising our experiences with the operators to be Instagram-friendly—or to have that component. The problem in the industry is that a lot of tour operators are traditional industry people who used to service the baby boomer market and retired people from the US and Europe. Saying, ‘You need to make it more Instagrammable’—it’s something very new to them. That’s where we come in, provide data, provide some learnings and then we work with them to create experiences.”
If you open the Klook app and type ‘Instagram’ into the search bar, more than 100 keyworded experiences appear—from the usual suspects, like a 12-hour best-Instagram-spots-of-Bali day tour that boasts 738 user reviews averaging 4.9/5.0 stars, to a three-hour retro clothing rental experience in Bukchon, a 600-year-old traditional village in the middle of Seoul. There’s even an “Instagram-worthy” rainbow grilled cheese sandwich experience at The Peak in Hong Kong—pretty much a guaranteed social media slam-dunk with 376 reviews averaging 4.5/5.0 stars. Cashing in on the social sharing economy via real-world experiences seems like a stroke of genius—and it’s this method of data use and trendspotting, combined with a well-networked front line of more than 2,000 on-the-ground curators spread across 29 offices worldwide, that places Klook solidly ahead of the curve.
“In the beginning, it was seeking out the best experiences and aggregating what was in the market,” says Eric. “But [now] we base all our work—what we call the ‘travel curators’—in the destinations. So it’s not someone who’s based out of Hong Kong seeking experiences in Bangkok or Paris—we have people on the ground or we fly them over. It’s about finding the best. And then there’s the second thing—which is, for example, Instagram tours, a trend we saw and said, ‘Hey, do you want to collaborate? We have the data, we have the trends, let’s work together to design that.’”
This level of insight into consumer behaviour—especially among a younger, app-enthusiast generation—translates into endless growth opportunities on the digital platform. The company recently launched restaurant bookings in select cities and has also experimented with event and concert ticketing. Klook taps into local markets—“In Hong Kong, 30 to 40 per cent of bookings are for local activities. It’s not just about travel, it’s about leisure”—as well as fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants non-planners.
“Some people I talk to tell me, ‘I don’t plan trips; I’m not the type who plans,’” says Eric. “That’s exactly why we exist. It’s not just there for people to come and plan. If you want to, sure. But it’s also about spontaneity—when you’re in the destination, fire up your app, have your recommendations and then seamlessly be able to make that booking. That’s what’s empowering.”
Heaps of data have even led the company down a path of conscientious consumerism, with real-world impacts in travel and tourism. In Thailand, for example, Klook will partner with elephant ride operators to help transform them into animal sanctuaries.
“That’s the initiative we want to kick off this year—building an impact tourism division in the company that will work with local operators,” says Eric. “We’ve spoken to a few elephant riding operators in Thailand and they’re very keen. What they’re afraid of is if they change their business model, will they have customers right away? They’re very comfortable right now—there’s a group of people who come and ride the elephants. But partnering with us, they then become more comfortable because we can drive traffic, we will market them and we will tell them that we’ve already seen the data. Right now, Instagram looks good—but I think we can definitely do good, and I think that’s going to be the next trend in the travel industry.”
In fact, since the beginning, doing good has always been part of Klook’s corporate mission. “Our mission is about bringing the world closer together, making it easier for everyone to travel and discover local experiences,” says Eric, and fostering cross-cultural understanding by bridging East and West has always been core to his personal identity. Born in Mauritius to an entrepreneurial first-generation family—his father’s parents emigrated from Guangzhou and his mother married into the island after living in Hong Kong—Eric left home after secondary school to matriculate at Franklin & Marshall, a tiny liberal arts college situated in Lancaster County, right in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country.
“When I applied to college in the US, one of my essays was about how I bridge the West and the East because of where I come from,” says Eric. “Mauritius is a melting pot of cultures. I’ve always asked myself: how do you build that bridge between cultures and languages? I see travel being a critical part of that. If you look at what’s happened in the last few months in many, many places, I really do believe that if people travel more—go and actually understand how a person thinks—a lot of conflicts can be erased. That’s where I think the power of travel is, and that’s deeply ingrained in how I’ve seen communities built in Mauritius, where it’s multicultural—on one block you’ll find a mosque, a church, a pagoda—and everyone still works closely together. That’s the power of travel—it’s not just for Instagram.”
In addition to using corporate resources for good, Eric’s best advice for new entrepreneurs is three-fold: “One: don’t be afraid to call yourself stupid,” he says. “In this role, especially as entrepreneurs are becoming younger and younger, our generation, we should not be afraid to call decisions we made yesterday, looking back, stupid. If we don’t think so, that means we’re not learning. If we’re progressing, then we should do that. And when you admit that you’re not the expert and that you can be stupid, you automatically open doors for people to come help. The humility really helps hold the team together.
“The other thing I would say is: I used to be very stubborn,” Eric says. “I think I still am, but I think I’m also learning to be a bit more open-minded. I think founders and entrepreneurs, at the beginning why they’re called founders and entrepreneurs is because they have an idea, and they feel the idea is going to work. But I feel like 99 per cent of the time, that idea is going to change—and it’s about being OK that your original idea is not working, and not be stuck on, ‘This is my idea!’ and push for it.
“The third thing is uncertainty,” he says. “Learn to embrace uncertainty. I think it’s really empowering.”
Here are Klook co-founder Eric Gnock Fah’s top picks in Asia and beyond:
Japan—I studied there, and I studied Japanese, so I can get around. And, more recently, a destination that really caught me by surprise to some extent, where I rediscovered the joy of travel, was my trip to Israel.
Favourite Hong Kong Klook Experience
When I have guests, I take them on the Aqua Luna— the red-sailed boat on the harbour. It’s relatively affordable, they give you a glass of wine, and if you go at 8pm, you can see the lights from the harbour.
Favourite Long Weekend Getaway
There’s a place called Khao Yai right outside Bangkok that’s full of vineyards. When you go there, it feels like you’re in Napa Valley.
Must-have Carry-on Items
I always travel with my laptop. And when I travel long-haul, I still travel with a carry-on—a black aluminium Rimowa. To make sure I can land and go immediately to work for a whole day, I also bring a face mask on board—because the plane air is very dry.
I just started listening to marketing podcasts—there’s one I like called Recode Decode. And the one I’m listening to now is Grey Matter.