We caught up with our Discova Educational Travel Regional Manager, Phuong Doan, who recently celebrated 13 years working with Discova. We met with her just in time; Phuong is fast approaching maternity leave to have her second child. Typical of Phuong, always passionate about her work, she is not slowing down – and spoke at length of things we needed to push forward with over the coming weeks. With Phuong, you get the impression a break is never truly a break!
Phuong joined the company when it went by the name Buffalo Tours, prior to the 2019 rebrand to Discova. We reflected on her journey and contemplated the changes she has observed in the educational travel space. We also looked ahead to her vision and ambitions for the future.
Interviewed by George Robinson
A Simpler Time
It all began for Phuong back in January 2008. She brought in the new year with a new challenge, joining what was then Buffalo Tours.
“I joined Buffalo Tours as a Sales Executive…I knew nothing about sales or tourism”, she remarks wryly.
Whether Phuong is overly humble, or perhaps she nailed her interview, we’re glad she took the plunge and joined the team!
The team she joined relied on her passion and knowledge for all things Vietnam – she helped to provide her local expertise to develop the burgeoning Group Travel department. She admits to being nervous at first, that while she could rely on her relationship-building skills, the logistics of what goes into making a tour was much more complicated than she had foreseen.
“Thankfully, I had really great colleagues to help me through those first difficulties. They were kind enough to help me and explain, you know, what’s needed for a city tour, for example – the services we need to provide, the planning and preparation that needs to take place.”
Bringing up her helpful colleagues marks a running theme throughout our conversation – working as an efficient team and learning from each other seems to be something valuable to Phuong.
After being shuffled around a few times, Phuong found her home in the volunteer team – a precursor to what would become the Educational Travel department. In its early stages, its work was based around projects in northern Vietnam.
“The first group to travel to Vietnam did a medical trekking program. They were US college students travelling to northern Vietnam to work together with the local doctors in Hanoi. They provided health examinations and education for the people there.”
She pauses to reflect on how much has changed in the way in which her team operates.
“Back then, even though it doesn’t seem so long ago, the internet was not really so widespread, especially for the villages in the countryside. Many of the communities we worked with didn’t even have a phone signal. So, now, we can contact everybody in the process very quickly. Back then, we would have to physically visit the village and arrange for accommodation for 30 or 40 clients – everything had to be face-to-face….”
As she talks, there is a growing sense of the enormity of the change that has taken place over the previous decade in the industry, especially in rural communities like those in northern Vietnam.
“I mean, think of everything! Booking accommodation, checking feedback, arranging taxis, changing plans last minute. Now, we have many tools for this – Tripadvisor, Grab, Facebook Messenger and Line – everything is much more convenient now, even in the isolated villages.”
From those humble beginnings, the volunteer team became educational travel and developed projects and relationships with communities across many of our destinations, including Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, delivering meaningful learning experiences to various touring groups and students.
Detailing this journey is somewhat complicated, but Phuong again expresses gratitude to her colleagues for being mentors along the way.
“Graham Harper, who played a big part in setting up the programmes, was a massive help for me as a role model. He was passionate about community engagement, and he had expertise in education in his background. So I learned a lot from him in terms of the criteria and expectations for a service-learning programme. I also learned from my colleagues, like Chau, who had knowledge of construction and the logistics of organising our long-term building projects. Without these people, I would have been lost.”
Again, Phuong is being modest here – though perhaps it’s apt to demonstrate her growth mindset. She seems to be a sponge – absorbing the knowledge of those around her to improve her services to the team.
She touches here on two key facets of the work of the educational travel team. Its function is to provide learning experiences for travellers and various groups and, as a result, generate funds to help the communities in some way – often through constructing something to improve the infrastructure of the village. Therefore, the core value is ‘win-win-win’ so that all the stakeholders benefit from the endeavour.
I suggest to Phuong that the work is something to be proud of, and she acquiesces, reluctant to acknowledge this element.
“It’s important to remember it’s not charity, though. We have a process to follow for every stakeholder, and each group needs to play their part.”
There is a general understanding that bringing employment opportunities to our communities is not a one-way street.
“The villagers in the communities agree to provide a service to our travellers. They are trained, high expectations are set, and they are fairly compensated as a result. If there is a set budget for a project, every penny is accounted for.”
Phuong is keen to establish this – the process is open and transparent from beginning to end, and, when viewed fundamentally, the whole process is a transaction between parties. However, it’s a happy by-product that, in this particular transaction, everybody benefits from the exchange.
I encourage Phuong on the notion that there are nice stories she has been part of, and she relents to reflect on some of her proudest moments with the educational travel team.
Phuong clearly relishes the personal relationships she has forged through her work over the years. It makes perfect sense to me that her proudest moments would closely relate to the people she works with.
“You know, people maybe don’t realise how important the land is still in northern Vietnam.”
She talks about the importance of the harvest, of irrigation, and of the right conditions for farming within these villages, where the relatively poor population is reliant on such things. That’s why, when one of our communities reported a damaged irrigation system due to a storm, this became a number one priority to divert our attention to – other projects would have to wait as this was vital to the villagers’ livelihoods. They needed to build some kind of dam.
She remembers the stressful situation, arranging for a quick solution that would fit within the budget. A construction project would need to be organised, designed, and implemented quickly so that the crops would not be ruined. Here, Phuong is proud of her team’s capability to provide a solution to the problem.
“At that time, we had an Australian group visiting the community. They helped and contributed to the building of the new system with the local people too. Everybody worked together in support of the project. I remember there was heavy rain still, but they didn’t mind. In the end, the job was done.”
“The people were so grateful; they kept inviting us back and pointing at how the new system worked, asking us to share food with them to say thanks. I remember thinking this was quite special. I’m not from the countryside, so I never really realised how important these things were.”
And what about another project that brings back good memories?
“I also especially remember working on a project in Thailand. We arranged for a nursing program to visit and help Thai doctors in the remote areas of Chiang Mai province. So, the project was funded by people paying to do this exchange during their medical program – learning from Thai doctors and providing healthcare to the rural communities and educating people too.”
“I just remember being inspired by the doctors. They had to walk from door-to-door around all the inaccessible villages. It was a vast area to cover, but they seemed to know everybody by name and knew their medical history too. I just found this impressive, especially because the doctors could have easily found better-paying jobs in the city, but they chose to do this instead.”
Although Phuong tempered claims of charitable work, it’s clear there are grounds to celebrate the passion of the people involved in these projects. Yes, the underlying principles are grounded in business, but this shouldn’t diminish the problem-solving application of the dedicated people involved – a dedication to make things better for these communities.
Educational Travel’s Present and Future
The elephant in the room overshadowing any conversation related to tourism at the moment is that there hasn’t been any international tourism! Our communities have not been able to welcome international travellers due to the pandemic. However, the community’s issues and planned projects do not go away, and we at Discova could not simply abandon our support.
That’s why we have had to find ways of generating income for our communities.
“Thankfully, I have a very supportive team willing to explore my crazy ideas. Everybody comes up with crazy solutions, and we optimistically try to see if they can work.” Phuong chuckles, again showering praise on the people she works with.
“Creating virtual programmes was one way for us to try to generate income for our communities. We wanted to provide educational support for students who still needed it and tried to combine this with the cultural exchange element. We figured we can satisfy our ‘win-win-win’ standards with virtual programmes.”
The only problem was nobody had experience in setting these up. However, as we have come to expect, this wouldn’t stop the ambitious team.
“We had to work really hard to work out how to set these up. We did trials, practices, putting many many hours into creating a product that would be professional and something we could be proud of.”
So far, the team have had excellent feedback from participating groups, though the team acknowledges the offering is a work in progress. From virtual workshops to virtual tours to virtual training experiences, our remote educational travel services will continue to be a part of educational travel even after borders open. Partners can read all about our virtual educational programmes here.
Phuong also speaks of a shift in focus. With international travel not feasible, the team has directed their attention to the domestic market within countries like Thailand and Vietnam. The team have had several recent successes bringing groups from within these countries to our communities, marking another step in the right direction that will continue beyond the opening up of countries post-pandemic.
These instances indicate the general positive mindset clearly present in Phuong, but more broadly seen too in the educational travel team’s approach. The challenges presented by the pandemic have been met head-on. Consequently, our service will be stronger than ever in the future, having been diversified in the process.
As we wish Phuong good luck in the next steps for her and her family over the coming months, we know that we won’t be able to keep her away for long! We know she’ll be back raring to go, with new ‘crazy ideas’ on how to take our educational travel team to the next level.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch with our Educational Travel team to hear about their latest offerings and begin a conversation about how we can work together.