agency venture. Photograph: Miranda Glasser
From studying atomic physics at Oxford University to working in the world of investment banking, to running a high-end travel company in Cambodia, Andy Booth has come a long way since his first trip to the Kingdom of Wonder on a family holiday ten years ago.
His company, AboutAsia Travel, promotes tailored trips to the selective traveler with the tagline, ‘Angkor without the crowds,’ and is thriving. But it’s not just a travel company – it’s also a social business that generates enough profit to support 53,000 children in 100 schools around Siem Reap.
Booth’s beginnings were modest enough. Educated at the local comprehensive school in Gloucestershire, he worked hard to win a place at Oxford University to study physics. When the letter came, he says that before he opened it, he “made a little promise to myself that if it was a ‘yes’ it was bound to open doors in life and I would use it to benefit other people not just me.”
It was a ‘yes’ and it did open doors. Despite studying atomic and solid state physics, Booth pursued a career in finance working for the next 15 years in London, before taking up position as head of Special Situations Trading at investment bank ABN AMRO. Eventually, however, when he realised he “hadn’t read a book for pleasure in years” and had enough money to do something different, he set off on his travels with his wife and young son.
The family came to Siem Reap, largely on the recommendation of the babysitter, and Booth says, “We came here for five days and 17 days later we were still here. I really made a connection with people and I thought this is a good place for my project.”
The project was AboutAsia. Booth got the idea after seeing how tourism was taking off in Cambodia, but felt it wasn’t being done as well as it could be. He decided to create a business that used tourism to generate funds for schooling, a way of being philanthropic without resorting to ‘tin-rattling.’
“I was of that mindset of trying to do some sort of social project, but absolutely not as a charitable effort. I just thought it was an excellent place to start something that could be structured into something that really self-sustains and becomes a very positive engine for a society that needs it. Not just in monetary terms but in setting a standard of how to go about things.”
Booth says that Siem Reap tour guides, although smart, were mentally asleep. They’d take the tourists to the same crowded temples, without taking much interest, and then repeat the process the next day. Booth’s idea was to pay his company’s guides to learn about different topics.
“None of our guides are paid just to guide,” he says, “they’re paid to guide and research. Once a week we have a meeting where we discuss what we found out this week and that immediately makes the guides change their attitude. They’re engaged in the process.”
Once a month Booth brings in an expert in a particular field, be it an art historian, archeologist or professional photographer, to educate the guides.
He says, “My guides understand that when their next customer comes in who’s bought an SLR camera in the airport shop on the way in, and doesn’t know how to switch it on, they can not only set it up but can probably give some advice on how to frame things, and they’re going to get a better tip out of it.”
Being a scientist at heart, and a physicist at that, Booth has also come up with a simple yet ingenious way of avoiding the crowds at Angkor Wat.
“We have teams of people at the temples doing footfall surveys. Literally sitting at key points all day and logging every 15 minutes how many people come past. We collect that data and then overlay it with other known things about the lighting for photography and things like that. Then we can design itineraries around the parks to avoid the crowds. It’s not rocket science,” adds atomic physics graduate Booth.
AboutAsia Schools, the second side of Booth’s organisation, supports rural schools, ranging from volunteer teaching assistants to building refurbishment, to the bare essentials of books and uniforms made by Park Hyatt-funded Life and Hope Association’s sewing school.
“The uniforms have an immediate mental impact on a child who has never had a set of new clothes,” says Booth. “Suddenly they’ve got these clothes and it means they should be at school.”
AboutAsia funds mainly primary and secondary schools, as well as two pagoda schools, a deaf school and three high schools. It has also started supporting some of the more exceptional students into further education, sponsoring a boy at L’École Paul Dubrule hospitality school.
Not content with turning the travel industry around and funding educational endeavors, Booth is now publishing a “really accessible pocket guide to the temples,” which he has been working on for the last year.
“The concept is an inexpensive, mass-market pocket guide. So as not to have it dumbed down, I’ve gone into it in great depth with all of the leading academics.
He describes it as concise, up-to-date, accurate and correct, and its unique selling point is its visual design. It contains current photographs of different temple sites, while on the opposite page is a transparent overlay of a re-creation of how that temple site would have looked in its heyday.
“Of course all the wooden structures surrounding these temples are all long gone but we’ve put all that back in, and we’ve put people back in doing what they would have been doing,” says Booth.
“We’ve put all the right earthenware in, so it really brings it alive for the reader.”
The book’s working title is Angkor Revealed, and it’s been edited by renowned travel writer and former contributing editor for Condé Nast’s Traveller in Asia, Cynthia Rosenfeld. There are also plans for an iPhone app in due course, for the travelling-light backpacker. The publication goes on sale early next year.