Laurent, the Leading Light of Asian Trails

FOR LAURENTZ INTERVIEWThe Thomas Cook India Group places Laurent Kuenzle among its most successful and prominent business leaders. We threw a slew of questions at him for an on-line Interview, as we would like our readers to know a bit more about the dynamic CEO of Asian Trails. He gamely answered all of them. Here he is!

Laurent was born in Switzerland to Swiss-German and Swiss-French parents. His father’s family was in the insurance business, and his mother’s family were wine makers. He grew up in Zug, in the German part of Switzerland, where he graduated from a commercial college. Laurent had the chance to attend a college year in Perth, Australia. It was while he was there that he went backpacking through South-East Asia, and that totally changed his life and future plans. Instead of returning to Switzerland to work in a bank, he was employed by Kuoni Travel Incoming Services in Zurich, and after an introductory year was moved to the Kuoni Travel sales office in Hong Kong. This started his Asian career in 1988. From there he moved to the Kuoni sales offices in Korea and Japan, where he was selling tours to Europe to local and international tour operators, and MICE agencies. 

After years of war in Indochina and the signing of peace agreements, Laurent identified the region as a potential tourism spot, and decided to leave Japan to join the recently opened Diethelm Travel organization in Cambodia as its Managing Director. He also became the Honorary Consul of Switzerland to Cambodia. With an intuition for identifying potential business, Laurent identified Myanmar as the next upcoming tourism hot spot so he moved to Yangon to head Diethelm Travel in Myanmar.

Luzi Matzig who was Diethelm Travel’s CEO at the time decided to leave the company in 1999, and started Asian Trails which Laurent co-founded, together with two more colleagues. The rest, as they say, is history!

Laurent looked after Asian Trails — Myanmar for many years, and after Asian Trails was partially sold to Kuoni Travel in 2006, moved to Bangkok, Thailand, in the newly established Group Managing Director position as well as the Kuoni Travel Destination Management VP Asia function. In this function Laurent was also overseeing Australian Tours Management, another Kuoni Travel owned DMC specialist as well as Kuoni’s inbound offices in China. After Luzi took up the Chairman position in 2014, Laurent became the CEO. With his passion for travel, and an unbounding enthusiasm for his work, Laurent has never looked back, and led his company from success to success.

He lives in Bangkok with his partner and his giant dog. 

Here he gives us some answers!

 How many years have you been with Asian Trails?
I co-founded the company together with our Chairman Luzi Matzig on 9.9.99, 20 years ago.

 How has it been working for the Thomas Cook Group?  What benefits?
Fairfax and the Thomas Cook India Group share many core values that are similar to Asian Trails’ values. We understand and respect cultural differences, and we see that understanding as a core principle of the Thomas Cook India Group as well. Large owning companies often try to enforce a ‘one system fits all’ policy which more often than not ends in disaster.  The Thomas Cook India Group values each business and geographical area individually for what it is, and this is the best recipe for success.

We are in a unique position where as a group of companies we can add our own value at every step of the value chain, from first customer contact to the smallest detail at the destination. All of us should emphasize this partnership, it is to the advantage of everyone.

How do you see the company changing in two years, and how do you see  yourself creating that change?
People and technology will continue to shape our future. Change is constant and happens at lightning speed. We need technology that is performant, flexible and that can adapt to changes. At Asian Trails we are currently rolling out a new system that will achieve this objective. We need lean organizations that can quickly adapt to change. We need a motivated management and staff force that, together as a team, can tackle the daily business and strategic challenges. But we should not lose focus on core principles and core competences: high quality services, competitive prices, innovative products and efficient processes.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you, and did you follow it?
Empower people. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t followed that very wise advice. Empower people means trust, take risks and have the right safety net in place in case things don’t work out as planned.

 Give us one word that describes you best..
Optimistic realist!

What are your 3 biggest accomplishments?
What I do is all about people and communication. I see myself as an orchestra conductor. My managers and staff are like musicians, violinists, trumpeters, cellists etc. They are better than me in playing their individual instruments, but if I don’t get them to play together as a group, the music they will make will sound terrible. Naturally I need to have the skills and competence to understand what good music is about, I need good instincts and common sense, but without a great orchestra I can’t make music. Hence my 3 biggest accomplishments are all about people.

–     Bringing people together to achieve a common objective.
–     Thinking outside the box to solve problems in unconventional ways, sometimes  diplomatically and sometimes radically.
–   Creating positive energy to move the company forward even during difficult times.

Tell us 2 things you like, and 2 things you dislike about your current job
I’m a business man in travel, my passion for travel and for Asia brought me to where I am today. So first of all I love to travel and to discover, and I love Asia as much today as the first day I set foot as a backpacker in this part of the world. I am definitely at the right place in the right industry

What I dislike is staff that are not honest, and who want to get personal advantage at the cost of others. In my function I deal with all aspects of my company, and if I cannot trust what I am being told, I cannot take the right decision. Hence making the decision to let people go because I cannot trust them is tough, but a necessary part of my job.

What is the phrase you use the most?
Walk the talk.

If you had to change one thing about you, what would it be?
Maybe I should be more patient sometimes.

Your favourite destination?
The Andaman Sea.

Four things you would never travel without are…
Phone, books, jacket, sunglasses.

On your bedside table we would find….
Piles of books, I always read multiple books and magazines. Right now I am reading a book on the history of former Yugoslavia, a novel on Ernest Hemingway’s travels in Venice, a magazine on how Google has become the biggest travel company in the world, and a book on the Gig Economy.

When you are not thinking of Asian Trails, you chill and relax by…..?
Sailing on my boat.

A brief message for the colleagues and staff of the Thomas Cook India Group…..
Ladies and gentlemen, we are working for a company that has become an international player in the tourism industry in a short period of time. We have a unique opportunity to outdo our competitors with the knowledge, experience and diversity that we offer, and a volume of passengers that many envy us for. What will bring us to the next level is a true partnership focusing on long term objectives. We need to nourish and cherish this partnership on every level of our organization. Communication is the key to reach this objective and I encourage each of you to be part of this process. Not only will it bring results for the company, I believe it will be rewarding for everyone and you will make many new friends all over the world!