With a degree in English literature under his belt, John Brown never expected to become a businessman, let alone the CEO of one of the largest travel booking platforms in Asia, Agoda.
"It started from me signing a three-month contract," Mr Brown says, recalling the offer from Agoda co-founder Rob Rosenstein just over a decade ago.
"At first, I thought I was going to work here for a couple of weeks, or a month at most. But after the first couple of weeks, I started to love the people (here)," the 53-year-old executive tells Asia Focus via video link from Phuket, the world-famous Thai resort island, where he was spending a week just before a new round of coronavirus restrictions took effect in April.
Coming from a consulting background that requires "a lot of time selling stuff to clients, making sure clients are happy, making sure the partner is happy, selling more stuff", Mr Brown realised "that was something I didn't want to do. I didn't want to travel the world selling PowerPoint slides."
He found Agoda "tremendously refreshing" from the very first day. "It was just a lot of smart people scientifically working on the website, making decisions very quickly, measuring results and progressing."
Headquartered in Singapore, Agoda was originally founded in Phuket. Over the past 16 years, it has expanded its footprint beyond Asia Pacific to other markets including Africa, North America, South America and Europe. Its largest operational office is still located in Bangkok.
In 2007, Agoda was acquired by US-based Booking Holdings, whose portfolio consists of five other brands: Booking.com, Priceline, Rentalcars.com, Kayak and OpenTable.
Agoda has established itself as a household name in Asia, providing a one-stop booking service for customers for accommodation, flights and rental cars as well as tour packages.
The website has more than 2.5 million properties in 200 countries and territories, ranging from luxury hotels and resorts to affordable hostels. It also offers Agoda Homes -- an answer to the Airbnb challenge -- where customers can book an apartment, bungalow, house or villa without the homeowner staying with the guests.
However, Covid-19 spared no business when it hit last year and Agoda was no exception. Tourism was one of the hardest-hit sectors, with international flights cancelled as global lockdowns took hold.
By May last year, it had become clear to Agoda that it would be impossible to keep all 5,500 of its employees on.
"The day I held the town hall meeting to announce that we would have to let 1,500 people go was the hardest day of my career," recalls Mr Brown, who gave up his salary for the remainder of 2020 while other members of senior management took 20% pay cuts.
As the outbreak gathered pace in Thailand, "we told everyone to work from home straight away (as) it helped minimise the risk of contracting and spreading the disease", says Mr Brown.
With the shift in travel demand, Agoda moved at a lightning pace to work with partners and government authorities to boost domestic travel.
The company came up with its own campaigns to meet evolving demand from both customers and partners. Three new online features were introduced: HygienePlus, GoLocal and GoLocal Tonight, and EasyCancel.
"GoLocal is our biggest campaign to date," notes Mr Brown, adding that every department was involved in rolling out the campaign and maintaining it to promote domestic tourism across Asia-Pacific markets.
The company soon noticed another pocket of demand, which led to GoLocal Tonight, to further tap into the unmet need of spontaneous travellers who like to make a plan at the last minute.
HygienePlus, a verification feature showing health and hygiene measures carried out by hotel partners on Agoda, has also been well received by travellers.
Because of concerns about fast-changing conditions during the outbreak, customers have been looking for more booking flexibility. Armed with this insight, Agoda launched EasyCancel, which allowed customers to cancel bookings for free without needing to coordinate with the property.
The feature reduced handling time -- for consumers, partners and internal teams, Mr Brown adds.
The company also partnered with the Thai government to promote domestic tourism under the Travel Together initiative, in which the government subsidised up to 40% of room rates, up to 3,000 baht per night between July and October last year.
"This involved over 100 people across Agoda departments to quickly build the technology and launch the campaign within three weeks," he recalls, adding that Agoda successfully used this tech know-how to provide a solution for Japan's GoTo Travel campaign.
John Brown, CEO, Agoda
English literature was not Mr Brown's first major. "I began college studying physics," he says, adding that the reason he switched, despite his love for the subject, was that he found himself in advanced classes and realised "I was the least gifted student of physics in the room".
"I certainly wasn't going to become Einstein -- no surprise there," he quips.
After graduation, Mr Brown served as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, a US-funded independent agency and volunteer programme as a small and medium enterprise (SME) development coordinator in Lithuania.
"I spent three years totally immersed in another culture, living with a host family, speaking nothing but Lithuanian for days and months," says Mr Brown.
Those times gave a simple but important lesson: "How to get along and thrive in a totally different environment."
"People always ask me, 'Isn't it difficult to deal with so many different types of cultures?' and my answer is 'always'," he says. But that was the past for him, as "it feels totally natural now".
"It would feel awkward for me now to be in a company where everybody was the same -- a company full of Americans, for example."
Life took him back to graduate school in the US, then Thailand as he did a company exchange programme here. Then it was off to Central Asia where he spent a year as an adviser to the Minister of Commerce and Industry of Afghanistan where he helped develop a national SME strategy, then back to Thailand to join Agoda.
What keeps him in the company to this day are the same elements he saw when he first joined: Agoda's strong culture of pride and compassion. "We create a cultural spark and try to keep all those cultural elements alive.
"At Agoda, move fast, take ownership, experiment and measure and be the best, make up our core values -- our DNA," says Mr Brown, adding that in times of crisis, the company is guided by these values.
"The pandemic magnified the need to 'move fast' -- it's presented an urgency to efficiently solve the problems we have at hand, such as creating a vaccine in record time, or for us at Agoda, adapting to changing travel demand and trends."
Because it considers itself a "data-driven" and "supply-driven" company, Agoda stands out from other travel platforms, in Mr Brown's view.
"We have the best tech team in the world," he says proudly. It's constantly learning as well from its huge customer base, so "we build what we know customers want".
Not only engineers but people at every career level at Agoda are driven by data, as the company encourages people to be ambitious about their key performance indicators (KPI).
This is why "we consider ourselves the Silicon Valley of Asia", says Mr Brown.
ONE MORE TRIP
In western countries, domestic tourism has started picking up, a good sign of recovery thanks to their mass vaccination programmes. However, in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, the region is still scrambling to curb the prolonged outbreak.
Thailand has entered its third wave and recently surpassed 165,000 Covid-19 cases and 1,100 deaths. Malaysia is in the midst of a two-week national lockdown after new daily cases peaked at 9,000 in late May, and Vietnam has detected a worrisome new Covid variant that is threatening to undo its hard-earned work at controlling the virus.
"First in, last out" is how Mr Brown characterises Asia when it comes to how countries tackle the pandemic.
"Covid-19 was first found in Asia and then it spread to the global level," he notes. "At first, Asia seemed to have better control of the outbreak with fewer cases reported and for the most part, domestic travel uninterrupted."
However, the impact of the latest variants in Asia has been a major setback. In contrast, with efficient vaccination roll-outs in places like the US, the UK and many parts of Europe, roles have been reversed.
"Asia is taking a longer time to roll out the vaccine. It might be up to 6-12 months longer when compared to others," he says.
Tourism in the end depends on the vaccine, or as Mr Brown puts it: "No vaccination, no vacation".
"We all need to work together to have the vaccine programme roll-out as quickly and effectively as possible, so that when foreign travellers come to Thailand, they do not have to undergo quarantine."
Mr Brown, however, is optimistic about the longer term. "Travel is going to be huge because people have this pent-up energy to travel. I believe there is going to be a gigantic boom in the next two or three years."
Trends in tourism have changed over the past year. Domestic bookings have surged across the region and secondary cities are emerging more frequently in searches by travellers.
The staycation -- spending time in or around one's own home community -- is a part of the domestic travel trend. "More people have started to look at hotels as part of the experience, a destination, not just a place for sleeping," says Mr Brown.
Agoda, he says, is ready and eager to assist in the recovery. He believes the company "will play a crucial role … in helping SMEs, hotels and governments to leverage its cutting-edge technological expertise and data, and digitise in order to adapt and build long-term resiliency, as well as reach more customers with data-driven, innovative solutions."
Empowering and encouraging are the words Mr Brown uses to describe his management style.
In keeping with the fail-fast ethos, "we encourage everyone to take ownership because it encourages even greater innovation", he says.
"New ideas are seeded when you allow people the space to take ownership of ideas and projects. They come with fresh eyes and an alternative approach," he explains, but at the same time "allowing people to fail fast" is crucial so that people can "learn from the experience and apply that learning to the next idea.
"I also tell them to be curious and have fun," he adds.
What happens when people have a difference of opinion? "We encourage it to be an open disagreement, where everyone can talk over the topic with each other in a meeting."
A passion for travel is a given for anyone who works with a travel company. Mr Brown loves museums -- his favourites are the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia and Deutsches Museum in Munich, which exhibits more than 100,000 items related to science and technology.
But what he loves more is just simply wandering around the neighbourhood when he visits a city or town.
"A couple of years back I walked from the Bang Wa BTS station to Asok," he says of an experience in Bangkok. "You really start to understand the culture and how a place works by spending a lot of time talking to people and watching people in various neighbourhoods."
He describes the feeling by quoting from EM Forster's A Passage to India: "He had dulled his craving for verbal truth and cared chiefly for truth of mood."
When the world reopens for travel, the next country Mr Brown wants to go to is South Africa, a beautiful country that he has never been to before. A classic destination like Japan is also high on his to-go list.
As an avid reader and of course, a literature grad, Mr Brown reveals he has two unpublished "satirical" novels.
But he says, "If I could write a book like Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) or A Confederacy of Dunces (by John Kennedy Toole), I'd have a different career by now," adding "no chance of that happening. Those books are just too good!"
"Literature … really helps you understand different types of people, their motivations. It gives you deeper understanding. When I graduated from college my only ambition was to travel as much as possible and to read as much literature as possible. I thought those two things would make me open-minded and the rest of life would take care of itself."
Apart from reading, he loves music, especially the blues. Musical legend Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Robert Johnson are among those he has loved the most over the years. "Oh yes, and the Grateful Dead!"
He's recently taken up the guitar and is making time to practise as he continues his musical journey.
"These things take time but every now and then you look down and realise there's something you can do now that you couldn't do last year," he says.