Regional feature

Bangkok regains its bustle

Having endured their most challenging test to date, movers in Thailand’s vibrant capital city have enjoyed a return to strength as the last pandemic restrictions have been removed. New obstacles persist, but agile businesses are thriving. Andrew Mourant reports

Welcome to Bangkok! Thailand’s hyperactive capital, the venue for the upcoming annual FIDI conference, is likely to leave indelible memories – ‘an ever-growing and changing city… an assault on the senses… the sights, sounds, smells, and energy are second to none’. So says Paul Ware, General Manager of Asian Tigers Thailand, who has lived and breathed the city for 25 years.

He’s worked through floods, military coups, political division, the red shirt/yellow shirt protests; seen costs rise and foreign investment cut. Now, post-pandemic Bangkok has reverted to its febrile state. The country has shrugged off much of its COVID hangover, and 1 October this year became the landmark day that saw all remaining restrictions on movement finally lifted.

It’s been a test of endurance and there are now economic stirrings of the right kind, including a revival of the hotel and hospitality industry so crucial to Thailand’s fortunes. The government is encouraging new inward investment, in electric vehicle (EV) production, for example. The automotive manufacturing area around Rayong, on the south-eastern seaboard, is nicknamed the ‘Detroit of the East’. Many large global brands have a presence there, alongside hundreds of supply chain partners.

Asian Tigers (AT) celebrates its 50th year of trading in 2023. It’s seen plenty of turbulence during this time, but nothing more head-spinning than the impact of COVID. Ware says the commitment of his staff, especially frontline crews, enabled his firm to keep trading throughout the pandemic.

‘As we shifted to working from home, our technology platform allowed everyone to continue to function,’ he says. ‘Virtual surveying became the norm – we continue to use it as a main means of allowing customers to have a survey at times that suit them. Managing remotely had its challenges but our teams made it work remarkably well.’

Since staff returned to the office, AT has accommodated a flexible approach, allowing people to start at three different times to best manage morning and evening commutes – which, in so crowded a city, makes good sense.

One blessing for the Thai moving industry was that restrictions – severe as they were – were less draconian than elsewhere in south-east Asia. ‘While in Indonesia they shut down for weeks, we never stopped operating,’ Katarina Osterman, the country’s general manager for Santa Fe, told FIDI Focus. ‘It was still possible to travel, although you had to have a lot of documentation.’

Restrictions were lifted step by step and overall, Osterman says, the government’s information- sharing process was efficient. ‘The biggest realisation was how fragile we are when something like this (COVID) happens – we’re all dependent on each other.’

Everything Santa Fe does in this sprawling country runs out of its Bangkok office. Most business is international, and thus was at the mercy of wildly variable restrictions, but the firm also carries out some moves within Thailand and its islands.

COVID slowed down every aspect of its operation. Moves could be held up at three or four checkpoints en route. Business shrank and some staff were laid off but, says Osterman, they’ve been able to return as things spring back to life.

Moves for manufacturing companies, now regaining full strength, are a big part of AT’s business. As are diplomatic missions – not least the US Embassy, one of America’s largest. There are also numerous NGOs, including United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP,) which has had its headquarters in Thailand since 1949. ‘We have a multi-year contract for moving/storing their office compound buildings during their “seismic” retrofit,’ says Ware. Meanwhile, AT’s commercial division has grown with a focus on hotel and retail refit/storage needs.

The pandemic created a state of flux that left even the most experienced heads floundering. It dealt JVK International Movers a severe blow in 2020 when shipments to and from Thailand plummeted as global corporates and embassies put moves on hold.

But then came the big bounce back. ‘Last year, these same companies and embassies not only relocated postponed moves from 2020, they went ahead with their 2021 scheduled moves,’ says Ronald Kiser, JVK’s Senior Director of Global Partnerships. ‘We were swamped, and yet the pandemic was still a huge concern as the delta variant raged across Asia and spread to the rest of the world.

‘Trying to keep staff and customers safe, while meeting this increase in demand, was extremely challenging. Add the difficulties of getting space from the airlines and steamship lines, and an exponential increase in freight rates – we can see why so many staff have more grey hair!’

Santa Fe is sharing in the revival. ‘Plans have become active again – everything is awakening; everyone is thinking of relocating,’ says Osterman. But it’s not all plain sailing with Thailand, which, like everywhere else, is hostage to the astronomical rise in ocean freight prices. ‘Some [prices] have quadrupled, though recently decreased a little bit.

But it meant an increase in storage costs and a lot of clients are postponing moves,’ she says.

The difficulties in obtaining space to move shipments and weekly price changes have been a universal headache. ‘It was exhausting trying to do something that should have been so ordinary and routine,’ says Kiser. ‘But space in 2022 has been more available and freight rates are coming down – this part of our operation is almost back to normal.’

Ware says cash allowance customers – those given a lump sum by employers to arrange their own moves – have been presented with freight rates ‘many times higher than they may have experienced in the past’. ‘Delays and additional charges at destination ports really made people think twice about what to ship. Our office staff deserve medals for dealing with these challenges as customers vented their frustrations.’

Finding and retaining staff is a problem for FIDI members globally. For Santa Fe in Thailand, the picture is mixed. ‘We don’t have an issue finding blue collar workers but in the office environment it’s more difficult to find the right balance,’ says Osterman.

‘Hybrid working, including working from home, has become standard but here (as a rule) we come to the office every day. However, we are still open to the flexibility of working from home.’

Ware finds that the ‘traditional base’ of operational staff is harder to come by. ‘Moving remains a very manual business, and these days Generation Zs prefer to do things in the digital space,’ he says. ‘Motorcycle taxis have been a way of life in Bangkok for years, and there’s increased e-commerce/food delivery services by motorcycle, too. Younger riders can download an app to their phone and work independently at times to suit them, and in a far less labour-intensive business.

‘For office staff, we’re fortunate to have a core that’s been with us 20 plus years. We know, however, that we’re less likely to gain that kind of longevity from new recruits, so we’re trying to bring fresh ideas into the business – in particular to improve our digital marketing and web-based lead sources. We want to help keep it innovative to be able to attract new hires.’

Kiser also recognises the need to understand what attracts and motivates the country’s Millennials and Generation-Zs. ‘They’re more educated and more worldly than any generations before them, and have more choices than ever,’ he says. ‘But once hired, the Thai workforce is extremely loyal. With an appropriate reward system, the best of them will become our leaders of tomorrow.’

Developing new business lines and responding to rapid demographic changes will help determine how things pan out for the moving industry in future. While Ware envisages that 2023 will see the beginnings of a return to the more normal import/export cycle, he’s aware that adaptation will be needed.

‘In an increasingly “IKEA world” many customers opted to downsize, or even not ship at all,’ he says. ‘Bangkok has a large and growing serviced apartment market that caters well to those on short- term assignments and to our younger customers.

‘We’ve had to change the way we cater to younger clients, who generally have less to move and want to connect in an “instant response” world. We now run a first-response centre in Thailand for leads from our Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam offices. We’ll continue to adapt to meet the needs of customers, while diversifying lines of business to fit what the market and our corporate and private clients require.

JVK has developed new business in recent years teaming with online sellers in Thailand and abroad, delivering small packages locally. ‘It’s very different from personal effects, but with proper training and an enhanced sense of urgency by all involved, success is possible with minimal investment,’ says Kiser. ‘It’s a market whose physical needs parallel those of the moving industry.

‘Looking ahead, the successful Thailand movers will be financially stable, will attract the best young employees, and find ways to reward and keep those who perform best. Instilling in them that change is always an opportunity and will ensure their success.’

A hangover from COVID was widespread downsizing; people working from home; and some offices closing. ‘A lot of Thais moved back to the country from overseas, often to rural areas, but I don’t think we’re seeing so much of that now,’ Osterman observes. Simply having survived the extremes thrown up by COVID makes her optimistic, even if the worst should recur. ‘We’re better prepared for another pandemic,’ she says.

Meanwhile, says Ware, Thailand is introducing a long-term resident (LTR) visa that will be a further boon to moving businesses in the country. The scheme will offer a range of tax and non-tax benefits, aiming to promote the country as a regional hub for living in and doing business with.

‘The target is “high-potential” individuals, and the government wants to attract a million of them over the next five years,’ he says. ‘It hopes that new talent and technologies will contribute to domestic spending and investment, while supporting economic growth. This can only be good news for the country’s moving industry.’

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