Rugged cliffs by the sea in summer that yield a certain cinematic romance is no longer the prerequisite for going topless and turning heads. A convertible Volkswagen, particularly a rare 1968 four-wheeled Type 181 buggy developed for the military but is now used by the locals in Indonesia as a mode of commuting, is a leisurely way to pedal your way through Yogyakarta, or Jogja. A driving route along untrodden paths, diverging like asphalt capillaries that link to the city’s heart, can be planned. Even better, a road trip to discover locales where you can sip on jamu in someone’s home, learn the trade of indigenous artisans or catch the sun dip behind a volcano can be mapped out. These are requests T’roka, a newly launched luxury travel brand by Holiday Tours & Travel (HTT), is happy to oblige.
Exclusivity is the absence of worry. And T’roka, derived from the Malay word “teroka”, which means to explore, takes the hassle out of planning for those who want insight and fuss-free experiences that go beyond the rudimentary. The modern globetrotter is not unbounded by the finality of a first class flight nor easily impressed by a train ride that pulls out all the stops. Hence, T’roka correctly plays the lynchpin, to expand your capacity for wonder and help you delight in things deemed impossible with minimal distractions in maximum locations. The latter is especially key to the company’s “hotel first” philosophy, which allows customers to plumb a city’s historical and cultural riches based on their chosen destination.
“The itinerary model just did not quite make sense,” says Ben Foo, president of HTT, who spent the past year exploring the brand’s luxury arm.
“While the concept of curating things to do sounds exciting, it didn’t really take off because it left customers too open-ended. Say, they want to go to Japan, but they may not know the offbeat attractions or everything they want. So we spent a lot of time building itineraries that may not go anywhere. We focused too much on the what and not the who. A hotel is a very tangible representation of a place, so it’s easy to build upon it, whether by adding experiences or activities. But first, we want to get to know their travel habits and find out what is significant to them.”
This would explain the dossier that arrived before our getaway in Amanjiwo, the Javanese outpost of the internationally renowned Aman Resorts that has amassed legions of Amanjunkies (as its devotees are often referred) to hop between 34 of its properties in sequestered locations such as Ninh Thuan, Vietnam; Kyoto, Japan; and Playa Grande, the Dominican Republic. What more could a person want from a palatial entrée — an architectural envy with a central stupa that mimics the Unesco World Heritage gem of Borobudur — into the magical world of Java? Plenty, apparently.
“What is your preferred pace of travel?” cued the first question on our digital survey. “How would you rate your interest in nature, wellness, culture, fitness and culinary on a scale of 1 to 5?”, prompted the next. Were we ready to confess our disdain for the treadmill and admit to all the pandemic stress-baking?
Perhaps, this is T’roka’s method of maintaining relevance and creating authentic relationships with its clientele, by drawing a distinction between customer service and customer experience. The former is what people expect, the other is what gets talked about. But experience alone will not be enough to fulfil our travel aspirations amid our evolving needs. The deal breaker lies in the breadth of knowledge a brand has on each customer.
“If you’re an art lover travelling to Spain and you want to meet the museum curator, we can make that happen. Ultimately, we believe a hotel brings out the essence of a place. Even when you’re abroad, you come back to a sanctuary where people greet you by name. Isn’t that nice? Of course, you can book directly with a hotel but T’roka leverages HTT’s 48 years of experience in the market. We work with many boutique partners such as Kempinski Hotel Group, Six Senses as well as One&Only. That makes us very connected,” says Foo.
Culture is not an ornament on the shelf. Thus, Amanjiwo, the late Ed Tuttle-designed property instilled with the same tangible peace of Buddhism’s sacred Mahayana temples, could not have been a more suitable choice to delve into T’roka’s ethos. Our door-to-door journey, whisked from our homes in a private sedan to the airport and the resort at the foot of Menoreh Hills five hours later, was seamless. Emerald paddy fields, towering limestone walls draped with violet trumpet vines and the chorus of birds twittering from the bamboo forest along the neighbouring Progo River were in perfect pitch with the resort’s vision of assimilating into its surroundings.
The most transformational experience tends to be the least engineered. So to spot Mount Merapi glinting against the sun at the crack of dawn in the distance is a marvel. But to see this natural spectacle spew a river of smoke and red-hot lava, setting the background for a Ramayana performance where graceful dancers move to a choreography etched on the temple stones of Borobudur 1,200 years ago, is a privilege. Drama throbs in this heartland of the ancient and sacred.
“Partaking of the local traditions, processions and esoteric literature may give you a glimpse of what was initially intended by the designers who conceived Borobudur under the Sailendra dynasty in the 9th century,” says Amanjiwo’s resident anthropologist Patrick Vanhoebrouck, who moved to the city in 1997 to work in the furniture exporting business before residing in Indonesia permanently in 2010, at a lecture during our stay. With the help of a local priest, the Belgian author (he writes about dukuns, or shamans) also conducts traditional healing or cleansing exercises like tolak balak, which T’roka gladly organises if you wish.
As consumers become more impact-oriented, reimagined bespoke holds up emotional resonance as a critical component. If you do not develop a visceral memory of a place that includes sight, sound and smell, it does not stay with you for very long. Foo found all sorts of treasures during a family vacation to Tanjong Jara Resort in Terengganu: windswept tropical gardens backed by the soundtrack of nature, sun-kissed beach and gentle waves that break on a shore of golden sand. But along the way, he discovered something more priceless: time with his children.
“I know it sounds cheesy when I say I want to create memories with my kids but when I asked for their highlights of the year, they could recall specific details of the trips we went on as a family. And I suddenly felt, ‘Wow, that actually matters’. I have two teenage boys, and one is already 18. I don’t have that many years to hold him back, so you only get one chance at creating memories together at a certain stage of his life. This is most invaluable to me.”
What also attracts Foo to a particular place is not just its mystique or where it lies on the map but also the deep-seated rituals, beliefs and lifestyle held by the natives living there.
“I checked into Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in Oman with my wife and the hotel had arranged a hike in the morning to explore its desert grounds, surrounded by majestic canyons. A local guide took us to see three villages on a cliff nearby, but upon reaching, we were surprised that they had been vacated. It turns out the villagers had to abandon their homes and farms because the natural water source from the spring dried up due to global warming.
“To inject life into this area again, our local guide, who was born and bred there, hopes to use his own money to build a pipeline that directs water back to his land, which will eventually overflow to his neighbour’s. His dream is to rebuild a community through tourism and technology. And there we were listening intently in his old house with a fallen roof and looking out to a magnificent view as he poured us a cup of tea. I would go back [there] because of this story.”
Such atypical experiences is not an unusual demand among HTT’s main clientele, made up of high society individuals and corporate figures in their mid-thirties who spend at least RM20,000 on themselves per trip. Over the next 10 years, the growth rate in outbound luxury trips is projected at 8% and expected to reach an estimated US$2.76 trillion, largely driven by the European market. T’roka, with 20 professional advisers under its belt, fills the niche of a one-stop travel planner, be it to sort out a last-minute flight cancellation, retrieve a lost baggage or deal with a medical emergency overseas, without going through multiple channels.
Price feuds in the hospitality industry have constantly left many hoteliers and customers aggrieved. But forming strategic partnerships and tie-ins with the right brands are ways to enhance customer service without incurring too much cost.
“What you pay for your hotel is more or less the same as what the market rate is,” asserts Foo. “One of our revenue streams comes from earning margins by establishing relationships with trustworthy and good partners. These are add-ons for customers to engage and enjoy. So, this form of personalisation becomes another focus and a core product of ours.”
T’roka’s message and methodology seem straightforward enough: Identify what people hold special about a place, and you will not be disappointed. But even if you did not set out with a location in mind, a little curation and openness to the unexpected may just help you arrive at somewhere meaningful. Leisure time is one of our most precious assets. Why would you trust just anyone with it?
Explore T’roka’s membership programme (Classic, Signature and Prestige), which includes room upgrades and VIP benefits, at troka.co. See more in the video below:
This article first appeared on Oct 2, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.