Luxury comes cheap in Bali – and they get people through the doors with efficient, sophisicated marketing

Rightly, you no doubt have zero interest in my recent five-day break at a luxury private villa near the beach in Bali, where the staff outnumbered our party of eight by two to one, and you couldn’t move without a butler polishing something or mixing you a clever drink by the pool.

But you might be interested in how we came to be there, and how a little island in a third-world country has profitably embraced the kind of marketing that any salon owner can do, but few bother with.

When I first visited Bali 35 years ago, it was a dirt-poor backwater of rice paddies and fishing villages. Electricity was a rarity.

But for many Australians, for whom Bali is but a few hours flight away, the island’s allure these days is as a holiday in a tropical paradise offering a vast choice of luxurious, cheap accommodation, where the people are almost embarrassingly courteous, civilized and welcoming.

In the mountain villages, among the rice paddies and melon groves, the people are still poor by western standards. Yet on a bicycle ride down the mountain from the volcano at Kintamani to the cultural center of Ubud, we were greeted endlessly by smiling children dressed smartly in school uniform.

But the astounding growth of tourism in the relatively-affluent coastal resorts like Seminyak has spawned a new breed of Balinese; well-educated, hard-working, industrious. (Unable to sleep one night, I walked outside into the dark, warm tropical air at 4am to find a lone security guard patrolling the villa grounds, and was taken aback when he cheerfully stuck up a conversation in very passable English. A security guard!)

But the pay, even for the best jobs in the big villas, is low. One of our butlers told us he earned the local equivalent of about $170 a month. Which explains why you can build a luxurious three-bedroom villa, including land, for less than $250,000! Five full-time staff, maintenance and utilities will set you back $1500 a month.

Typical among Asian countries, small businesses – and there are thousands of them, tiny shops all selling the same sarongs, handbags and wood carvings – have absolutely no earthly idea about even the most basic direct response marketing methods – ‘my’ kind of marketing. They’re all competing on price alone.

But the island’s (often foreign-owned, locally-managed) luxury accommodation industry has become very sophisticated at cheaply and efficiently reaching a global market that was all but  denied it until a few years ago, save for the laborious and clunky work of travel agents.

To find our villa on the coast near Seminyak, I didn’t even leave my desk.  Google ‘seminyak villas’ and you’ll discover brilliantly-executed websites that give you virtual tours of the property, location maps, vast numbers of photos, testimonials, nearby restaurants, tour operators, even menus you can choose to be cooked by your private chef. You can book online, you can phone them up, or you can get your travel agent to do it for you.

Here’s the villa we settled on – for less than $100 a night per head.

They leave nothing to chance. As I often say, the more you tell, the more you sell. The Balinese accommodation industry has discovered the immense power and efficiency of the web to generate leads, drive sales, confirm bookings. They might not be the most adept at other forms of media – direct mail, outdoor displays, print media advertising etc – but in this particular media, they’ve become slick, sophisticated and experienced.

It’s a lesson in doing one thing, and doing it well.