COMPANION’s Dominique Backhouse On Asia’s PR Industry & Travel InsightsCOMPANION's Dominique Backhouse On Asia's PR Industry

COMPANION’s Dominique Backhouse On Asia’s PR Industry & Travel Insights

“It’s fun, I love it. You never sit still in PR,” says Dominique Backhouse, the managing director of COMPANION, the only senior-led communications consultancy in Asia.

With over 16 years of industry experience, Dominique identified a need for senior-led, strategic communications in Asia. Thus, COMPANION was born in 2019, catering to the specialised needs of the travel, dining, and property sectors in the region. COMPANION has since worked clients like Fairmont Hotels & Resorts; Teardrop Hotels; Asaya at Rosewood; YUN WELLNESS at Island Shangri-La, and more. We sat down with the PR guru to delve into discussions about the evolving digital landscape, the anatomy of a successful campaign, and the trends that will shape the industry this year.

YUN Wellness at Island Shangri-La

What inspired you to start COMPANION, and what unique approach or values did you bring to the PR industry?

I opened COMPANION in 2019 because I saw a gap in the market for a truly senior-led approach to communications and PR in Asia.

At COMPANION we do things very differently from other agencies – each of our consultants has at least 10 years experience in their comms speciality, and we employ no junior staff. This means that client work is never passed downwards, which gives our clients better servicing and strategy. 

The response since COMPANION’s launch has been phenomenal, despite pretty tricky macro-economics! I think in today’s world, people genuinely prefer to work with boutiques and want to know the person who looks after their brand, rather than the larger faceless ‘mega-agencies’ of yore. 

See also: YUN Wellness at Island Shangri-La Hong Kong Offers Exceptional Pre and Post-Natal Spa Treatments

Intervals Bar at HKIA

How do you see the role of PR evolving in today’s fast-paced digital landscape, and how does COMPANION adapt to these changes?

I’ve been in PR now for 16 years and the constant evolution never ceases to amaze me. As an example, we thought print was dead, but I see it making a small comeback in certain markets this year. Meanwhile, the digital landscape here in Asia is in an almost constant state of growth. More publications come online each year – and we have to think laterally about how to work with them beyond just reviews and op-eds; for example, certain EDM databases are really strong; while others have fantastic social platforms. 

Meanwhile, the churn is real! Long gone are the days you’d request editorial calendars and work to the beat of a stately annual pavane. These days, we’re hopping on and off trends every couple of weeks. We’re in almost constant need of content; imagery, words and videos.

It’s fun, I love it. You never sit still in PR. 

Genghis Khan Retreat

What role does creativity play in your PR campaigns, and how do you foster a creative environment within your team?

Creativity and an understanding of your landscape are utterly key to a good PR campaign. For us, creativity lives in the details of a brand and how we position it. How do we seed interest in a new launch through a cool gifting strategy; what are we trying to say when we hold a media event down to how tablescaping can help tell a message; what are we trying to explain through our photoshoots; etc. Nothing is ever left to change. 

Our team is senior-led only, which means we have a pretty flat structure and everyone has been doing this for a long time. It’s been great to see our new consultants realise how much time they now have to dedicate themselves to the craft and creativity of PR rather than managing huge unwieldy teams of juniors that need a lot of training. 

Our creativity flows through constant conversations, we’re all reading things, watching trends unfold on social media – and we leave each other voice notes throughout the day that can get pretty hilarious. On any given week, we’re strategising a restaurant opening; creating an influencer campaign; planning a press trip; overseeing a photoshoot; copywriting campaign content. No two days are ever the same. I genuinely spent two hours last week having a discussion about how to get a nomadic Mongolian tailor to visit our camp during an upcoming press trip to the Genghis Khan Retreat in the Steppe so she could handmake traditional Mongolian outfits, named ‘deels,’ for everyone. 

It gets a bit mad sometimes, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

See also: Dr. Deepak Chopra Collaborates With RAKxa Integrative Wellness For An Exclusive Longevity Retreat

Bar Leone

With the rise of digital platforms and social media influencers, how does COMPANION approach influencer partnerships and digital marketing within the travel industry?

I think that a good influencer can really be an amazing partner in telling your brand story. The key of course is to find the right influencers for your brand, and therein lies the issue.

I’ve spent a long time being told by GMs that influencers don’t help their bottom line. And I’d agree that a general travel influencer – a girl in a bikini with a Maldivian sea background – is not going to help tell a property experience properly.

But we look for niche content creators that have an authentic audience. I particularly love influencers with a passion; be it in wellness, in wine, in food. And if that person also works within that passion, then all the better. An example would be Lorenzo Antinori, who owns Bar Leone. Everyone loves Lorenzo, he is a hard-working mixologist and bar owner and watching his pours is a thing of magic. So when he posts about funny Roman-inspired merch, I think we all take note. 

The Hari Suite

How does COMPANION stay abreast of emerging trends and developments within the travel sector, and how do you incorporate these insights into your PR strategies?

It is an ongoing and never-ending process. You have to love it. You have to basically live and breathe it. I am constantly at conferences or reading expert analysis. I am also constantly on social media, watching the trends unfold in real time. I also employ leaders in their fields, so I have really reliable insight and perspectives to rely on as well. I tell them, and constantly remind myself, to listen listen listen. I ask our clients for their own feedback. It’s amazing how much information can be garnered from the CRM team in a large hotel group, for example. 

I also like to push myself out of my comfort zone; I’m heading to Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Mongolia in the next eight weeks for conferences, client meetings and a press trip – and I am so thrilled about it.

I think the way people travel has changed. We are all seeking adventure and a learning curve when we go away. Saying that – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a weekend foodie trip to Tokyo either! 

See also: Soneva Soul: A Tranquil Haven Of Wellness At Soneva Jani & Soneva Fushi

Fairmont Maldives

Can you discuss the importance of storytelling in promoting travel destinations or hospitality brands, and how COMPANION excels in crafting compelling narratives for its travel clients?

Every time we onboard a new client we have what I call ‘PR therapy sessions’, which are long meetings with the senior team and our senior copywriter. During these meetings, we relentlessly ask questions about the brand, the audience, the experiences, the reasons why they do things a certain way. 

It’s amazing how cathartic it can be to just talk it through, and how the storytelling can get pinpointed. This is hugely helpful for our boutique partners who often just grew and grew without much thought to communications. 

Content is key. It’s such a basic building block, but it’s a busy market out there and you must use every edge you have to get your message across the line. Do not take boring photos, do not craft boring words. There is always a story to be found, even in the simplest of products. 

Be authentic. Don’t try to emulate another brand, find your DNA. And then, most importantly, don’t deviate from it. Tell it proudly and tell it to the right audience at the right time. 

It also bears repeating – guests do not visit hotels for the size of the room or the thread count on the bed. Create experiences, tell a story, be different. 

Family Friendly Wellness at Island Shangri-La

Looking ahead, what are some of the key trends or challenges you anticipate for the travel industry, and how is COMPANION preparing for them?

The major trend for 2024 is that big is boring. No one wants to know about your huge hotel and your many suites. Instead, we want small, authentic and tailored. 

I think people are travelling for longer and sometimes for multiple reasons. It’s been interesting to see, for example, the reaction to the newly launched Family Floor at Island Shangri-La, which is a game changer in family travel. 

How does your passion for travel shape your PR tactics? 

I went into lockdown for 3.5 years in Hong Kong, and my first trip out was to Bali to be a speaker at Further East, which is by far my favourite travel conference in the region. I can’t tell you what a shock to the system it was to fly via Jakarta (there were no direct flights to Bali back then) to the conference. It was nervewracking getting through HKIA! 

I think this time out from travel really helped me understand how so much of what I do – not just the travel PR, but also the way I manage teams. It comes from a deep love of meeting new people, understanding new places, and just having a bit of a good time. 

PR is – at its simplest – a form of storytelling. And the best stories are those from people, places and cultures you may not know very well. 

See also: 4 Luxury Safari Wellness Retreats To Book

Lunuganga by Teardrop Hotels

Can you share a standout client story that highlights the impact of COMPANION’s tailored PR strategies? 

We are very proud of the work that we did with Teardrop Hotels in Sri Lanka. We started working with them during the pandemic, on a deep dive positioning project to help them really define who they were. Sri Lanka at that stage was at a complete standstill, and it was amazingly self-aware and strategic of Teardrop to turn inwards and do the internal work during that time.

It meant that when the borders reopened, we could hit the ground running – and we have done some great work helping to tell their story on a global, regional and local level. And through that, it’s been great to play a small part in the renaissance of Sri Lankan luxury tourism. 

Find out more about COMPANION here

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Faye Bradley

Faye Bradley is the editor and business development manager at Compare Retreats. She is an avid writer, editor, illustrator and yogi who is passionate about all things wellness, travel and the arts.

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