Roads along miles of seashore in Grand Cayman give cyclists a quiet yet stimulating setting where they can slip inside their own heads to mull problems. It’s one of the ways 34-year-old Cayman entrepreneur Caine Smith finds inspiration.
When the British-born photographer, business owner and resident needs a tight focus on fresh solutions, he says, he heads out on his bike, leaving the two companies he started miles behind.
“I like cycling because it’s a crazy world, and here’s an hour or two when I get to go and think without interruption. I do a lot of thinking during those rides.”
He has a lot to think about. Smith’s first startup, a technology company called Atelier, stands poised to blaze new paths through the tourism industry and beyond. He envisions the newer venture, AirVu, as a business launch destined to reach new heights in aerial photography. Once he and partner Adam Cockerill work out legal and insurance issues, they plan to use camera-equipped unmanned flying vehicles – drones – to provide fresh glimpses of what’s going on at ground level.
The companies, each of which stakes out untested business geography, keep Smith busy, exercising his mind, sharpening plans, “connecting the dots,” as he puts it.
Atelier, which he positions as a “brand consultant,” now aims to put up-to-the-minute communications technology (including mobile apps for smartphones and tablets) into the hands of travelers. He also wants to use it to show cruise lines, resorts, even whole communities (such as the Cayman Islands tourism industry) how to engage travelers effectively, personally and quietly, guiding them through vacation experiences shaped to individual needs and making them memorable.
Maxing out holiday experiences, Smith says, builds loyalty to the brand, so customers keep coming back. It’s what Walt Disney Co. (one of Smith’s clients) and others of the most successful brands have done to build a customer base.
In the long run, though, Smith hopes to go beyond vacations and advise companies selling all kinds of goods and services on what he refers to as “ways to enhance customers’ experiences with their brands.” A broad range of companies can benefit from such advice, everything from coffee shops to clothing stores, food markets to transportation providers, he says.
Atelier’s message is that by using the existing information that communications technology already gathers about mobile-users’ habits, brands can anticipate customers’ needs and desires and gently steer them – using applications in their mobile devices – toward their own products and services. It means using “the Internet of things” for such “experiences” as sending mid-morning reminders that a Starbucks awaits at the next corner or a taxi will pick you up in a moment and zip you to your next appointment.
Caine, who was one of the speakers at Cayman’s first TEDx conference in April, articulated the ideas by pointing out that “companies need to make things personal to me.” For instance, he says, as a result of his entering a morning business meeting in his calendar, it should be the responsibility of his smartphone to set his alarm for a certain time, start coffee brewing and detail the directions to his first meeting, rather than him having to actively accomplish each of those tasks.
Or, perhaps based on his habits, noted by the GPS in his phone, he would get a text first thing in the morning from the coffee shop around the corner, where he typically stops for a latte, asking if he’d like one, since that is what he always orders. When he arrives at the shop, his latte is ready, waiting and paid for (via his smart device).
As noon approaches, before he has even left the building to figure out where he might go for lunch, he could receive a message from a nearby deli, noting its proximity and detailing the daily special. The genius of such a system is that the deli and other vendors reach out to this potential customer because the businesses can use knowledge of his prior choices to predict his dining habits and also the fact that he’s within a short stroll of their establishment – a far more efficient way to reach out than sending messages to anybody and everybody near and far. If he wants the deli’s Reuben sandwich, he can click and go in a flash. The business has noted his location and anticipated his hunger. Now it can have a lunch ready when he arrives and bill his smartphone.
Such is the “experience strategy” that Smith’s Atelier hopes to chart for enterprises of all kinds, a strategy aimed at making individual consumers’ lives as easy and convenient as possible.
In Smith’s view, it’s another way technology can become a passive part of our lives, rather than a distraction which draws us to text, search and retrieve information all day long. Preset to meet our individual habits and needs, the technology jumps ahead to serve us.
In an interview, the entrepreneur describes how Atelier will work. The beta test, so to speak, is his own home in Grand Cayman. He believes the island could draw even more business if he connects the dots among a wide range of tourism service providers here, from airlines and cruise lines to ground transport and lodging, from entertainment to mom and pop stores.
Smith sees Atelier providing coordination among all these types of vendors on island, connected through technology, basically mobile apps in the tourists’ pocket or purse. With prompts from their smartphones, visitors could fly through every appealing experience Cayman has to offer that each wants from a vacation. Some will snorkel; some will hit the nightlife. At the end, they would “walk away with a great warm feeling,” Smith says, and Cayman as a destination would have their future loyalty, just as Disney does with its customers.
If he can make it work here where he lives, Smith believes, he is sure he will show other clients he’s worked with – Disney, cruise lines including Caribbean, Cunard, Celebrity, and other destinations like Vail Resorts in Colorado, as well as the San Diego Zoo – the effectiveness of his process of enhancing experience.
From there, “the sky’s the limit. All brands in the world could benefit from personalizing their customer experiences, and Atelier can help with that.”
The second enterprise, still in development, is one that seems dramatically different from Atelier, though the two share a thread. With AirVu, Smith hopes to find and employ new, profitable and peaceful commercial uses for small unmanned aerial vehicles.
He is not positioning AirVu as drone service for the military/intelligence community. Instead, Smith, who trained in England as a photographer, sees remote-controlled aircraft as platforms for photography and videography, including of real estate, property boundaries, geologic features and other legal surveillance targets, as well as for commercial messages, event promotion, urban planning, mapping and security.
“I have a very keen interest in technology and where it’s going,” Smith said. “A year and a half or two years ago now, a friend got a small toy-style drone. We started talking, and my mind was spinning with ideas. We did some research and saw that it’s a massively emerging space right now … The more we researched, the more we decided it was something we want to be involved in.”
Smith is intent on “developing this thing properly,” no fly-by-night operation that might be attractive to criminal types or unlawful surveillance. No reckless flights that could threaten commercial and general aviation. He well knows that without legal, ethical and transparent underpinnings as well as carefully tailored liability coverage, AirVu’s opportunities for international growth would be severely limited.
Adam Cockerill, his friend and partner, has been working with the Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Islands, a regulatory agency, to address safety and liability and also assure citizens that the drones don’t collect photo and video data in violation of their privacy.
“We have no desire to do anything to give people cause for worry,” Smith says. “We see a tremendous opportunity to provide a service in a new way – and in a safe and proper way.”
Only last month, the CAA’s Nikki McCoy, deputy director-general, economic regulation and administration, issued a public warning of threats “to the safety of air transport and aerial work operations” from small unmanned aircraft. She focused on the danger of a crash between runaway drones and aircraft taking off or landing at the islands’ airports.
Cockerill was quickly on the case about AirVu’s plans to distinguish itself from the rising number of drone hobbyists and any unmanned aerial photography outfits that might enter the business unprepared. His and Smith’s company, he told the CAA, won’t accept contracts for aerial photography or videography until AirVu has full certification and insurance coverage to satisfy Cayman authorities.
Bridge between the two companies
The thread running between the two companies is Smith’s background in photography, which he studied in England before launching his professional career in Miami with cruise ship companies while deepening his understanding of the tourism industry. Basically, he took pictures of passengers engaged in fun activities. The cruise line offered the photos for sale as customer keepsakes – and a promotion device that customers could share with others, drawing more reservations.
Smith spent eight years working for what would become the major concessionaire for this kind of vacation photography, The Image Group, where he became technology director and business manager. Photographers take pictures of cruise-goers diving into swimming pools, sitting at the captain’s table over dinner, even buying carved coconut-heads at specialty shops in tropical ports.
The business expanded, branching out from cruise lines to Vail Resorts and Disney, which Smith consulted with. He says he loved his work. “But I had my own goals. When you work for somebody else, you can’t always do things the way you see it. Building a business of my own, that’s something I always wanted to do.” He took a risk and left The Image Group to start Atelier.
“I knew that was for me down the path. I knew there would be challenges and ups and downs and, how are you going to pay the bills and figuring out where the next income stream is coming from. But, you know, I have to do it.”
Smith was excited about his invitation to speak about his vision at the TEDx Seven Mile Beach conference under the theme “Connecting to Possibility.”
Moderator Samantha Nehra introduced Smith, telling the audience of his experience with major resorts and cruise lines. Then she said, “He focuses on improving the experiences of their guests.” Smith had 10 minutes to express his vision.
Standing in jeans and an open-collar dress shirt, he talked about how technology could help people experience their lives more fully, more memorably, more conveniently, freeing folks to engage in more creative matters.
Commercial enterprises and governments should cooperate to enhance the experiences of their constituencies by engaging people personally, providing products or services as conveniently as only technology can, and connecting with target users in exactly the right context.
He said any brand benefits from applying technology to improving the experiences of customers, regardless of product or service. But they have to make sure the technology they use connects seamlessly with potential customers’ lives.
In a scarlet circle on the TED stage, Smith concluded his talk with a plea for businesses and other endeavors to pay attention to the quality of experience.
“Stop competing on being the best price, the cheapest,” he says, “but focus on being the best product and the best experience for your customer.” Here he notes the success of Apple and Disney brands, which are among the most expensive in their respective fields. Disney does not compete on roller coasters, but on the experience of its customers.
Finally, Smith exhorts, “Start thinking and planning what your experience strategy is.”
Visit www.ateliercreate.com/blog/2014/5/8/tedx-talk to view Smith’s TEDx talk in Cayman.