In our series this month “Exploring BAM as Justice: Choosing Hope in the Face of Challenge” we’re taking a deep dive into the intersection of faith, business, and complex global realities. We’ll be looking at business as mission’s impact on poverty and justice issues across the globe. In this interview, we have the privilege of hearing from a BAM practitioner in the Middle East.
Malika H and her husband began their tourism company in Türkiye over 20 years ago.
The couple has since fostered not only a highly successful business – bringing in sustainable profits and demonstrating their commitment to the four bottom lines – but also a vibrant and close-knit community within their company.
The couple’s appreciation for life makes them excellent curators of delightful experiences for customers and friends who travel to Türkiye. Having spent time with them in the past, I also witnessed firsthand how they cultivate a culture of genuine joy, optimism, and connection around them.
It hasn’t always been easy. External threats and difficult operating conditions have affected this company in tangible ways. For this series on BAM as Justice, we wanted to share a firsthand perspective of holding onto hope and demonstrating integrity and justice, in the face of challenge.
….and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
1 Thes 4: 11-14
I took a sip of my morning coffee as Malika set up her camera. It was still dark out, my eyes were still adjusting to the bright desk light, and although my questions weren’t as elegantly prepared as I would have liked, I knew that what I would hear from Malika was going to be good.
It was sweet to see her again, even if just over video chat.
I pulled up my notes and started by asking Malika to add some background:
What sort of company is it? Where are they located? How did they start? And how do they navigate operating a business in their region?
Our tourism company is located in Türkiye, which is a very desirable destination on the global travel scene. We don’t usually have to convince people to want to come here, nevertheless, it can be a volatile area.
We started our company several years after 9/11, which set the stage for the reality of what it’s like to run a tourism company in a part of the world that is connected to the Middle East. At that time, all the tourism had dropped, and it was a long process requiring a period of stability and calm to see the industry return.
Since then, we’ve had to ride several waves of ups and downs…
Backing up a bit to provide more context, Malika explained that their primary customer base is North Americans. Part of their competitive advantage is being able to speak to their fellow North Americans, providing an extra layer of comfort for travelers because they can relate to and understand North American expectations.
Part of Türkiye’s appeal to North Americans is its placement in the center of a whole lot of diversity. We are on this East-meets-West bridge between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East – neighbors to a world constantly in flux. Türkiye’s exotic and beautiful diversity draws North Americans in, but at times it also sparks hesitation… With so much diversity there’s always something that is not peaceful going on in the region.
I thought for a moment and asked, Could you share some insights into the shifts in or near your country and how they have influenced your customer base?
Malika considered for a moment and then began with a recent example,
When Ukraine was first invaded by Russia, people stopped wanting to come here. They thought ‘Ukraine is awfully close to Türkiye’, and ‘Maybe Russia will try to invade Türkiye’. People far away might think this, but to Turks, Ukraine is across the Black Sea. No one here is considering the possibility of invasion…
I think the further away people are from a place, the harder it is to perceive clearly. Someone in Texas is not worried that they’re going to have an earthquake or a flood, just because California did. But when North Americans see it over here, they think, ‘that’s all way too close’ or ‘that’s way too dangerous’. The North American perception of what is happening here can be off base regarding what will affect their safety while traveling. Our European travelers, by contrast, are less dissuaded by situations of these sorts. I think the primary difference lies in different geographic perceptions of near and far.
As she spoke my mind jumped to the situation with Israel.
Beating me to my question, Malika continued,
Israel is another obvious example right now: We go from having record numbers of requests every day to record lows of the last year. Is there an actual problem with people coming to Türkiye right now? No.
What’s happening in Israel is particular to that area. The real reason we couldn’t immediately tell our customer base “There’s no problem here” or “Ignore it, it’s not gonna affect you” is because of a protest against the war that happened at the Israel Consulate in Istanbul. Istanbul police averted the crowd and guarded the consulate, but it still happened.
Still, these protests aren’t unique to Türkiye. They’re happening all over the globe.
With so much change in the world and such a back-and-forth on customer perceptions, what strategies have helped your business in the face of these uncertainties?
While I was fishing for a broad answer I could pass along to our audience, I was glad to hear how industry-specific her response was. One-size-fits-all business advice feels dull and rarely seems to work anyway.
We’ve found the key to resilience in the flux and change of Türkiye’s travel industry is this: People who love international travel aren’t scared to come to places that are different, they’re just waiting for the right moment to come and have the best experience.
That said, there have been times when we’ve needed to work to reassure our customers.
From 2016 to 2018 was a long period of Türkiye facing real terrorism and dangers. The terrorism of the attempted coup was getting interconnected with the Syrian war and with ISIS. It was not a time when we were telling people ‘just come’… They would have been fine if they had come, but we couldn’t just say that.
In 2017, the early adopters in our customer base started asking if it was safe to travel. We reassured them that we were here to support them and guide them should they decide to come. One of the benefits of toughing out hard seasons is that expertise. We do know the area. Our guides know what’s going on and they won’t take travelers to places that could be affected.
Wanting to hear more about what it was like from their end to endure through such threats, I asked:
You’ve spoken about what it’s like to address political change with your North American customer base. What has it been like to operate your company day-to-day?
I’ve got a graph that shows how the things that have happened and the effect they’ve had on our revenues over the years. It’s insane. Let’s address this year alone:
At the beginning of this year, we were in a time of massive growth. We were tripling revenues from our best years. Things were, and still are, good. That said, it’s been a long year of challenges and the year’s not even over.
To start, we’re still dealing with the repercussions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There was a major earthquake. It was an election year. There’s an ongoing economic crisis resulting in massive inflation. Now Israel… I even feel like I’m forgetting one other major event!
As she paused and gathered her thoughts, I could almost see the gears of her mind turning as she tried to formulate words for the reality she needed to describe.
In the day-to-day, we have to carry this level of optimism…
Before the earthquake, we had a surge of North Americans interested in touring the eastern parts of Türkiye. The interest was exciting for us; North Americans hadn’t expressed much interest in traveling to the East before. But when the earthquake hit, everyone canceled. Most of them, because you couldn’t travel to those sites anymore.
There was this sense of national shame among our staff regarding the earthquake, knowing these buildings could have been built better. The building structure was the real problem. It was not just because the earthquake was bad — this kind of earthquake happens in other countries and their buildings don’t crumble.
People felt shame.
If we’re talking about people not wanting to come or feeling like it’s not safe because of something in Israel or Ukraine, that’s a different emotion. After the earthquake, our staff felt like they couldn’t promise customers anything. How could you promise anyone a safe night’s sleep in even a luxury hotel, when this just happened in our country? It wore on morale and affected the confidence of our staff when talking to customers.
Our newer staff were especially discouraged. Most of them joined the company during a surge of requests. They were used to seeing 40 requests a day and it dropped to 4 to 6 six requests per day.
Ultimately, our resilience is in our optimism. Our staff remember Türkiye is still a great place, they remember their desire to share it with the world, and we optimistically wait for the next influx of customers.
I watched Malika stop in her tracks, clearly, something was on her mind.
You know, I’m a very optimistic person, but COVID knocked it out of me. Within just a few months of seeing everything I had worked for, for so long, suddenly reversed…. Our staff were more optimistic than me and helped me get through that time.
It was good to see. As a leader, I built optimism into my team and company values and people took hold of it. Then, when my optimism was waning, my team was there to support me. This is something that is usually a strength of mine, but here they were carrying me through.
I just love the flip of that dynamic. I think in the BAM space, we talk so much about what we do when we bring in these good values. Yes, we bring in these good values and intentionally build them into our staff and culture. But, it’s not like we’re above the need for the support of our community. As a BAM practitioner, you are going to have moments when you need your community too. In those moments, we’re recipients of the good things that are now built into the culture, and often these good things aren’t even coming from people who share our faith. Rather, they’re coming from the culture we were intentional about building from the beginning.
When everything shut down for COVID we needed to let half the staff go. We kept a core team who worked tirelessly to make sure everything was refunded to our customers. The irony was that it should have been a demoralizing process for the staff.
I, for one, was completely demoralized after letting go of so many staff, so much money, and fighting for months with unethical hotels to get refunds. Between that and the isolation, which hit my emotions unlike anything I had ever experienced, I wasn’t sure I had the oomph to put things back online. Was it even worth it?
My staff had a completely different perspective. While I was considering giving up, my staff were loving their work like never before. They felt it was prestigious to work for a company that was fighting so hard on behalf of our customers. They told me they loved being able to honestly tell customers their company was working hard to get their money back. They loved that their bosses were behind them and supported them in that whole process. They felt good to be in a working scenario where that level of integrity was what they were expected to bring to customers. The whole situation made them more optimistic and they believed “If this is who we are, this is going to be blessed.”
Turks are more resilient than your average citizen of the world. They reassured me that the world would come back online, and they said “When it does, people are going to remember that we were honest and reliable.”
Their optimism carried me through when I didn’t have a pep talk to give.
Dealing with COVID as a travel company, it’s impressive you were able to keep on even your core team. What motivated that?
Choosing to keep a core team came out of values that God put in us about people. People have to be more important than money. People are really what makes the business. Even in a secular entrepreneurial sense, it’s understood that people are your greatest resource.
When you level that up: people are worthy of dignity and I can choose to put myself in some kind of uncertainty to help make sure they’re taken care of. Keeping the core team through COVID was rooted in the belief that the value of people comes from God.
Within ourselves, there’s this God-breathed reality of knowing that if we’re not doing things that affect people, we’re probably missing out on the heart of God. Hanging onto the idea of the business coming back to life connected me to this hope, and that to me is the meaning and the purpose God put on my life.
Despite all these years of ups and downs in travel and the challenges faced; from external threats, corrupt suppliers, and their own doubts, Malika and her team continue to see things grow. They currently have 14 employees and are working in several countries in their region.
With thanks to Malika, in interview with Shay