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  • 23 October 2023

From Thailand to Dubai and back: Tranio's manager shares personal relocation experience

The Dubai Magazine editorial team learned about the experience of relocation and building a career in international business from Svetlana Romanyuk, Head of Tranio’s office in Phuket. During the interview, Svetlana noted the circumstances of her entry into the real estate sector in the mid-2000s, talked about her move to Dubai after 17 years of living in Thailand, and her return. She also highlighted the cultural differences in different regions of Asia, and the role of a mediator between Asian developers and European clients.

About female and male approaches to real estate

Dubai Magazine: Lana, can you tell us about how you ended up at Tranio?

I joined Tranio’s team in 2022. At that time, I was living in Dubai, where I had moved from Thailand after 15 years of living there. I had been in Thailand since 2006: first in Bangkok and Pattaya, where I worked in the tourism sector, and later in Phuket, working in sales at a British construction company. I relocated to the UAE due to the pandemic: I wanted to build a career in a new, promising, and rapidly developing country.

I was looking for a job in the real estate sector in Dubai, which led to my meeting with Tranio. The management saw great potential for cooperation; however, instead of working with the UAE market, I was offered to return to Thailand and foster this line of Tranio’s business. After 10 years of working in the Thai real estate market, I was familiar with all Phuket developers as well as with the peculiarities of the local market. I also had established connections in related fields: from rental business to medical consulting.

For some time I had my doubts about relocating, because in Dubai I already had new acquaintances, an apartment, and a car. After some consideration, I made up my mind: after all, Thailand is a comfortable country for me, like a pair of old slippers. In essence, I returned home, where everything was clear, easy and simple. In addition to residing comfortably in a country I was fond of, Tranio presented me with an opportunity to foster a branch of a large international company with ambitious plans for the Thai market.

Dubai Magazine: What are the distinct aspects of real estate sales for you personally?

According to sales statistics, I’ve noticed that real estate agents are most often women. This might be because, from a psychological perspective, it is easier for a man to hand over money to a woman for something material, like real estate. In this moment, a feminine energy of receiving and accepting comes into play. It could be said that women have a magic touch in sales. For me, it is also interesting to look at the purchasing process from the other side, the buyer’s perspective, and here a woman’s opinion also plays a key role.

It is interesting to observe how a married couple makes a purchase: the man considers the square metres, the percentage of the bank’s credit, the payback period and similar factors, on the other hand, the woman enters the property’s space, evaluates its location and finishing, while all these percentages and figures fade into background. Home is, in general, a women’s space, even if the technical side of it is designed by men. The magic happens when two elements merge together: the energy of the space and the numbers. The investment aspect is also important to me: partners in the Thai market jokingly call me «Lana — 5 apartments at once» because of my experience in selling package investment deals.

About 17 years of living in Thailand

DM: You have lived in Thailand for 17 years. What is the story behind your relocation?

In 2000, I lived in the Moscow region, studied at the Tax Academy, and worked as a translator at the aviation plant. I had a very tight schedule: I would go to Moscow in the morning, work during the day, and then spend half a day going back to the university to have more classes. During my soul searching, I changed jobs several times; at one point I even became a director in a trading company. But I pushed myself to the limit with this schedule, and in the end I didn’t want to do anything at all. One day I attended a travel fair, then put all my diplomas on the shelf, and flew to Greece to work as a tour guide.

My first job abroad was a downshifting experience, moving from the position of commercial director to tour guide. During my first job on Rhodes, my co-worker and roommate constantly told me stories about Thailand, but for some reason she insisted I shouldn’t go there. However, the more she would talk about how great Thailand was, the more I wanted to visit the country. When I spoke to the travel agency about this destination, they told me I would have to learn the entire history of Thailand, take an exam, and relocate to Bangkok for the job. I spent 6 months working in Bangkok and then returned to Greece. There were also a few business trips after that before I went to the Maldives for a year and ultimately ended up in Phuket.

In 2006, Phuket was similar to the Maldives: everything was expensive and confusing. According to the stories, it was almost heaven on earth, where the movie «The Beach» with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed; but tourists had not yet set foot there yet. The destination was so exotic that you could sell tours for 600 US dollars per day. At that moment, only 10% of the Russian tourist flow went to Koh Samui and Phuket, while the other 90% went to Pattaya.

When I arrived in Phuket, it had one gas station and one traffic light. And then the island started rapidly developing right before my eyes: beaches and parks were landscaped, roads and tunnels were built, and international schools were opened. On the island, I learned diving, which later became a serious hobby of mine and now I have more than 1000 dives under my belt. When people ask me if I know about all of the pitfalls and hidden reefs in Phuket, I want to answer: «Yes, I’ve literally been to every nook and cranny here!»

DM: And how did this change of career happen: from tourism to real estate sales?

In popular tourist destinations, there is often a limited selection of professions and almost all of them are related to providing services for international customers. A person either becomes a diving instructor, a tour guide, or a real estate agent.

Approximately 40 million tourists fly to Thailand every year, making it the world leader in this aspect in 2022. Of these, about 15 million people come to Phuket each year. 70% of the properties on the island belong to foreigners who live there either permanently, or for several weeks or months per year. The majority of deals in the real estate market are closed by foreigners renting and selling properties.

In the second half of the 2000s, I started working in the real estate sector: initially as a translator, then helped with drafting documents, and eventually landed a job in a British-Chinese real estate agency. Soon, I became the regional director. It was in 2014, when 70% of all real estate buyers in Phuket were from China. In addition to my partners from Britain, I worked with a Chinese partner who helped me interact with his compatriots. In a short period of time, we signed contracts with all local developers in order to provide Chinese clients with a full catalogue of real estate options on the island.

DM: What is the difference between working with clients from China and Russia?

There are many differences not only between clients from different countries, but also between clients from the same country. Chinese people speak different languages and there are significant cultural differences between northern and southern China. The motto of northern Chinese is «I am friends with my leader.» They value showing their connection with an authoritative figure: if such a person buys a particular object, their social circle is likely to buy similar objects. Southern Chinese are more often involved in trade: they are focused on the benefits of the transaction and always ask about discounts.

The first Russians to explore Thailand were tourists and property buyers from the Far East, for whom Southeast Asia was close not only geographically, but also culturally. This happened around 20 years ago. Clients from cities like Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Magadan bought villas in Thailand as second homes. It was not uncommon for the head of the family to work at sea or using a shift system and then during vacations visit their Thai house, where their spouse and children lived throughout the year. Later, an international airport opened on Phuket, making the destination more accessible for international tourists, including those from Russia.

Currently, a large share of the tourist flow on Phuket comprises regular visitors to the island. Over the past 20 years, actively travelling Russians have visited Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia; in the end, many of them have returned to Thailand. It is like there is some kind of a formula for happiness in Thailand: it is affordable, flavoursome, and easily understandable (for everything is in English). In addition, the nature is beautiful, and the locals are helpful and considerate hosts. Thais offer good service with a smile on their faces. They have no prejudices, nor do they fawn over guests from any particular country because this land never had a colonial rule. Thailand is a kingdom with a unique culture, where kindness, hospitality, and genuine smiles are valued.

Upon returning to Thailand, tourists soon discover that it is not just a great place to relax, but also offers numerous opportunities for making money: the country is developing, implementing new technologies, and has shown stable GDP growth over the last 30 years. Real estate sellers in Thailand play a significant role in this process, bringing together contrasting cultural perspectives and connecting different points, much like a DJ on a turntable. Chinese clients have specific standards for quality and understanding of interior beauty, while Russians may have a different sense of aesthetics. In order to secure a deal, we must find the right balance between these cultural differences.

DM: You seem to have a keen understanding of Asian culture. Is it because you feel a spiritual connection to it?

I was born in Mongolia and grew up in a military family. At times, we lived in remote locations with no bridges or roads. So, I guess you could say that Asia is in my blood. Throughout my childhood, I was immersed in the diversity of Asian cultures, from Mongol shamans to Buddhists, and I often feel that I understand them better than Europeans. One example is the Thai concept of «losing face», which is a cultural taboo. If you start arguing with someone in a public place, you will «lose face». As a result, Thais will avoid direct criticism and instead rely on subtle gestures to convey their feelings. To effectively solve issues in such communication contexts, one must understand the nuances of body language and nonverbal cues to interpret the underlying meaning.

As a translator, I have had the privilege of bearing witness to the interweaving of diverse languages and cultures in the social environment. The inherent differences between languages provide valuable insights into how individuals from various backgrounds think and express themselves. Asia, in particular, is home to a vast array of religions, languages, and beliefs. For example, individuals from India often adhere to vegetarianism, a practice inspired by Hinduism, though the country boasts more than 6,000 deities. The Philippines, as a former Spanish colony, has inherited various Spanish customs such as carnival festivities and street singing. If you spot singing Asians in public, chances are they are Filipinos. On the other hand, Koreans and Japanese tend to enjoy singing karaoke in private booths that block out external sounds.

Asia offers a stark contrast to typical European values, with completely different mindset and customs. My job is to identify and accentuate familiar European norms, our business approach, and then integrate them with the Asian mindset and cultural backdrop.

DM: Can you tell us about the most memorable deal you’ve concluded in Thailand?

One of my customers was a British earl. We received applications from the Chinese portal, which was fully in Chinese and designed to cater to local search engines. Therefore, it was even more remarkable that an application from Britain came from this resource. In person, the client held himself as a typical Brit: well-read, calm, and in possession of a courteous demeanour. It turned out that his wife was from China and sought to acquire an apartment in Thailand. The husband at that moment was in Thailand and proceeded to inspect the property that had caught his wife’s eye.

After the viewing, our client expressed his intention to book the apartment, so I requested a copy of his passport and a proof of transfer of the advance payment. Soon after, my colleagues called me in a panic: as it turned out, there was no first name on his passport, only his title! For a while, we all tried to figure out how to properly address our client and fill out his title in correspondence. Should we write «Sir», «Earl», or «Lord»? A few days later, the client invited me to dinner and, noticing my embarrassment, extended his hand for a handshake and amiably told me about his business, his recent trip to New Zealand... In short, he conducted himself like a true gentleman!

About the differences between Thailand and the Emirates

DM: Can you tell us about your experience living in Dubai? How does daily life in the Middle East differ from Southeast Asia?

Southeast Asia has a more accepting community. For instance, Buddhists perceive you as you are, they do not give assessments nor do they forbid you to do anything, because Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion, but a path that you can follow. No one will force you to accept Buddhist truths if you are not inclined to do so. As such, in Thailand, you can openly express your individuality through tattoos and subcultural symbolism without eliciting disapproving glances.

The city of Dubai represents a youthful and cosmopolitan urban structure that starkly contrasts with other regions of the United Arab Emirates. In Dubai, 94% of the population consists of non-natives from various parts of the world, including workers from Asian and African countries, entrepreneurs and digital nomads from the United States and Europe, people of different cultures and classes. While the city itself offers a considerably relaxed atmosphere, remote areas of the UAE may have harsher religious and ethical restrictions.

One cannot deny that Dubai is at the forefront of global trends in multiple spheres such as business, architecture and landscape design, digital and cryptocurrency technologies, fashion and beauty industries, etc. The colossal effort and energy required to transform the desert into a vibrant oasis is truly awe-inspiring and commands utmost respect. Dubai hosts several major international exhibitions such as Gitex, Arab Health, and Adnoc. Now this city is in the spotlight of the largest business investors around the world. Just by being in Dubai one can significantly spur their networking and high-intensity productivity. More business contacts can be made in one week in Dubai than in years in other locations.

However, if we talk about nature, my preference undoubtedly lies with Thailand. Having travelled across all the emirates in a short time, I realised that the local scenery is vastly distinct from the lush landscapes in the coastal areas of Thailand. Even in Dubai, the air is thick with the dust of sand. After enduring a summer in Dubai, one might begin to question whether they can endure another.

When driving in the 48°C — 50°C heat, the steering wheel scorches your hands. In the spring, Ramadan marks the preparation for the beginning of the heat: you need to rebuild your life for a nocturnal schedule. While some may find comfort in this adjustment, I personally prefer the refreshing morning breeze by the coastline, surrounded by the shade of palm trees and dense tropical foliage.