Bertie Lawson: English

Tell us a little bit about the role you do now.

I am the Managing Director of the boutique-green tour operator Sampan Travel, creating tailor-made journeys through Myanmar (Burma). We are only a small team (just four of us in the office!) so everyone has to do a bit of everything. This is good, because it means that every day, and every hour in every day, I am occupied with different tasks. Because the company is still young, marketing and promotion is one of our main focuses. So as well as managing our social media accounts, I also work on SEO for our website, and writing articles about Myanmar both for our online magazine and third party publications. I can often be found tracking Facebook engagement and wrangling with HTML code.

I also work on product development, curating new tours and looking into niche areas such a birdwatching, war history and art tours. I am not a travel consultant, but naturally I also engage with our clients, creating their itineraries with them and greeting them on arrival in Myanmar. We are incredibly focused on being a sustainable tour operator which means working with small local enterprises, listening to and collaborating with communities, NGOs, and charities, and ensuring that the team is knowledgeable and trained in child protection and animal welfare, two big issues for tourism in Southeast Asia.  And then of course, there are the more boring aspects of the job such as the accounts and human resources.  

What do you like about the role and what are you not so keen on?

I love my job principally because it is so diverse. It is rarely boring, and even if it ever is a new more exciting task if often just around the corner! I am also aware that I am under-qualified for my job. This was my first job in tourism, and my first job in a proper management position. This requires learning on the go, being prepared to get things wrong, acknowledging that listening is often more crucial than speaking, and having the courage to do things for the first time.

I also love this part of the world, and Myanmar in particular. Tourism is the world’s biggest industry, and has a huge potential for both good and harm. This is especially true in developing countries, and even more so in a place like Myanmar, which was isolated from the world for so long, and where tourism is still very much in its infancy. It requires work, but I love the fact (and it is a fact) that tourism, when done responsibly, has immense power to change millions of people's lives for the better.

Things can take a long time to happen in Myanmar, and change can be hard to enact. I would hesitate to say this myself, but one of our local guides here recently said to me that the Burmese, for all their charms (and they have many) can be resistant to change and cautious to collaborate. This can be a challenge. For me, learning how to change my attitude and way of working as an expat in another country is more difficult than I thought.

I also don’t like the HTML.

How did you get into it?

After graduating from Liverpool I moved to Berlin. For some reason, over the course of my degree I went off the idea of entering journalism - something that I had planned to do since I was young. I did not know what I wanted to do at all. So, I thought I would take a plunge and move to Berlin, which I had visited once and thought was a pretty cool place. I didn't want to think about a career, but was keen to just work in a bar, learn German, and see what happened.

It was miserable at first. It was winter, I spoke no German, had very little cash, only one friend, and a job trying to get backpackers to come on a seedy Pub Crawl. Simply because it was better money, I ended up taking an internship in SEO (at that point not knowing what SEO was.) I stayed in that job for almost two years. By that point I had come to love the city, speak the language (kind of… ) and make more friends. However I was bored of SEO, and when searching for new jobs was sent an advert for a job in Myanmar, ‘travelling around the country, writing about it, taking pictures, and helping to build a website.’ I applied on a whim, and after a few interviews had the job with Sampan Travel.

I was the first employee of the two owners, and hired on a 6 month contract to help them launch their website, and create all the content for that website. I loved it, they liked me, and so I stayed on after the 6 months. The two owners are still in Yangon, but taking more of a backseat in the day-to-day operations of the business, hence why I am now (only since this summer) Managing Director, working with 3 Burmese colleagues.

How have you used your degree?

In my third year at Liverpool I was president of the English Society, and therefore would give a short presentation and answer questions at Open Days. I was often asked what my plans were post-graduation. Although I received some aghast looks from the then Head of Department, I felt no qualms about telling the parents and prospective students that I did not know what career I wanted to go into, and that I was moving to Berlin to work in a bar.

I arrived at Liverpool set on becoming a journalist. It sounds corny, but it is true to say that my course did open my mind to all the other opportunities out there in the world. All the different places to live, people to meet, cultures to experience. My course exposed me to how diverse and varied the world is, and how the worst thing I could do would be to neglect to experience more of it. I think English Literature has the power to induce this feeling above all other subjects.

In a more practical sense, the course gave me great analytical skills, a greater knowledge of the history of the world, a more rigorous writing style, and the enhanced ability to emphasise with other people. In my opinion, there is nothing more precious and valuable than the latter.

Any tips you’d give to students looking to develop their career?

Don’t limit yourself to only what you think you can or should do. If you need certain skills, or experience, or attributes to apply for a certain job, don’t spend time worrying about not having those things, but go out and get them without delay! Be confident in applying for jobs you think you are under-qualified for, be open to chopping-and-changing career paths (to be honest, I would say don’t bother having a set career path at all in your ‘20s), and make sure you are working for something or someone you can be proud of - always value enjoyment above a pay check.

Good luck!