Daniele Cosentino, CEO at Asia Internship Program tells us about international internship programs.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Daniele Cosentino: Well, one of the upsides of being located in Bangkok is that the pandemic here didn’t hit as hard as back home. Originally I’m from Italy, and as I guess everyone read in the past year, we’ve been hit quite hard. My father got COVID in August. Luckily for him, he got a very mild form of it, and he didn’t have to do anything other than quarantine at home for a few weeks. For me specifically, COVID has hit more for what concerns my business, like I think everyone else in our industry, but luckily with the start of vaccine distribution, I hope that the worst has passed “fingers crossed.”
Tell us about you, your career, and how you joined Asia Internship Program.
Daniele Cosentino: My background is in IT. I studied at the Alma Mater of Bologna in Italy. My first real work experience was an internship in India in a manufacturing company where I was tasked to build their Sharepoint CRM. While I was doing my internship there, I decided to look for another internship in Asia, and I applied for an internship with AIP.
Instead of being a customer, though, moving closer to my starting date, AIP offered me an internship directly with them as they needed someone with an IT background. So I joined the company in Q3 2015 as an intern for six months. During this time, I helped grow the IT infrastructure of the company, and when my internship ending date was approaching, the company was growing at a very fast pace, in part thanks to my work.
Being a startup with a five-person team, the fact that my contribution helped in the growth didn’t pass unobserved, and that’s when AIP offered me to become their Head of Marketing. During the next two years, I helped grow AIP even bigger, in large part thanks to our marketing team, which at this point was four people strong, and that really spearheaded our growth in those years.
When 2018 came was obvious that the Marketing team was the most important part of the company, and when we decided to re-found the company in Singapore, I took the helm of the company in becoming its Managing Director, and since then, I’m leading it.
How does Asia Internship Program innovate?
Daniele Cosentino: Well, for starters, our business is quite innovative in itself. While experiences like volunteering and studying abroad are very common, internships are usually a more Taboo topic. Most people sign up for internships only locally, and few people look for an internship abroad. Only in the past few years, international internships are becoming a thing. Also, by focusing on an internship in Asia in an already niche market, we are focusing on an even more niche portion of it as Asia is a very new destination for an international internship. For what concerns our specific industry, AIP is one of the most technologically advanced providers, we created our own system to manage the business, and our process, where possible, is fully automated. We also are the only major player in the industry to offer different packages for our programs tailored to the needs of our clients, and during this pandemic, we launched remote internship that has allowed hundreds of students that couldn’t leave their country to still undergo an internship during the pandemic.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Daniele Cosentino: Since our business focuses greatly on international travel and specifically international travel in Asia, along with the tourism business, our industry has been hit very hard since the beginning. The first quarter of 2020 has been the worst period we ever had in our business, and at the time, we had to downsize and even let go of our past office. When hope came back in July/ August with most of Europe ceasing their lockdowns, our business has restarted taking pace, initially very slow, but thanks to initiatives such as our remote internship, we have been able to resurrect, find a new and bigger office and hire more employees. This has not been at all easy, and we had to cut on many things and try to save every single penny while maintaining our service at the level that we always provided to our customers. It has been a very hard year, in which we had to make a lot of sacrifices and in which we lost some very important members of our team but looking back now, I think we made the right decisions, and the sacrifices we made are already starting to pay back. 2021 with the advent of vaccines and a gradual restart of global mobility, is looking increasingly better for us, and to this date, we expect to be our best year on record.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Daniele Cosentino: Unfortunately yes, we had to dramatically cut expenses, let go more than half of our staff, give up our office and cut our salaries for six months. But while it was definitely not the best experience, we also learned a lot, we learned how we were wasting budget on trivial things, and we managed to bargain new deals with our partners, something that already now is paying back the effort. While it might sound cheesy, we learned how true it is that hard times bring a lot of occasions. But the most important thing we learned is how important it is to differentiate. During the pandemic, we started new businesses, and we dip our feet in new projects. This has allowed us to survive and now is driving our current growth.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Daniele Cosentino: Tools-wise, as I was saying before, our company is already quite technical, and most of our processes are fully automated. To be completely honest we did not appreciate this as much as we did once our business started to grow again at the end of last year and with only half the staff we had to manage the business. Zoom, Skype, Hangout, while for many, were a big innovation for us. They were already the standard, and with the only exception of doing fewer in-person meetings, nothing changed much from this point of view. The only thing that really changed was the fact that every day, while we were working from home one of my partners was checking on each member of the staff, and we worked in a more project-based way.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Daniele Cosentino: We have many competitors both in Thailand and in the region, but this pandemic has reset the market to an extent. Many small providers simply died, and even some of our biggest competitors are struggling. Luckily for us, we found other ways to keep the business afloat during these dire times, and now that the market is starting to reopen, we are finding ourselves in a good position. It has been a hunger game-like situation, but now a lot of opportunities are up for grabs. We are signing many new partnerships with Universities and agents all over the world, and hopefully, 2021 will be a very positive year for us.
Your final thoughts?
Daniele Cosentino: I believe this pandemic has been a big test of resilience. Businesses that have not been able to evolve have simply died, and the ones that survived proved their worth. Even in the eyes of investors, the pandemic has helped screening which teams and projects were able to adapt and which were not, so I believe that everyone that will manage to survive this will have a bright future in front of them.