His customers are multi-millionaires who expect to be blown away by once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Chang Theng Hwee of Singapore-based Country Holidays Travel tells Brian Higgs how his job is about transforming dreams into reality, and why going niche isn't just about being pricey
Chang Theng Hwee
Founder & managing director
Country Holidays Travel
Tell us more about your products.
Our most expensive is the Antarctic programme. The resort guests stay in has only six rooms, each with a private plunge pool, and the cost ranges from US$9,500 to US$16,000 per pax.
However, Africa is definitely my choice for ‘most luxurious’. There’s just something about the place that makes people want to splurge. Whether it’s observing elephants in their natural habitat, enjoying champagne and quality cuisine under the stars, staying in accommodation equal to a Four Seasons...it is truly the experience of a lifetime.
We also have 12 to 15 Signature Departures per year. These are our top-of-the-line products, with a maximum of 16 persons per group. Perks include entrance into the State Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia before it opens or a private visit to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
Wow, we’re impressed. Were you always in the travel business?
I graduated with a banking degree from the National University of Singapore in 1988 (he’s 48 now). Even as a student, I was actively involved in Rovers, a club which provided fellow students with travel services. We organised adventure expeditions to places like the Himalayas.
After leaving school, I continued to organise travel for friends and family. Having done the math, I realised it was a lucrative business and decided to strike out on my own in end-1992. I spent a year mapping out the strategy and finally launched Country Holidays in early-1994.
When we first started, it was just my wife (Siew Yim) and I. She handled operations, while I was in charge of sales. We concentrated on niche products such as hiking in Nepal, India and the Himalayas, and adventure travel in Africa. Our strategy at that time was creating in-depth cultural trips to exotic destinations.
Why the niche?
When Country Holidays first started, travel consultants in Singapore were mostly focused on run-of-the-mill trips to Europe and the US. They didn’t have any notion of adventure travel or tailor-made itineraries. If you really love travel, however, you won’t go for such products.
As a general rule, we never feature the usual Disneyland or common sights. Unique itineraries in familiar destinations is our strategy now.
We believe that we should only market places where we have been to and would love to visit again. Whichever destination we sell, one of us (in the company) must have been there.
Travelling and selling travel should be about passion. I’m a firm believer that if you’re passionate enough about something, you’ll definitely end up doing it well. These days, we can effectively cover so many destinations because many of our consultants are avid travellers themselves.
“A lot of companies start out in a niche by assessing how lucrative it can be... We don’t want to be just another expensive agency.”
What sets you apart from other luxury operators?
Even though our products are high-end in terms of price, it’s not just about featuring Michelin-star restaurants or five-star hotels. A lot of companies start out in a niche by assessing how lucrative the segment can be. We don’t set out to make our customers pay a lot of money and we definitely don’t want to be just another expensive agency.
We believe in catering to our customers’ exact interests and tastes, allowing them to visit destinations they really want to visit, do the things they really want to, and in the process gain an in-depth, meaningful and insightful experience. You need to have a deeper understanding of what you want to do for your chosen niche.
Who are your clients?
Most of our customers are aged 40-65, and are a mix of legal and financial types, professionals, business owners, doctors and even politicians, including seven ministers from the last two Singapore Cabinets.
Our products need a base of sophisticated, discerning and well-heeled consumers who more often than not aren’t first-time travellers. We need markets where we can graft out a distinct competitive advantage and where there are unserved needs.
Back in 2000, we started to feel the limitations of the Singapore market, but were wary of expanding overseas. However, during the SARS crisis in 2003, which really affected our business, we realised the need to venture abroad to tap larger markets. China was booming at the time, and we opened our first overseas office in Shanghai in 2003. We opened an office in Hong Kong in 2004 and expanded to Beijing in 2005. After that, we finally decided to take a breather and consolidate (laughs).
Now, Country Holidays employs about 50 staff across offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Singapore. We operate in Indochina, China, India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, Middle East, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.
Right now, 45 per cent of our business is from Singapore; Hong Kong contributes 30 per cent; Shanghai 20 per cent; and Beijing five per cent. As for the client mix, it’s 50-50 expatriates and locals in Singapore, while in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, the majority are locals.
How much are you focusing on China?
I believe there is a huge untapped luxury travel market in China. In April, we launched a new brand called Jun Chi (‘galloping gentleman’), targeting elite Chinese travellers. Many travel firms say Chinese elite travellers only go for luxury products and don’t know how to appreciate the subtle things in life. I don’t believe this. The Chinese have over 3,000 years of history and culture, and based on our own experience, they seem highly capable of appreciating the culture and essence of a destination.
Hong Kongers and even mainland Chinese are very sophisticated travellers. They view destinations very differently from our Western and English-educated clients. When they visit Russia, for example, they’re a lot more interested in the country’s communist past. And before they head to Africa, they’re already aware of concepts such as a migration safari.
How have your customers across markets evolved?
(A decade ago), our customers weren’t so sophisticated. Now the situation is different, and they are travelling everywhere.
In the past, we were able to recommend places like Singita (Game Reserves in Africa), and they would say ‘thank you’ and take the package. Nowadays, they’re more demanding. We have to give them more variety, more options, and really value-add to the product.
It has a lot to do with our own knowledge as travel consultants. These days, so much information is already available over the Internet, and staying relevant to the consumer is a constant challenge.
This article was first published in TTG Asia, July 13, 2012, on page 8. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.