The next-gen travel leaders

Young, ambitious and ready to rev up their business to greater heights, here are some of Asia’s next-gen CEOs

Indonesia | Pauline Suharno, 36, managing director, Elok Tour

22-august-pauline-suharnoPauline Suharno took over from her father Jono as managing director of Jakarta-based Elok Tour two years ago, a position she earned after many years of hard work in the company.

“I started working for my parents (her mother handles finance in the company) when I graduated from tourism high school in 1997, doing ticketing and hotel reservation. I worked in the morning and went to college in the evening, taking management subjects,” said the second-generation leader.
Her association with the travel business, however, started much earlier during her childhood. “While other families spent school holidays travelling, my parents were busy serving them as it was the peak season,” she recollected. “They took me to work to show how busy it was in the office…They showed me how many tickets they needed to sell to buy me shoes, to pay for school.”

Besides recognising the value of hard work, the early exposure to the travel business also taught her the importance of delivering high service standards to meet clients’ needs, a concept that remains core to the company despite a changing business environment. “This business is about serving people, so keeping up good service should always be the key to keep up the business.”

While other travel firms set up in the ‘70s have grown to handle volume-based and group series travel, Elok Tour remains a medium-sized company specialising in ticketing and outbound travel, with an eye on catering to more niche segments like FITs, premium FITs, families and small incentives.

“Our clients are those who like to be pampered; they communicate more by phone (as opposed to emails), requiring a lot of assistance from the planning stage to the end of the trip,” she said.

One of the changes Pauline had made to the company was to steer it towards a travel consultancy with more tailormade products. “We provide clients with one travel consultant as their point of contact to handle all their needs,” she said. The company now boasts nine travel consultants and 50 staff.

Pauline sees further growth in niche services as Indonesians are becoming more affluent travellers.

“We have had clients of just two people but requiring a private guide. Also, there are companies giving out (incentive trip) bonuses to suppliers or presents to clients of only three to five people in a group. These are the kind of clients we are catering for,” she added.

“This allows me to keep learning from problems and finding ways to solve them. This also improves my capacity as an assessor (of travel consultant certification),” said Pauline, who also sits on the executive board of the Association of Air Ticketing Companies in Indonesia as deputy secretary general and the Association of the Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies (ASITA) Jakarta Chapter as business development coordinator.

Pauline envisions an industry where players big and small have a chance to grow. “ASITA has approached NTOs to organise fam trips and include the SMEs because some of them also handle MICE groups. And the more travel companies are familiar with the destinations, the bigger the chance for the NTOs to grow the market,” she said.

By Mimi Hudoyo


Vietnam | Pham Ha, 39, CEO and founder, Luxury Travel

22-august-phamhaPursuing a tourism career was a natural option for Pham Ha, a Vietnamese native with a penchant for the good life and a strong interest in foreign languages – backed by a trio of degrees in French, English and business administration.

“I chose tourism as a career as I find it the happiest job in the world,” said Pham, who started guiding tours during his student days in the 1990s. “I can meet many people from different cultures, personalities, hobbies, backgrounds as well as new challenges, and a job well done makes people happy and me happy.”

His exposure to high-flying international visitors through travel guiding would shape his life outlook and career. “Thanks to them, I have developed a good taste of life and know how to live a good life. They come as foreigners but leave as friends,” he shared.

As Pham built up experience in the tourism industry in roles ranging from operations to sales and marketing, it deepened his desire to introduce Vietnam’s beauty to more foreigners; it also led him to identify a gap in high-end, tailormade travel at a time when budget, low-quality service was the call of the day and luxe resorts and international-standard golf courses were still far and few between in the country.

With just “US$1,000, one person, one laptop and one website”, Pham founded Luxury Travel in 2004, positioning the company as a luxury tour operator specialising in privately guided, fully bespoke and experiential travel experiences.

To that end, the tourism entrepreneur has designed training programmes for each of his staff – whom he calls “Luxers” – to ensure they embrace professionalism and a positive attitude when engaging with customers.

Now, a decade later, the Hanoi-based DMC boasts offices throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, in addition to representative offices in California, London, Paris, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Brisbane and New Delhi.

Last year, Luxury Travel unveiled its new B2B website and established a joint-venture company – Asia Premium Travel – in Cambodia.

As well, the ambitious Pham has sights set on realising another dream: to be the owner of a luxury cruise boat. Come end-2014, he will launch Emperor Cruises in Halong Bay, a 10-cabin traditional Vietnamese wooden boat featuring six-star, all-inclusive cruising experience with butler service.

“We want to create an experience that touches the heart and senses of the most discerning travellers. Our customers will be served like feudal emperors,” said Pham, who believed his latest venture would enable him to tap the unexploited ultra-luxury market.

By Xinyi Liang-Pholsena


Thailand | Chotechuang Soorangura, 33, associate managing director, NS Travel & Tours

22-august-chotechuang-sooranguraChotechuang Soorangura cut his teeth as a marketeer for brands such as ExxonMobil, Thanachart Bank and Procter & Gamble. Two years ago he decided to follow his younger twin brother Chatchawan into the travel business their father Suparerk Soorangura, the current president of the outbound-focused Thai Travel Agents Association, established 35 years ago.

Following in their father’s footsteps is no mean feat when you consider the network of businesses he has developed over the past four decades.

“It’s more of an empire really,” said Chotechuang as he detailed some of the companies within the group, including NS Travel & Tours, which takes up 80 per cent of his time; the recently launched World Collection Travel that targets outbound MICE; Transasia Express, which boasts a fleet of 100 coaches and 30 vans; and Serenata Hotels & Resorts Group, which has a portfolio of 15 properties.

“Were lucky to have a highly experienced team, more than half of them have been with us for 17 to 20 years,” he said. This brings its challenges, however, especially when it comes to using new technology and social media, something he is trying to hardwire into the company’s DNA.

“I recently had a client say if we could not talk to them via Line (a social messaging app) he would go to another company, so I set up the account straightaway. The problem is some of our staff still don’t like using email, let alone social media.”

Chotechuang has already improved the design of NS Travel’s website and enhanced its search engine optimisation, and is looking at more contemporary ways to market the company. “One of the challenges is trying to adjust the company culture so we can attract enough new blood to keep us strong in the future while making sure we listen and learn from the experienced staff who have been with us for years.”

EC Vacation is one of his other innovations due to come online imminently. The business will work as a wholesaler for domestic tour operators. “No one has really looked at this type of wholesaling in Thailand before because it’s a high-volume, low-margin business. But I’m convinced it’s a viable idea as every tour operator is looking for customers today and customers still value service, so we can support both sides.”

By Greg Lowe


Hong Kong | Jason Wong, 33, general manager, Hong Thai Travel Services

22-august-jasonwongThe son of Jackie Wong, who founded Hong Thai Travel Services in 1966, Jason Wong was groomed for the tourism world from young by his dad and naturally took on the family business upon graduation from university in 2003.

“Tourism is an eye-opening industry which exposes me to various cultures as well as challenges. I like gaining new knowledge, and the travel business trains both my adaptability and flexibility. In fact, being innovative is always our company motto,” said the younger Wong, who became the helmsman of the company three years ago.

“This particularly applies to our tour products. We think out of the box by working with different media and tourism bodies to explore new products, for instance, gourmet tours guided by celebrity chefs and the introduction of exotic destinations like Ethiopia and Brazil exclusively guided by travel guru James Hong,” he added.

The company has also worked with Tourism Australia to produce a series of short movies promoting outbound travel Down Under.

“Group travel has moved into a more insightful and personalised format. Moreover, we are stepping into a new emerging market – overseas wedding services,” Wong revealed.

Amid a burgeoning FIT market, Wong will continue to enhance Hong Thai’s successful position as a travel retail store by fine-tuning the company’s online platform through the roll-out of a wider product range that includes group buy special offers and online air ticketing functions.

“Hong Kong is such a convenient city so many clients still rely on frontline staff support at branches,” he said. “Still, social media channels like Facebook can’t be underestimated – our Facebook page now has the biggest number of fans (among travel agencies in Hong Kong) at around 100,000.”

Network distribution is key for Hong Thai, which currently boasts 24 branches in Hong Kong, China and Singapore. The opening of a joint-venture office in Shenzhen last September under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement has enabled the company to take advantage of the vast Chinese outbound market.

By Prudence Lui


India | Ankush Nijhawan, 36, managing director, Nijhawan Group

22-august-ankush-nijhawanAnkush Nijhawan is a third-generation leader at Nijhawan Group, a New Delhi-based travel conglomerate with diverse interests across the technology, hotel and airline representation domains.

Although the baton has been passed to him, Nijhawan said it is his own passion for the industry and the myriad of opportun
ities available that keep him going. He joined the business in 2000 and became the managing director in 2004. Since then, his focus has been on establishing the company as one of the leading players in India.

“We are working in 14 countries today and are hopeful to take this tally to 30-35,” he revealed. “Now our aim is to be the largest B2B player in the world.”
In particular, Nijhawan has been focusing on the company’s technology products to make inroads into international markets including South-east Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

As part of its branding and business alignment process, the company has brought its existing products, Travel Boutique Online (TBO), Techmaster and the recently launched, under the ambit of the TBO Group.

“Through TBO we have a strong inventory of domestic and international airlines, but now through we are looking to further strengthen our hotel inventory. We aim to be one of India’s top two B2B players in the hotel business through” now allows  real-time booking of over 200,000 hotels worldwide, he said. “We have ensured a hassle-free booking experience for travel (consultants),” said Nijhawan.

He is also looking to aggressively market Techmaster, which offers a range of travel technology solutions for travel agencies, tour operators and consolidators in emerging countries.
“We have been exporting technology solutions to international markets including the Middle East and Africa. Our target now is to tap markets like the Far East and Latin America. We have purposely not sold technology solutions in India as the market here doesn’t value intellectual property,” said Nijhawan.

By Rohit Kaul


Philippines | Aileen Clemente, 40, president and chairman, Rajah Travel Corp

22-august-aileen-clementeAileen Clemente, president and chairman of Rajah Travel Corp, has brought the family-owned business into the high-tech age and transformed it from a travel agency into a travel management company.

“Rajah Travel is always evolving. We are always looking for ways to streamline operations and enhance processes. We have created new departments and shifted the organisational structure several times, always with a view to create a stronger team,” said Clemente, who just turned 40 in May.

“In recent years, we have also put extra focus on the digital and technology aspects of the business. We have upgraded our website to allow our clients to book online and harnessed the power of social media to communicate directly with our clients and partners.

“We are also reaping the benefits of technology, specifically cloud-based solutions. These have allowed us to move away from heavy capital expenditures and shift these to operating expenses,” Clemente enthused.

“We have improved our branding and created our own product lines. I am most fond of Funtastic Vacations, which we started for the Philippines. These are more theme-based itineraries and not just the usual city breaks that our competitors are selling,” she added.

Clemente’s work at Rajah Travel officially began 17 years ago, but unofficially she had been involved in the business since childhood. She said: “I have fond memories of helping out on tour runs and creating marketing collaterals when I was still a kid.”

Rajah Travel was founded 42 years ago in 1972 by Aileen’s parents, Joe and Alejandra Clemente. She said: “I continue along this path as I share their pride for the country and their vision of contributing to the economy through the multiplier effect that tourism generates.

“Also, this is more of a stewardship for me. I believe in the jobs we create and the families we help. Most of our current employees are the sons, daughters, relatives and neighbours of our previous employees,” said Clemente. “In all honesty, this is my family.”

By Rosa Ocampo


Malaysia | Chris Ng, 38, managing director, MP Travel & Tours


When the previous owner decided to part with MP Travel & Tours in 2010, Chris Ng, then the firm’s general manager, saw further growth potential in the company. He bought over the business and has since been running the agency as managing director.

“I wanted to take (the company) to the next level,” recalled Ng. “At the time, inbound comprised about 80 per cent of the total business revenue, outbound made up 10 per cent of the business and 10 per cent was from visa (processing) – we were the official outsource travel agency for the Singapore High Commission in Malaysia for the acceptance and submission of visa applications and collections.

“I have diversified the company’s business by growing the outbound department and corporate business,” he said, attributing the outbound business growth to strong support from airline partners such as Malaysia Airlines and LCCs like AirAsia.

“Prior to 2010, most of our outbound business was retail. Today, retail leisure business makes up only 30 per cent of our outbound business revenue while the remaining is outbound corporate business.”

Today, both outbound and inbound business revenue are almost equal for MP Travel & Tours, revealed Ng, while the company has also expanded its share of corporate business.

“There is less risk in servicing corporate outbound travellers as this is a year-round market, compared with leisure outbound which is seasonal. There are also higher margins in handling corporate outbound,” he remarked.

The next step in the business is to upgrade the company’s B2B online booking engine, to allow tour packages to be booked online, and to develop a mobile phone application so that rooms and packages can be booked on the go with instant confirmation.

Ng said: “We need to stay ahead of the game as I see the usage of smartphones to make bookings as a future trend. We plan to develop this app within two years.”

With a self-confessed immense love for his job, Ng finds personal satisfaction in taking the business to new heights and believes that innovation is key to growth.

“The challenge is to do things differently and to service your clients well,”

he stressed. “Everyone sells inbound tours to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi and other places. We offer more variety. We have culinary tours, cycling tours and packages for health tourism.”

By S Puvaneswary

This article was first published in TTG Asia, August 8, 2014 issue, on page 64. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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