Travellers who have booked a holiday from bespoke travel company Country Holidays would know Chang Theng Hwee. The Singaporean started the firm in 1994 and it was the first in Singapore to offer trips to Antarctica.
In January 2018, Country Holidays was acquired by international luxury tour agency Scott Dunn, to form Asia’s largest bespoke tour agency.
Mr Chang, 53, always had a passion for travel. When he was in primary three, he asked his father for a street directory, and enjoyed poring over maps. During his university days, he organised adventure expeditions to off-the-beaten-track destinations.
The first tour he led was with a group of university friends to trek in the Himalayas, even though he had never been there. Using a guidebook, he led the trek for 10 days without a local guide.
Friends joked that Mr Chang should start a travel company specialising in exotic places. He did just that.
After graduation, he worked in a bank to earn enough money to start Country Holidays with his wife Tan Siew Yim.
As the Scott Dunn Asia CEO, Mr Chang oversees operations in its Asian offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Dubai.
Country Holidays was your baby. Why did you let it go?
It wasn’t an easy decision to make. I founded the company in 1994, and along the way, there were various suitors. Scott Dunn approached me in 2016, and both companies have a lot in common. Andrew Dunn, the founder of Scott Dunn, founded a travel company because he loved skiing, and I founded Country Holidays because I loved hiking in the Himalayas. Along the way, both firms developed into luxury travel companies. We have a crazy devotion to customer service and we share the same business ethos. Simon Russell, Scott Dunn’s CEO, chatted with me and we got on well. But it took another year and half of chatting before I agreed to the acquisition.
Being acquired by Scott Dunn will take Country Holidays to great heights. With Scott Dunn’s scale, marketing experience and professional expertise, I will be able to take what I’ve built with Country Holidays to a different level.
This acquisition is also a personal learning experience for me, as well as a better career move for my Country Holiday staff. It was an exciting time, when I finally signed on the dotted line.
The next step is to combine the work cultures of both companies and to integrate our technical systems. We are also looking into how to be an international company and yet retain the local flavour.
What makes Scott Dunn different from other luxury tour operators?
With the acquisition, Scott Dunn now has offices in London, Dubai, San Diego, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. It means we are open 24/7. Guests can call up at any time of the day or night, and we are open. It also means that if they need assistance, even at 2am, regardless of where they are, there will always be someone who can help them.
Scott Dunn started as a ski company in 1986, and today we run our own ski chalets in the Alps, and we have our own villas in the Mediterranean. We have our staff at these places, which means clients have their own nanny, chef and butler who are all trained by Scott Dunn.
On top of personal bespoke trips, Country Holidays started the Signature Departures programme in 2012, where we have 20 scheduled trips in a year for groups no bigger than 16 people. These are bespoke group trips, such as our popular hiking gourmet trips in France and Japan, where clients go on a easy hike, followed by meals in remote, exquisite restaurants and accommodation in luxury boutique hotels.
We are most proud that all our travel specialists have personally gone to the places which they sell, so they fully understand each location inside out.
Is there still a need for tour operators, since anything can be found on the Internet?
Tour operators like Scott Dunn can give you the exclusive experience at a location, where you don’t have to jostle with crowds. This is something that you may not be able to get even if you search for “off the beaten track” places on Google. For example, Google may say this particular spot is great for viewing sunsets, but is it really the best? Since our consultants know each location personally, they will be able to point out even better spots. We bring you to places and give you experiences that you cannot find on Google. Besides, we also take away the hassle of dealing with multiple bookings, such as airlines, accommodation and sights, for time-starved travellers.
What are your thoughts on the luxury travel market?
When Country Holidays first sold luxury tours in 2003, the luxury travel market then was more straightforward. Giving clients a stay in a five-star hotel, with a top-end rental car was enough.
Today, you have to let them do what they like, since clients now have more say in where they want to spend their time and money on. True luxury is having something that is tailor-made to your taste. The sky is really the limit. I had a client who chartered two 16-seater private jets for her group of 14 friends, just so that each person could have one seat for themselves and a seat next to them for their handbags.
Which have been your most memorable holidays?
My wife, our three kids and I have gone on many trips together, but there are two that stand out. The first was a trip to Antarctica, where we kayaked with whales, and admired the large expanse of icebergs. The second memorable trip was to Kilimanjaro. We trekked up the mountain, and I am not kidding when I say it wasn’t easy. I remember I reached the summit with two of my kids and we wanted to take a picture. I was sitting on a rock, and it took me a good 20 seconds to get up for that photograph. The trek was that tiring and I still remember it. Our family is adventurous, we love roughing it out, but we also like spoiling ourselves.
Which destinations are on your bucket list?
At last count, I have been to 116 countries. It sounds like a lot, but there are 250 countries in the world so I still have a long way to go. I do want to go on a cruise to Ghana and the Ivory Coast. I love experiencing local stories, in this case, about the slave trade. I have also not been to Ukraine or Belarus, so I do hope to visit them one day. My staff help me plan where to go and what to do in each country, since they have been there themselves.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.