Sun Tze’s Art of War is not just a definitive piece on military strategy. Today, over 2,000 years after it was written, it is also a bestseller on business strategies. One of the philosopher’s better known axioms is: “Know yourself, know your enemy; in a hundred battles, win a hundred victories.”
So when Boh Tuang Poh, 57, wanted to start a business 17 years ago, one would have thought he would heed Sun Tze’s advice. However, Boh, who wanted to be his own boss, decided to launch a business in an industry totally new to him — online hotel reservations — despite his 10 years in aerospace and 10 years in measuring instruments.
At that time reservations were still being made through fax and mail and his friends in the hotel industry also gave him the thumbs down. “No point doing this,” they said. “Nobody will book (hotels this way).”
But Boh had a strong hunch that the travel business and then fledging Internet would make a good fit. He thought consumers could be willing, or won over, to give online bookings a chance, and he could make money in the process.
“I was attracted by the power of the Internet. In those early days, it offered everyone, big and small, an equal chance,” he says. So in spite of the odds stacked against him and Sun Tze’s sage advice, he decided to take the leap. And Lady Luck was on his side.
Fast forward to the present: Boh is the founder, executive chairman and chief executive officer of Asiatravel.com, the largest independent publicly listed pan-Asia online travel reservation service provider. It was set up in 1995 as an online hotel reservation company and listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2001. Boh is the single-largest shareholder in the group which owns a large fleet of coaches in Singapore and is one of the biggest tour operators in the Republic.
At Asiatravel.com’s head office in Toa Payoh, which houses over a hundred staff members and which he describes as a mini United Nations, Boh explains his business rationale: “I saw the potential of the travel industry as more and more people were traveling and Asian economies were starting to take off in a big way. I thought with the increasingly widespread use of the Internet, companies, agencies and individual travelers would find an online reservation service more convenient and cost-efficient.”
Asiatravel.com has a wholly owned network of operations and customer service offices in nine countries and regions: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland, India and the United Arab Emirates. Its five partner offices are in Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Vietnam. The group’s services are available in 10 languages — English, Mandarin, Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, Japanese, Korean, French, German, Spanish and Arabic. The employees too are from different places, including Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, France, the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.
Boh attributes his success to a number of factors, like being in the right place at the right time and having the right business partners. He also considers himself lucky. “I think the element of luck plays a part in business,” he says. But when business gets increasingly complex and competitive with quantum leaps in Internet technology, he believes in good old-fashioned hard work to stay on course.
“Our core hotel reservation business faces intense competition as more online global players enter the Asia Pacific travel and tourism market,” Boh says, outlining the challenges. “We are cautious about direct competition, which will incur higher advertising and promotion expenses.”
To address the competition, Boh took a hard look at key customer elements, such as service, convenience, and benefits, and came up with a comprehensive marketing plan to grow within Asia and beyond. To make individuals and companies think of Asiatravel.com each time they book hotel rooms, buy airline tickets, or plan holiday packages, the group has rolled out its latest product innovation: Online flight, hotel and tours packages or simply flight and hotel packages. The offerings take him a step closer to his goal to be a one-stop Internet travel service.
Boh says developing the packages required years of online and offline domain knowledge, strong local presence in the destinations, a vast product network, strong in-house IT expertise and an established brand.
The flight, hotel and tour packages come with instant confirmation across multiple markets. “These online packages will attract customers who book their travel packages through traditional offline travel agencies,” he says. Offline travel packages still account for a large portion of total travel spending and present a growth opportunity. Boh claims Asiatravel.com can deliver customer savings of up to 30 percent with its packages versus booking airline, hotel, tours and attractions separately.
With the new products, the company will move beyond inbound Asia travel to outbound travel from Asian markets to worldwide destinations and eventually, vice versa. For now, the product covers departure markets such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, the Philippines and the UAE. Regional marketing partnerships and advertising efforts in these markets are being shored up to create brand awareness and booking volumes.
Some years ago, Boh identified a market segment that appears to have strong potential as Asia continues to grow and prosper. Asiatravel.com offers flights with stopovers. For example, from Singapore, you fly to Hong Kong, stay a few days there and then go on to Taipei before returning home.
“The multi-stop flights segment is indeed under-served,” says Boh. “Of the flight tickets we sell, about 10 percent are for multi-stop itineraries. We should do better if we could create awareness in the broader market, which is still buying via the offline channel.”
To emphasize Asiatravel.com’s competitiveness, Boh has developed the Asiatravel Cash Reward Program, which offers up to 5 percent cash back to customers on their travel purchases if they meet a minimum level of bookings. For example, a customer who accumulates S$2,000 ($1,587) worth of package bookings on credit cards within six months gets a cash rebate of S$100.
Asiatravel.com is also developing interest-free payments, starting with a minimum spend of S$500, through credit cards, initially for airfares and eventually for tour packages too.
Other activities in the pipeline include leveraging on co-branding partners from financial institutions, membership-based loyalty programs, travel fairs and cash vouchers. It will also intensify collaboration with its business partners, such as financial institutions, corporations and membership organizations, to leverage on their customer networks and membership databases to attract more customers.
However, while gearing up for a full-scale marketing effort, Boh realistically accepts the fact that in the short term, the company’s bottom line may be affected by the weakening of its core online hotel reservation business as global players with huge resources muscle in. Asiatravel.com’s new products, on the other hand, will need time to achieve scale. So he remains cautiously optimistic about the strong online travel demand in Asia Pacific, hoping the new innovations will ensure a sustainable growth path in the long run.
The passage of time and the experience of developing Asiatravel.com in the past 17 years have won Boh recognition in the industry, including “Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year Award 2002” from the Singapore Tourism Board. He is now mellower and more receptive to advice, unlike the early days when he was raring to go and believed mainly in his own convictions.
Looking back, he reflects, “There were some missed opportunities, and there were things we did right. But I am very passionate about the business and still have lots of ideas. And yes, (today) I am less inclined to rely on luck!”
Perhaps now is the time to consult the Art of War for advice on flanking and outgunning the enemy.
BOH TUANG POH
Executive Chairman, Asiatravel.com
1995: Founded Asiatravel.com
2002: Wins Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year Award by Singapore Tourism Board
I was lucky my hunch was right when I started the online reservation business. But now, I am more inclined to listen to advice. I don’t think one can be lucky all the time.
The next big idea:
Every other day, there is something I want to do. I still have a lot of ideas. But I am focused on growing Asiatravel.com right now.
Person you admire most:
My late mum. She was a unique, entrepreneurial person. She reared chickens in our Siglap home backyard, and I would help her collect about 300 eggs a day! I probably picked up my entrepreneurial instincts from her.
What do you do for your own holidays?
I take family holidays, though I haven’t done so in the last two years. The last time was to Beijing. Before that we had yearly family holidays. Australia would be our favorite destination.
I am married with two sons and a granddaughter.