Scanning the skies: Helping Asian travellers to compare prices


Entrepreneur Martin Symes has one clear piece of advice for anyone starting a business: "It's going to take longer and cost more than you think."

But he has managed to survive such problems and his business has grown from nothing to 80 employees. Spotting a gap in the airfare market 10 years ago, Martin Symes left a career as an airline executive to move into travel e-commerce.

Before the launch of Singapore-based Wego, Martin Symes worked at airlines such as British Airways and American Airlines. He knew that Asian travellers who wanted to compare prices and shop around for airfares were not well served.

"I lived in the US in the mid-90s and dinner party conversation was…'hey I just got this great deal to go somewhere for $300,'" he says.

"I went to Europe in around 2000, same thing was happening there post-deregulation…Whereas in Asia…there's high season fares and there's low season-fares."


The lack of readily-accessible information about airfares encouraged Mr Symes to set up a specialised search facility presenting customers with a comprehensive list of available fares.

The launch of low-cost airlines in Asia and the take-off of the internet at around the same time proved invaluable. According to Mr Symes, "a whole new set of markets… opened up [of people] that simply couldn't travel before."

He adds "The people that are going to come to Wego are highly price-sensitive…So we're trying to present the whole range of options to them and let them make the decision as to where they buy it and how they buy it."

Martin Symes confesses that the business model wasn't original. He says that he and his partners "admired a couple of other people in other parts of the world in the US and Europe and what they were doing and very much copied them." But he points out that "over time we've evolved our own model to the uniqueness of the markets that we're really focused on."


Having worked for multi-nationals, Mr Symes admits that there were personal challenges to overcome when he started working for himself.

"I love the freedom that doing something like this gives you," he says, but adds that "you are your own boss to some extent yet at the same there is…a lot to get done and if you don't do it, it doesn't happen… It's like perceived freedom rather than real freedom."

He has also found the collaborative approach of a start-up company less efficient at times than big corporations.

"In a corporate you have the positional power that goes with the title and the corner office…which makes it a lot easier to get things done. Whereas here we probably spend more time debating what the right thing to do is and getting everybody onboard," he explains.

Still, he admits the agility of a small business can be refreshing. He says that in big business "the power struggles between departments…between the revenue management people, the sales people, the fleet planning, capacity planning people etc. are very, very significant and take a lot of time to work through" while in "a small environment like this, you can make those sort of cross-functional decisions much more quickly."

New travellers

Image caption,
Low cost airfares have led to a sharp increase in travellers in Asia

Martin Symes believes one of the most exciting things about the industry has been the huge growth in the number of people willing to make travel bookings online.

"One of the biggest challenges of setting up an online business is convincing people to do things differently to how they're used to doing it."

He's convinced that with a new generation of computer-literate people in South-East Asia there is plenty of room to develop and expand.

"There's already been extraordinary growth and there's extraordinary potential still out there."


Despite Singapore's relatively small domestic market, Martin Symes believes he has benefited from launching Wego there four years ago.

He says that while setting up was more expensive than it would have been in nearby countries, costs are lower than in the US and Europe, and he was able to benefit from generous government grants.

Others have not been so lucky, he says. "There are a lot of people here that I've met along the way who have done some really cool stuff and then just simply had to give up because they can't afford to go on," he recalls.

For Mr Symes, funding is a priority when starting up your own business. He encourages would-be entrepreneurs to strongly consider their location and the financial help available to them. "It isn't Silicon Valley here… I don't think the ease of finance is the same in this part of the world."

Asked to sum up his advice about entrepreneurship, Martin Symes is pragmatic. "I think it's something that a lot of people should try at some point in their lives, but it's certainly not for everybody."

Since Peter Day interviewed Martin Symes, Wego has announced plans to merge with HolidayIQ, an internet travel firm based in Bangalore, India.