Business

The model who set up a luxury travel firm after a dare

Stephanie Chai
Image caption Stephanie Chai had no experience of running a travel business

It's often said that the inspiration for starting a business can come from anywhere. For Stephanie Chai it was a dare.

A former model and TV personality with no experience of running her own company, in 2012 she was challenged by a male friend to actually pursue her dream and build an Asia-based luxury travel website.

"It took me five minutes to decide to do it," says Stephanie, who at the time was living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Stephanie's friend sent her links to a few travel websites to look at, and after some research she realised there was a gap in the market for a travel firm that took the flash sales and last-minute deals popular in the mainstream marketplace, and applied them solely to the luxury sector.

"At the time the whole deal thing, the Groupon thing, the flash thing, was really trending," says the 33-year-old.

"I was naive and wide-eyed, and I just decided to do it."

Image caption The company focuses on the luxury travel sector

So with no experience whatsoever of running a travel company, Stephanie set about creating her website and business, The Luxe Nomad.

Four years later and she says the Singapore-based firm is now seeing annual revenues double despite the competitive nature of the travel market. At the same time Stephanie is regularly cited as one of Asia's leading young female entrepreneurs.

Backed by multi-million dollar investment, she is now preparing to launch a Mandarin-language version of the website early next year, ahead of entering the giant mainland China market.

'Huge learning curve'

Born in New Zealand to a mother of Italian origin and a Malaysian father of Chinese ancestry, Stephanie spent most of her childhood in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

After school she returned to New Zealand where she did a degree in finance and international business at the University of Auckland.

Image caption Stephanie Chai (third from right) has an all-female team

A modelling career followed, before TV presenting work in Singapore and Malaysia, and then seven years later The Luxe Nomad.

Putting 60,000 Singaporean dollars ($43,000; £35,000) of her savings into the business, Stephanie decided to launch the firm in Singapore rather than Malaysia because of the former's more established start-up investment community.

After explaining her idea to investors, outside funding soon arrived.

"I met five different investors [in Singapore]. I got two offers, and I took one," she says.

Image caption Stephanie, pictured here as a young child, spent most of her childhood in Malaysia

With enough money in the bank, Stephanie also needed to learn about the technology behind building a travel website, and so asked a technologically minded friend to show her how a number of existing sites worked.

She then hired some programmers to build what she wanted, and despite "a lot of bugs" to begin with, The Luxe Nomad was born in July 2012. Stephanie wanted to help empower other women, so built an all-female team.

Having spent the previous six or seven years "basically only working one or two days a week as a part-time model or TV presenter", Stephanie says running a full-time business was a "huge learning curve".

The power of celebrity

In its first month of operating the company saw sales of just 2,000 Singaporean dollars, and as Stephanie admits: "That included one booking I made myself."

She explains: "My god brothers reminded me that it's bad luck in Chinese if you don't make a sale on the first day. So I quickly bought my best friends a holiday."

Image copyright Stephanie Chai
Image caption Stephanie spent seven years as a model and TV presenter

While business was slow to begin with, Stephanie came up with a cunning plan to ensure sales took off - she would ask friends who were regional celebrities to do some promotional work.

"I offered them a holiday to some amazing places on the basis that they would review it for me, and post pictures of themselves on regional media.

"Then I went to the hotels to tell them we had a celebrity coming to review their property.

Image copyright Luxe Nomad
Image caption Australian-based model Shiralee Coleman is one of many celebrities who have been on The Luxe Nomad holidays

"[It was] a win-win situation - we didn't pay anyone, the hotels were happy, and our celebs were happy.

"It was one of the reasons we got ahead, and the reason we have 110,000 followers on Instagram today. We got a lot of press immediately because of the celebrity angle."

Stephanie adds: "To be an entrepreneur you have to be a little bit of a hustler. And so that's what I did."

'Don't join the herd'

As The Luxe Nomad has grown, Stephanie has also changed its main focus.

While the website still has occasional flash sales, since last year it lists hotel rooms that you can book at any time, but without discount.

Image caption The website now lists hotels and villas around the world

It also now offers luxury villas for hire, and has expanded its geographic reach from Asia to worldwide. It currently has some 1,500 properties on its books, 700 hotels and 800 villas.

Steve Hafner, co-founder of US travel website Kayak, says that Stephanie was right to expand The Luxe Nomad's focus away from just hotels.

"This is a very difficult space to compete in," he says. "Especially for small companies who don't have the scale and inventory of global players like Booking.com."

Looking ahead Stephanie says she would one day consider selling all or part of the business "if we found the right partner", but stresses that she feels very responsible for her team. All staff on the payroll remain female, but the business does now also employ male contractors.

In the meantime she is committed to the company.

"One of the reasons we've got through so far is about being positive, about never giving up, they are important traits," says Stephanie.

"And also, don't join the herd."

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