Bank on Mustique – Interview with a banker who runs her own luxury travel business on the side

London is best known for its weather. Once again, it lived up to this notorious reputation with snowfalls and freezing conditions that crippled airports, closed schools, and made everybody look like Eskimos.

If there’s any upside, it is the enhanced experience of sipping Cappuccino in a warm coffee shop. People took refuge and piled into any places indoor, and I found mine right next to the Bank of England, in the heart of London’s financial district, aka “the City”. Grand buildings made of limestone, tailor-made suits and shining shoes constantly remind passersby where they are. Even the tube station is called, quite simply, “Bank”.

It is here I met Sophie, a Shanghainese girl who believes life doesn’t have to start after banking, and proved it by pursuing her passion to set up her own company, all the while being a banker. She showed all of us that banking doesn’t have to consume all of your life and you actually can have the best of the both worlds, so long as you have passion, curiosity and guts.

ME: Thank you so much for talking to me. It’s been so long since we were at university, could you remind me again what you did since graduation?

S: Sure. I stayed to work in London after school and was with Morgan Stanley’s M&A team for three and a half years. I left in 2009 to join a boutique advisory firm and have been there since.

ME: Why the move?

S: It’s quite interesting actually. A few years back, someone very senior at MS left the firm after over 20 years of service to join Lehman Brothers, and transferred all his stock holdings into Lehman shares.(OOOPS!) Obviously in 2008, the bank went down and he lost a lot of money overnight. The guy later said that it was a “refreshing” experience. (interesting choice of word, I would have gone for “gut-wrenching”) The reason being, he woke up the next morning, despite of losing in financial terms, he still had good health, family, friends and clients who would still call him for advice. Nothing really has changed except for those figures on the bank statements. He also had a moment of “epiphany” to realize that as long as the same people who trusts you for your advice, they will pay you for it! which is why, with a  couple of other partners, he set up a boutique advisory firm to bring back the old school “trust based” corporate finance business.. He wanted to build a team of truly trustworthy problem solvers instead of empty suits. After hearing him talk about his vision, I was inspired and decided to join them.

ME: That’s an amazing banker! At which point during the process did you start thinking about starting your own business?

S: I have always enjoyed spending generously while going on holidays (it’s the only valuable time spent with friends and family!). Of course, it’s just a personal preference, some girls love branded bags or spending money on shoes, whereas I enjoy a flawless travel experience. At the beginning of 2009, I went on holiday to the island of Mustique in the Caribbean Sea and it all started from there.

Mustique is an amazing island with ultimate privacy and a simple yet luxury lifestyle; it’s a place where one would go every year. I was really surprised that very few people know about it in London. This is where I got the wild idea that, maybe I could help people to discover amazing places like this. There must be so many others out there! So while I was in Mustique, I talked to the management company that runs the island and they are also very interested in having somebody introducing new clients to them. The seed of the business venture was sowed at that moment.

Later in the same year, I changed job and had two and a half months in between, and I decided to formally set up the business.

ME: Interesting. How exactly does the business work?

S: My typical client would be a senior officer at a bank, say a MD or a Partner. They have little time to spend on planning their holiday, but really wants to make it worthwhile for their family and are willing to pay for it (although value for money is always important). SoluxTravel (http://www.soluxtravel.com) comes in and we provide a tailor-made service to them.

For example, I would first receive an email/call from a client, stating that he or she is thinking about going on holiday with a family that includes two small children, to somewhere warm with a beach, but has less than five hours of time difference. I would then prepare a PPT research report with a few options that fit the criteria. The client would then pick 1 or 2 places out of these and I would provide more detailed information on the selected target destinations. Once they decide on the final choice, I would make the booking for them. I then also liaise with the hotel before and during their stay to make sure everything is up to standard and they get a little extra.

The business model is simple, my clients pay the hotel or resorts directly, and the hotel then pays me a commission. I don’t take any client money, so, for them, it’s really a free service. You can see that given the small commission rate and not charging extra from the clients, it is only worth my time if the client going for high-end resorts for a long-ish period of time, Although, once they’ve known me, they also come for weekend trip ideas etc, which is also nice to work on.

ME: Sounds like a straightforward business model. How much business have you gotten so far?

S: Well, on average my client would spend US$10,000 per trip, and in the last two years I’ve helped to plan around 20 trips. Most of the business comes from 4-5 clients who I regularly serve, and another 4-5 clients who are referred by my existing clients.

ME: That’s some handsome money made on the side. Does it take a lot of your time?

S: I haven’t hired anybody yet so everything is done by me. A typical presentation with 5 pages takes 3-4 hours to prepare, and I usually send it to clients within a week of getting the request, or even a couple of days if their request is very specific. But of course it takes a lot of time to keep up-to-date with the industry so I regularly read related magazines, go to industry forums to meet counter parties at various hotels and resorts. This is fun for me, it’s my hobby anyways. Sometimes I have to get up early or stay till 2-3am to make oversea calls and prepare the research, but I don’t mind doing it!

ME: Sounds like a good money-making hobby to have. Does it ever interfere with your work?

S: Not really. The clients I have usually start planning their holiday 3-4 months in advance, so there’s plenty of time to plan things around. I only use my free time in the evenings and weekends, so it is quite manageable given the size of the current client base and the fact that I don’t work in a big bank so no need for face time

Some people at work know that I’m doing this on the side, but it’s no big deal.

ME: I’m curious how easy it is to set up a company in the UK.

S: It’s pretty straightforward. The company is registered as a limited company and to be registered as a travel agency, I also needed two sponsors. So the contact I made at Mustique was one of them, and I approached Aman Resorts (http://www.amanresorts.com/) to be my other sponsor. Once I explained to them what I was doing, they were very supportive and sent their London representative to meet me. The whole process took 1 month.

ME: What are your plans for the business going forward?

S: Because it is a niche market and a very localized business, I think the room for growth in the UK/Europe is relatively limited. I would love to access the China market though. It’s going to take a while to educate the market, letting people know what luxury travel is. There are a lot of rich people there but many of them may not see the value of a hotel being a destination in itself. i.e., it is not just for sleeping, it’s the whole experience.

The potential is huge but a lot of work is needed and I would need to be on the ground. Unfortunately I am not moving back to China immediately due to personal reasons, but it would make sense to work with a local partner.

ME: What would be your criteria for choosing local partners in China / Asia?

S: First of all, you need to be really into luxury travel. The work is only interesting if you yourself are into it, otherwise browsing through details of resorts could be very boring. Personally, I try to go to as many destinations as I would recommend my clients to (and I enjoy a travel agent discount), so I am in a position to give them first handed advice. If you don’t like it yourself, it is also hard to understand what the clients are looking for and be on the same page with them (some can be quite pandemic and specific, think quality of the bed, softness of the sand, within certain timezone, small things like that).

Secondly, some banking skills and mentality would be useful. Our product is just the advice given in the form of a presentation, so not dissimilar to banking. Also, most of my clients are in the financial industry, it would be helpful if you know their mindset, what they look for, and how they work. For example, I send things to them always in blackberry-friendly format and I am always on standby to answer my client’s calls and emails.

Thirdly, a curious mind is very important. We are constantly looking for new and interesting destinations for clients and it makes a big difference if I am the first to introduce a certain place to someone. It’s a bit like introducing potential M&A targets in that sense.

As you can imagine, people like that are hard to come by!

ME: There are a lot talented people in Asia and perhaps when they read this, they will contact you to be your partner! Switching gears for a minute, how did you think about entrepreneurship? Did you do it because you were unhappy with banking?

S: I actually enjoy my current banking job, mainly because the nature is different from what I got from MS and because the seniors I work with are great individuals and I learn from them about life. My entrepreneurial spirit has always been there, so the idea came naturally when I visited Mustique. If I had 20 more clients, then I might consider doing SoluxTravel full-time, but at the moment, I am quite happy with the status quo. Plus, the connections made from my day job could also help with the side business.

ME: I guess it all came quite naturally to you. Do you have any advice for those who are thinking about doing the same thing?

S: If you are thinking about it, stop thinking and start doing! There’s so much unknown in a business that the only way to know is by doing. It is especially the case if the idea you have don’t require that much start-up capital.

ME: Thank you very much for your time. Last question – where do you recommend I go at this time of year?

S: I would recommend Amanpulo (http://www.amanresorts.com/amanpulo/home.aspx), it is a resort situated on the private Philippine island of Pamalican. It has the whitest and softest sand beach, one of the best I’ve seen in a totally private and comfortable setting. Cost is around USD1,000 per night.

If you are into skiing, I would recommend Schneider Almhof in Lech, Austria (http://www.almhof.at/) for a true alpine experience.

ME: Great ideas. Hope I can check them out one day.

As I was walking out of the coffee shop and into one of the coldest winters England has ever had, my mind drifted to the exotic island of Mustique. I saw myself lying by the beach and sipping margaritas with little umbrellas on it.

Finding what you want to do, is it really that hard? It all seemed to have happened very naturally for Sophie. If I asked 100 people whether they would like to have a small business on the side as a hobby, and at the same time make some money, I think 99 of them would say yes. But why aren’t people doing it? “I never thought about it.”, “I don’t know what I want to do”, “I don’t have the time” are perhaps the common answers, or shall I say, excuses. Well then, why not start thinking about it? Why not put in the time and effort to really try to find out what you want you do? If an investment banker can find the time, I’m sure most of us can.

At dinner on that same day, I overheard a conversation from the table next door, a man was saying to his friend: “My worst fear in life is that I will never find what I really want to do”. I think it is the “worst fear” for many of us. So how shall we deal with this fear? As a psychologist would tell you, the best way to overcome fear is to confront it. If you’re scared of spiders, you should put them on your palms. If you’re scared of the lift, you should ride it repeatedly. If you are scared of not knowing what to do in life, then you should keep thinking about the question, stay in the feared situation until it begins to subside.

I believe the answer is out there. We just have to find it.

<The End>

Written at Taylor St Baristas on 7 February 2012, on behalf of www.life-after-banking.com. All Rights Reserved.

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