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Travel boss thrives under pressure

Published on Friday, 02 Jul 2010
Susanna Lau
General manager of Hong Thai Travel Services
Photo: May Tse

Susanna Lau, general manager of Hong Thai Travel Services, is a Hong Kong success story. Beginning her career at the agency as a junior clerk in the late 1970s, she has worked her way up the ranks, in almost every department, from tour coordinator to branch supervisor, and corporate development. Appointed to her current position in 1987, she oversees around 900 employees, and is responsible for rolling out new products, improving services and motivating her staff to remain at the forefront of a rapidly changing industry. She talks to Andrea Li.

Which management principles have you found to be most important?
Consistency, setting a good example, and taking responsibility are the most important principles. You need these values in order to lead people forward. The fact that I have grown with the company and worked in so many different departments has helped shape me into an all rounder. At the management level, this has been of a considerable advantage.

Which professional achievements have given you most satisfaction?
When the tourism industry hit rock bottom during SARS, for both inbound and outbound travel, I launched local tours for Hong Kong people as a way of reviving the industry. This was very successful and many tour operators soon followed.
In 2006, I also launched the “On Your Own Tour” to meet market demands. The product combined guided tours, airport transfers and check-in and check out services with independent travel to give travellers the best of both worlds. It was for this campaign that I was awarded the Distinguished Marketer award in 2007 by The Hong Kong Management Association and TVB.

I am also equally proud of my other awards which include HKU SPACE’s Distinguished Alumni Fellowship and the international alumni of the year award from Edinburgh Napier University, my alma mater, where I earned a Master of Science in marketing in 2007.

At this stage of your career, what do you find most exciting about the tourism industry?
What I find most exciting- the unpredictability and volatility of the business- also happens to be one of the most challenging aspects of the job. I get a buzz out of dealing with ad hoc situations from protests in Bangkok to the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

As we cover so many destinations, any news event in the world is likely to impact any number of our tours and requires us to act quickly and decisively.

This work requires me to think creatively, from many different angles, before taking balanced risks, and coming up with a solution.

What were the toughest challenges in your career?
Economic downturns have posed significant challenges. During these difficult times, the key is in figuring out how to turn crisis into opportunity. Identifying a competitive edge through service is also not easy particularly as all tour operators tend to offer very similar services.

How competitive is the industry?
Even though the outbound travel market is quite saturated, there is still ample room for development as Hong Kong people have more financial resources at their disposal and a greater opportunity to travel.

The growing competition may focus on the fundamentals of service, price and product, but it is equally important to build and protect your brand. Our brand is a valuable asset. For our customers, our brand stands for our long history, comfort, convenience and reliability.

What changes do you expect the tourism industry to undergo? 
Consumers these days are savvy internet users who value convenience. It is important therefore to keep up with the times and broaden our company’s business model from a face-to-face consultation approach to encompassing online and call center capabilities.

Several years ago, we already launched a platform for customers to make their own air and hotel bookings through our website. By the end of this year, our website will also be able to take tour group bookings.
Though we will still retain our one stop shop travel services approach, we will also continue to offer a growing number of new products and services to meet the preferences of an increasingly sophisticated customer base.

What advice do you give to the young people of Hong Kong?
My advice is grow from your failures and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid of failing and making mistakes. Remember you only learn if you make mistakes. With smaller families these days, young people are growing up more protected and spoilt. Consequently, they give up too easily and are reluctant to confront their own failings. This is a huge contrast to when I first started work. There weren’t many job opportunities then and I had to give my family half my salary so I would persevere whenever I encountered a problem.

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