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Adventure-seekers at Erongo Mountains in Namibia on a BMW trip.

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SONJA PIONTEK, CEO OF SONNENKIND.

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KRYSTAL TAN, CO-FOUNDER OF BLUE SKY ESCAPES.

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A monastery in Punakha dzong in Bhutan.

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First light in the Peruvian Andes.

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JENNY LIM, CO-OWNER OF AURELIUS TRAVEL.

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Jenny Lim flying over Victoria Falls in a microlight plane.

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Slovenia is a popular destination with Aurelius's customers.

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CHRISTIAN TSENG, DIRECTOR AT AMALA DESTINATIONS.

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The Tiger's Nest Monastery is one of Bhutan's most iconic spots.

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Lech Valley in Austria - one of Amala's European destinations.

Fantastic Journeys And Who Can Find Them

Four people who never expected to go into the travel business are giving big players a run for their money with highly personalised itineraries that promise even the most seasoned traveller an unforgettable experience
Aug 17, 2018 5:50 AM

SONJA PIONTEK
CEO OF SONNENKIND

Sonja Piontek's previous job revolved extensively around travel, so when she quit to be an entrepreneur, the focus of her new business was a no-brainer.

The 42-year-old was marketing director for BMW Asia when the time came for her to be transferred back to Germany. But she had already been living in Singapore since 2014 and wanted to stay, since she could see more opportunities for herself here.

"I love the momentum and I also find the local people and system reliable," says the global citizen who has lived in six countries and speaks five languages, including her native German.

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With many entrepreneur friends here, she found the encouragement to leave the corporate world. She now drives the operations at travel agency Sonnenkind, which was set up last November.

The bespoke company organises trips for high net-worth individuals, many from her social and professional network. At her previous job - where she worked for 13 years - she was attached to the motorsports division BMWM, and part of her portfolio included arranging luxury travel and driving experiences for hundreds of clients.

Despite an already saturated travel industry, Ms Piontek believes "there's still an unplugged market. There are a lot of high net-worth individuals in Singapore and South-east Asia who have seen the world,  stayed in the best hotels, and could eat at any Michelin restaurant they want, yet what they cherish are experiences which are out of the norm for them."

Ms Piontek draws on her own insider access to offer such experiences, which included arranging for her guests to have lunch at the staff canteen of a BMW manufacturing plant in Germany on one occasion. It turned out to be one of their most memorable experiences from the trip, according to the post-trip feedback.

Her biggest clients include brands such as Leica and Porsche, who approached her to showcase their products through special travel experiences for private clients.  One such trip was to South Island, New Zealand, in April this year. In September, she will send a group of Vietnamese clients to Namibia, where they will drive off-road into the dunes and see the wildlife. There will also be photography workshops led by Leica.The 11-day trip costs S$15,000 per person.

Another stand-out trip she planned was a one-week, adrenaline-filled itinerary for a Singaporean celebrating his 50th birthday. "He started the trip with a motorcycle race in Hungary, then flew to Munich where he and his group had breakfast with the CEO of BMWM, and toured their facilities, which most outsiders won't get access to," she says.

The core of Sonnenkind's business comes from B2B work, at 40 per cent. Trips for private clients form about 20 per cent, while the remaining 20 per cent comes from arranging overseas training workshops for business owners.

To date, Ms Piontek has organised six trips. She is already planning trips for next year, including one to Greenland.

Singapore forms 40 per cent of her client base. Vietnam, where "the high net-worth individuals are hungry for special experiences", and Malaysia are her second-largest markets.

"I don't see myself as a tour operator. I engage in strategic brand-building for companies by engaging potential clients through travel," she says. "Ultimately, it's about making a difference to people's lives through unforgettable experiences."


KRYSTAL TAN
CO-FOUNDER OF BLUE SKY ESCAPES

In 2014, Krystal Tan held a day job as a lawyer when she started her first travel company,  Andean Condor Voyager (ACV), to cater to adventure-seekers wanting to go trekking in Peru.

"It was meant to be a side gig," says Ms Tan, 30, who co-founded ACV with her fiance Chervin Chow and Peruvian trekking guide Heimer Guillen Celestino. But even without much marketing, ACV's reputation spread by word of mouth.

In 2015, while still working as a corporate lawyer at Allen & Gledhill, she and Mr Chow decided to expand beyond Peru into Bhutan. Blue Sky Escapes was born, and they sent their first client there in November that year. In 2016, they added Mongolia to their portfolio.

Between 2015 and 2017, Blue Sky's bookings grew 40 per cent to 50 per cent year on year. It broke even within the first 20 months, which prompted her to quit her lawyer job.

"Running the travel business and holding down a full-time job got to be too much, and I had to pick between the two," recalls Ms Tan.

In the last 12 months, business has grown threefold. Sixty per cent of Blue Sky's bookings are for Bhutan, followed by Mongolia and Peru at 20 per cent each.

"I want to expand the depth of our offerings beyond the central and west of Mongolia," says Ms Tan, herself a keen traveller. Myanmar and Yunnan are also on the radar. The focus is on remote destinations for now, but Ms Tan doesn't rule out more developed countries in the future, as "experiences will drive the expansion of the business".

Her target clientele includes millennials already in the workforce -  the tired and time-strapped with spending power not too unlike herself, she says. Currently, 40 to 50 per cent of her clientele are Singaporeans, the rest comprising expats in Singapore and around the region, and clients from the United States and Europe.

Blue Sky is also moving into customising retreats. It recently arranged a spiritual and fitness retreat in May in Bhutan. "This was our testbed," says Ms Tan, who adds that they are developing more retreats for other interests, such as humanitarian or craftsmanship.

One dream itinerary that she has put together is the Mongolian migration experience, where guests get to join the active migration of nomadic families between their summer and winter camps.

"They could help with packing and vaccinating the cattle and horses, which could easily number 300 to 400," says Ms Tan. "Then they can ride on horseback across the breathtakingly beautiful Mongolian steppes and the Altai mountains."

What also sets Blue Sky apart from other bespoke travel agencies is that "we don't put ourselves out as luxury", says Ms Tan. She does get requests for "no-expense spared" bookings - she is currently putting together such a trip to Bhutan for 100 family members and friends to celebrate a family matriarch's birthday. But Blue Sky will also work with clients with a budget of US$250 to US$300 a day.  

Communications specialist Jeanne Lim spent US$4,000 on her seven-day trip to Bhutan last November, staying in a mix of accommodation from a home stay to the five-star Como Paro. "Staying with a local family really helped me connect to the local culture," says the 40-year-old.


JENNY LIM
CO-OWNER OF AURELIUS TRAVEL

At a time in life when others her age are enjoying their autumn years, Jenny Lim  is embarking on a whole new career.

"I feel there must be more to life than just playing mahjong," says the 79-year-old who first started an enrichment centre for primary school kids called Yang Guang Chinese Enrichment Centre in 2016, before starting Aurelius Travel almost by accident. She had also started an agency to help mainland Chinese parents scout for schools around the world to send their children, "and they were always asking for travel advice". So, she thought, "Why not go into the travel business?"

Mdm Lim has had little work experience - she worked briefly at Fourways Travel on Bond Street in London when she was in her 20s - but she's been travelling all her life. When she was 11, her grandparents - her maternal grandfather was the late property magnate Wee Thiam Siew, for whom Thiam Siew Avenue is named - took her to Japan.

Dazzled by the sights of the cherry blossoms and hot springs, Mdm Lim was hooked. This was the start of a lifelong passion that saw the adventurous woman flying in a Cessna plane over Mount Cook in South Island New Zealand in the 1970s - when she was seven months pregnant.

"Travel opened my eyes to how others live and I want to share this enriching experience with others," says Mdm Lim, who has two children (now in their 40s) with her late businessman husband.

With her lack of experience, she hired a former Country Holidays staffer, Connie Lai, who was originally supposed to manage the enrichment centre but switched to Aurelius so her expertise could be fully harnessed.

Still, it was challenging in the beginning. "People asked why they should choose us over other travel agencies with a proven track record," recalls Mdm Lim.

Bookings from her friends helped them off the ground, business grew by word of mouth. To date, Aurelius has organised 40 trips, mainly to South America, Africa and Eastern Europe, and 90 per cent of their clients are Singaporean.

They are also well-heeled, splashing about US$16,000 for a seven-day trip to Antarctica, or US$13,000 for a nine-night trip to see the wildebeest migration in Tanzania.

One unique trip they organised was for a chef who wanted to visit an artisanal knife factory in Japan, which normally does not accept visitors. "We made it happen for him and he was very pleased," she says.

"We find out what our customers want and we try to give these to them," adds Mdm Lim.

They include businessman Arthur Lim, 66, who splurged on a S$14,000 per-person trip to Peru and Bolivia last month, and enjoyed "significant savings" compared to a more established company. "I chose them because I knew one of the travel planners who was from another agency. She was very thorough in planning my trip."

As for the future, Mdm Lim says that they want to focus on what they do well. "Let us grow - we are just a baby," adds the sprightly lady with a twinkle in her eye.


CHRISTIAN TSENG
DIRECTOR AT AMALA DESTINATIONS

He may be in the bespoke travel agency business but surprisingly, Christian Tseng doesn't like travel at all.

"I am in the trade purely for sentimental reasons," he says. Mr Tseng, 31, took over his mother's business, Amala Destinations. The agency - set up in 2011 by Tseng Ee-Cheng - is one of the pioneers of luxury travel from Singapore to Bhutan. She passed away in her sleep a month after a stroke in late 2016. She had a reputation for being warm and sincere, and left a deep impression upon many of her clients and those in the travel industry.

"Eighty to 90 per cent of our clients are those who went to Bhutan on trips that we arranged," says Mr Tseng. Currently, Singaporeans make up 70 per cent of their client base, while Filipinos form the second largest group.

In the two years since Mrs Tseng's death, Amala has expanded its offerings to include Europe, Japan and other cities in Asia. The Amala client enjoys authentic local experiences but also prefers luxury digs. Seventy per cent of bookings are for Bhutan, while the second best-selling destination is Japan.

Given how his family - his three brothers and his father, Paul Tseng, a renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist - were busy with their day jobs, it fell on Mr Tseng to pick up the baton.

"I was the only one who was jobless," says Mr Tseng with a laugh. Despite its success, Mr Tseng says that he doesn't draw a salary from Amala Destinations.

"My official status is a postgraduate student at Nanyang Technological University," says Mr Tseng, who is doing a masters in film studies at the university's School of Art, Design and Media. He is also involved with overseeing a property - the Amala Villas Ubud, which his mother built in Bali.

He earned his Bachelor's of Art in communications at Marymount Manhattan College at the age of 29. He is in charge of branding and copywriting for the Amala brand. While he leaves the day-to-day operations and sales to three key personnel out of a team of five who "are a lot more passionate about travel", he is looped in on everything and makes the final decisions.

Two of his trusted "generals" in the business used to work for his mother. Managing director Anand Pereira had left Amala but returned to help out a year after she died.  Director Amanda Chua had been freelancing at Amala as a consultant for about a year before joining Mr Tseng's team full-time.

Despite what Mr Tseng says about not being an avid traveller, he has a clear idea of where he wants to take Amala Destinations.

"We want to focus more on Asian destinations. We want to be an 'Asians for Asia' firm," says Mr Tseng.

Business has picked up so much that Amala turned cash positive in 2017.

"My mother was doing everything by herself," he says. "Profitability wasn't such a big issue as my father was funding my mother's dream although of course, my mom worked very hard to to make the business successful."

Amala sold trips to 200 people in 2017, compared to around 70 before 2016. A 10-day trip to Bhutan for a couple, with a mix of mid-range and luxury accommodation options, costs around S$15,000 through Amala.

Mr Tseng is confident about the future. "Our edge over the bigger bespoke travel companies is our personal networks," he says.

"We've heard from customers that some of the larger players don't really know some of the destinations they sell. They rely on a local destination market centre (DMC) to handle bookings for guides, the itinerary, and the details of the trip," he says, adding that some companies even let staff who have not personally been to Bhutan sell the destination.

He adds: "At Amala, the team is wholly committed to servicing one client while they are on a trip. In some larger firms, one staff could be servicing as many as five clients at one time," he adds.

"My mission is to realise the dream my mum had for Amala," says Mr Tseng. "She wanted to help the local people of Bhutan economically through tourism. And she wished for people to see what she saw - what happiness meant through the eyes of different people around the world, like the Bhutanese."