Down to Business: Wendy Wu

Anna Walker

We spoke to Wendy Wu, the travel industry entrepreneur and pioneer behind Wendy Wu Tours.

Tell us the story of how your company came about…

It was 100 per cent by accident. About 20 years ago I had booked a big four-week holiday to China for my partner and I. We were going to see all the highlights like the Great Wall and the terracotta warriors, plus all the beautiful hidden places that I knew about.

About two weeks before the trip, my partner was offered a new job. He had to decide either to either stay and take it or leave and the opportunity would be passed to someone else. I was the ambitious one, so I said, "You must stay. You can travel any time, but this is your career."

So he stayed, but as all the trips were paid, as were the flights, accommodation and tours, I thought, Okay I want some money back. I placed an advert in the local paper asking if anybody would like to accompany me—they could pay their part and in exchange, I would be their guide, because of course, I speak Chinese. I couldn’t believe how many people called.

Many obviously phoned because the trip was such a good value, but they also said, “Wow, this itinerary is so comprehensive. It covers all the things we want to see, plus the things we don’t know.” So, I felt good. But then nobody could go because visas couldn’t be organised at such short notice. 

I went alone but realised that I was onto a very good thing, that this was a service people needed. By the time I went on the trip I had already started thinking, Okay how can I put this together? 

 

Wendy Wu
Wendy Wu in London

 

Have you always been business minded?

One day, one of my friends—who has his own business—was going to China and 26 of us gathered to say goodbye to him at the airport. Every single one of those friends has their own business. I remember when I came back I told my boss, “You know what? I never want to have my own business. Because all my friends are so obnoxious!”

Of course, we are friends, but as their friend, I can see their shortcomings. They all think a lot of themselves. That [mentality] became a fundamental thing that I wanted to stay away from—the strange, small business mentality.

But then after I set up my business, I got to know a lovely and wonderful community of nice, small businesses. They were very courteous and never got into their heads. They are very grounded. I try to be one of those. 

 

the great wall of china

 

When did you first know Wendy Wu Tours was going to be a real success?

I knew people wanted to these tours because they had said, ‘We want to do it, but we can’t do it’. After having those conversations, I began to feel I should do it. 

I said to myself, “You know what? I promise I will do it.” By the time I went on the trip, in my head, I had formed almost an obligation that I would do it. So while I was in China I was finding the companies we now work with and interviewing guides.

There was this one guy, I was testing his English. It was okay, but I started to enjoy his calm manner and his thorough attention to detail. I thought that any customer would love him and so I decided I would use him. His name is Fung and he’s now my MD in China.

 

What’s your proudest business achievement?

In 2003 there was a huge outbreak of the SARS virus in China. Hundreds of people were dying. Before that, our business was tripling. We just grew like there was no tomorrow and then, everything fell to the ground.

The owner of one of the largest tour companies Australia is my personal friend. He asked me, “How is your business?”  I said, “Literally, everything has stopped. No bookings. Nothing. We are almost done.”

At that time, we only toured China. We had just started to plan for Vietnam, Cambodia, Southeast Asia. There was only China and that market was literally killed overnight. 

"The market was literally killed overnight"

My friend said, “Okay, you have to be careful. First thing, you make sure all the annual leave has to be used now. After that you need to cut down your staffs’ working days, so they work four days. Then it will preserve you and you will be able to last longer, otherwise, you will go under.” So I did some quick calculations. We were very lucky. Financially, we are very well disciplined, so we had a very healthy margin.

I said to my team, “This is what Allan told me, to cut, to do this.” But I said we wouldn’t because we had enough money, even without one booking, one tour, to last for 12 months. So I told them, if I have a job, you have a job, so don’t worry about it.

After that, we became the number one [tour provider] for China because we didn’t ever stop. I think I feel most proud of that—even when SARS happened, we didn’t decline in that year, we still had a 3 per cent growth.

 

Who are your role models?

I have quite a lot! Of course, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, I think they are so inspirational, and they have changed the whole world. And there are also some people I know personally who are an inspiration. 

 

wendy wu tours

 

Have you ever felt you faced particular challenges as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

Sometimes I actually feel that [being a woman] is almost an advantage.

My MDs are very experienced in the industry and much older than me. So, I think the fact that I'm a female, and much younger than them is an advantage because they put up with me. [Laughs] If I throw a tantrum and challenge the boundaries, they just think, Okay.

"Sometimes being a woman is an advantage"

There is a disadvantage as well because in that way, when I started out, I was spoiled a little bit, so during the very rare times where I don’t work with an MD, because I want to fix up some foundational issue, I have to work directly with the business. I find it challenging because the MD are older and wiser and they put up with me. Whereas other team members who cannot meet my expectations can have a very hard time because I'm very demanding. That is a challenge. I'm still learning how to overcome that.

 

What advice have you received that has shaped your work?

My dad always said to me, life is like rolling a boat against the current. If you are not moving forward, you're already moving backwards. Because of that, I am always compelled to continue to go forward.

 

cambodia with wendy wu

 

Where is your own favourite place to travel?

I travel a lot, but the places that changed my life are Cambodia and Laos.

While in Laos, I ordered orange juice, but everybody said not to have ice, because you may get sick. So I told the waiters I didn’t want it with ice. 10 minutes later my orange juice still hadn’t arrived, which is usually terrible for an impatient person like me. Eventually, the orange juice came, and it was hot. The waitress had misunderstood why I said no ice—she thought I wanted it hot, so she boiled it!

Normally, even at the coffee shop, I'm very impatient and I’ll say ‘Where’s my coffee’, but while I was in Laos I was so chilled out. Why? Because everybody is chilled out. It’s almost like the whole country is on drugs that and I felt the same. [Laughter]. So that trip really changed me. 

Another trip that changed me was Mongolia. In Mongolia it was so cold—in the morning it was minus five degrees but the people there were so warm. It’s so wonderful. I stayed on a yacht and it was such a beautiful experience. I love nature more than anything else and that trip connected me 100 per cent with nature. It was like my soul was touching the sky.

Last year I went to South American with my two sons. They're only 11 and they’re wonderful, the best travel companions. They're very lucky, in getting to travel so young and I hope that it makes them have a broader view of the world.