Wendy Wu talks to Juliet Dennis about expanding in to South America, building a river cruise ship and watching Carry On films
It is not often you meet someone as full of passion, enthusiasm and determination as Wendy Wu.
Her company, Wendy Wu Tours, is 20 years old this year, and her excitement about the business is as fresh as the day she founded it.
Indeed, so keen is she to talk about her vision for the company that, as she talks animatedly, she accidentally knocks over her cup of tea. But she’s not about to start crying over spilt milk – or tea, for that matter – because to all intents and purposes the business couldn’t be in better shape; it is enjoying another record year and there is no end of new plans in the pipeline.
The operator reports growth of 75% over the past three years, with double-digit growth each year in revenue and passenger numbers.
Referring to 2018, Wu says: “We are in a record year in terms of revenue and profits. We are already ahead of last year and we still have six months of the year to go.”
The company is no stranger to growth. It recorded 26% year‑on‑year revenue growth both last year and in 2016.
The hard graft has paid off, with the business making it into the top 10 of The Sunday Times’ Profit Track Ones To Watch list for 2018.
And the good news for agents is that within the business mix, trade and direct sales are growing at a similar rate. Wu says sales revenue from the trade has doubled over the past four years.
“Our trade business has been driven by having the right people in the business as well as new product,” she says.
Since the business started in the UK in 2005 as a China specialist, it has broadened its product portfolio to mirror business out of its other markets, Australia and New Zealand.
Wu says it was a deliberate decision to focus purely on China out of the UK at first before embarking on new destinations.
After China, it set its sights on southeast Asia, then India – for which sales are up 100% year on year – and Japan before launching South America this year.
Wu believes the company’s ability to work with different cultures has helped it make a success of destinations such as Japan.
“The majority of operators have difficulties offering Japan but we had the know-how,” she says.
“Our Japan business took off. We used our knowledge of China and southeast Asia to help us overcome the challenges.”
South America is now the operator’s major new focus.
“We want South America to be as big as China for us,” Wu says. “South America is again a different culture and it will be a completely different challenge.”
It means developing relationships with new airlines to a destination in which it has no track record.
“It will take time,” admits Wu. “People might think we don’t know about South America because of the Wendy Wu Tours name, but if our call centre staff are knowledgeable we will be fine. We will overcome the challenges.”
If, as Wu hopes, the South America programme reaches the size of its China offering in five years, passenger carryings will be around double those of today.
Wu values the personal touch so highly that this week she is embarking on a seven-week trip through Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil with her two children to sample the product herself.
“That’s what makes us specialists and stand out,” she says.
“I will meet every DMC and look at how we can improve.”
The operator’s ambitious growth plans would also not be possible without the support of the trade, says Wu.
To this end, the company is putting much of its energy behind boosting its support for agents by restructuring its sales team.
The current team will double in size to eight, with the introduction of two business development executives reporting into four existing business development managers, a new global destination management company and key account manager role and a further member of staff in its head office trade support team.
“We value the trade fully and want to give it added focus as part of our growth plan,” Wu adds.
Not only will agents hear and see more of Wendy Wu’s team on the road, the operator has also just joined Tipto, which will enable it to showcase its broader product range to a larger base of agents. Wu hopes joining the marketing body will help the operator spread the word about its destinations to agents who currently only book China through the company.
Agents already have the chance to go on discounted trips to experience its destinations, and apply for a place on four or five group educationals each year.
It is normal practice for business development managers to contact agents who have made an enquiry to see if they can help them close a sale. The operator launched a bookable website a year ago and encourages agents to book online for an extra 0.5% commission.
It’s not just South America that Wu is focused on. The company has just put together its first “medical tourism” tour, is planning dedicated solos trips and is building its first river cruise ship, the $10 million The Mekong (Travel Weekly, July 5), in a venture co-funded by a Vietnamese firm.
“We always wanted to have our own ship,” says Wu. “It’s both very exciting and a challenge.”
The ship, to be sold through Wendy Wu Tours and third-party operators, is due to sail from 2020.
And Wu has one more project up her sleeve for this year.
In September, the company will launch the Wendy Wu Foundation. This, she says, will enable the company to fund projects in its destinations and give staff and customers an incentive to generate more revenue for good causes.
It will also provide a legacy for Wu in recognition of her business’s achievements and commitment to helping the destinations it sells.
Perhaps, then, Wu will sit down and relax for five minutes over a cup of tea. Yet somehow that seems unlikely.
60 seconds with Wendy Wu
Q. What’s the last book you read?
A. Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography
Q. Where is your favourite holiday destination?
A. Nine Villages Valley in Jiuzhaigou, is one of China’s most beautiful secrets. It’s dotted with Tibetan villages with a backdrop of snow‑capped peaks, crystal‑clear turquoise lakes and waterfalls. It’s a very personal place for me and somewhere I go to switch off, recharge, refresh and be at one with nature.
Q. What do you enjoy doing on holiday?
A. The perfect holiday for me is a mix of mountains, lakes and nature. I love walking and taking long hikes through the forest.
Q. What do you do in your spare time?
A. I love reading, watching films and hosting dinner parties. I enjoy cooking for people.
Q. What’s your guilty pleasure?
A. I’m a huge fan of Carry On films. One of my favourites is Carry On Cruising.
Q. What do you enjoy most about working in travel?
A. It’s a happy, fun and creative industry with the opportunity to meet wonderful people and see amazing destinations.
Q. What one thing about the industry would you change?
A. Expectation. Travel is a fun industry but sometimes we forget how important it is to continuously strive for growth and development in all we do.
Q. What job did you want to do when you were at school?
A. I wanted to be Bill Gates’ PA.