A little dream set stephanie chai's feet on the road to entrepreneurship
“Dream a little. Travel a lot,” is the motto that The Luxe Nomad lives by, and one that has taken the travel start-up from its days in 2012 with just three employees in an apartment, to its status now as an internationally recognised booking portal and property management company with USD 3 million funding and 50 employees across Asia and the world. And behind The Luxe Nomad’s success? Stephanie Chai, the young entrepreneur with a vision.
When she launched The Luxe Nomad, she came from a completely different background: travelling the world from a young age as a model, juggling fashion shoots with university work and subsequently turning her back on a lucrative TV hosting career to disrupt an industry that at the time she knew nothing about.
Still, travel has always been a part of Chai’s life. As the child of a New Zealand mother and Malaysian father (and both entrepreneurs), multiculturalism literally runs in her blood. “I grew up in a small city called Kuching in East Malaysia,” she says, “and the population was around 300,000 people at that time. I remember my school had only 60 children in my year and everyone knew everyone. Travelling was such a welcome little escape from my hometown.” She was always destined to travel the world. After attending boarding school in New Zealand, she graduated with a major in Finance & International Business at the University of Auckland – at the same time that her modelling career took off. “I found myself flying to different parts of Asia during my holiday breaks for work. I think it’s safe to say that since the age of 18, I haven’t stayed in one place for more than two months!”
But it’s not just a love of travel that inspired Chai to take the plunge into the business world. From young, she’s always known that she wanted to be an entrepreneur (even sending off a business pitch for a new beauty product to Clinique while she was in middle school). “My parents had such confidence in me, I never felt that I couldn’t do anything I set my mind to,” she says. “My dreams were always very important.” Her first dabble into entrepreneurship was the launch of Wedding Guide Asia in 2009, an online directory of all things bridal-related just at the time when there was a surging appetite for all things digital and a growing community of online suppliers.
With Wedding Guide Asia, Chai showed a keen sense for what consumers needed and how to get it to them. Next came the launch of The Luxe Nomad in 2012, a portal that connected travellers to the best flash deals on luxury villas across Asia. It was popular, of course – everyone loves discounts – but Chai knew she couldn’t rely on that wave forever. The Luxe Nomad then transitioned into a villa booking site, as competitors failed to adapt and began dropping off the scene. And this was not just any average booking site. Soon there were over 1,000 villas on the site, from Bali to Mykonos, Samui to South Africa, but focusing on luxury villas in Asia. The numbers were there, and so was the customer service.
“What distinguishes The Luxe Nomad from any other booking site is the level of care we provide for our guests,” says Chai. “Anyone can just book you into a nice villa, but we created our concierge team to help guests with the entire holiday experience. We’ll help you get the reservations you want, get champagne delivered at the right moment, book you in for a healing session. And of course organise all the transport in between!” All along, Chai was involved in every aspect of the business, from finance to operations to marketing, even crafting copy for individual Instagram posts.
She couldn’t do things on her own forever. In 2016, Chai hired a Chief Operating Officer – a major milestone for the company, and one which saw sales increase year on year. Then came the launch of WanderLuxe, The Luxe Nomad’s very own digital travel and lifestyle magazine. Again, Chai saw a gap in the market and rose to fill it, creating a reliable resource and leading travel voice in the Asian market. The Luxe Nomad team was steadily growing, and with it a company culture that Chai personally fostered. “I have an instinct about the right people for my team,” Chai says. “It’s intuition!” She tries to keep the office environment a friendly one, but balances the art of being an approachable yet authoritative leader, with employees who enjoy their work and know when to knuckle down. As such, it’s a close-knit team of like-minded people who share the same values: honesty, commitment and persistence. And of course, a love of travel.
The strength of the team has led to The Luxe Nomad’s biggest milestone yet. In 2017, Chai once again predicted a seachange and began to acquire villas for an exciting development: villa management. The Luxe Nomad took over a local villa management company in Bali and acquired 37 villas in October 2017, and saw an increase in sales and booking revenue just a few months later. Next on the cards are destinations around the region and beyond. “We’re so excited about this development,” Chai says. “There are so many beautiful properties around Asia that we want people to see, and we will of course bring that special The Luxe Nomad touch to the experience. One of the most important aspects that we’ll be sharing across our managed villas is our green policy. I’ve always been a supporter of environmental causes and it’s been great to use our platform to advocate for the reduction of single-use plastics and waste across the villa industry.”
They don’t just talk a good game. Throughout all their managed properties in Bali, the team has promulgated eco-friendly features such as all drinks and beverages to be served with non-plastic, biodegradable straws; recycling bins to be placed at all
villas; in-room, reusable glass bottles by Eco Bali to replace plastic water bottles, and the provided body wash is free of paraben, phthalate and petrochemical. In 2018 The Luxe Nomad raised the funds in just five days to install Hong Kong’s first Seabin in an exclusive members club.
“Hong Kong is a city that is beautiful not only for its skyline but the waters surrounding it,” said Chai. “In recent years, these waters are becoming increasingly polluted with plastic waste and rubbish. Whilst we understand the SeaBin is not going to ‘stop’ pollution, we felt it better to try something new than do nothing at all. This war on plastic the world is facing requires every stakeholder to play a part – government, businesses and everyday people. With all the alarming studies showing how much plastic is in the food and even water we drink, how can we not do something?” The floating rubbish bin catches floating debris, microplastics, oil, fuel and detergents. Within its first two weeks of operation, the Hong Kong Seabin collected 78 kg of waste.
There’s no stopping Stephanie Chai. From disrupting the travel industry to championing environmental initiatives, it’s not just about the dollars and cents – it’s about encouraging change and inspiring people. “I hope at the end of the day, it’s not so much about how many followers The Luxe Nomad has or bookings we get,” she says. “I hope that we inspire others to do the same and go for their dreams; life is too short to live someone else’s.”
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As One Of Asia’s Top Leadership and Sustainability Players