17 July 2018
Sam Chan is a boss at a travel agency in South Korea and also runs two hostels in that country. Photo: EJ Insight
Sam Chan is a boss at a travel agency in South Korea and also runs two hostels in that country. Photo: EJ Insight

How a HK tour guide rode the K-pop wave to strike roots in Seoul

With K-pop culture taking the region by storm following the huge success of South Korean music, TV dramas and movies, it’s no surprise that several businesses have sought to ride this wave and build their revenues overseas.

Skin care and cosmetic brands from South Korea have already won the hearts of many young Asian consumers, as any retailer would testify. Apart from these, there are also other stories of brands as well as individuals making good on the K-pop fever.

One case worth mentioning is of a young Hong Kong man who has built up a lucrative business in Seoul by cashing in on the craze for all things Korean.

Sam Chan, who is currently in his early thirties, began working in Seoul after obtaining a visa under an investment immigration program. Now, he is a boss at a travel agency in South Korea and also runs two hostels in that country.

Chan worked as a tour guide initially after graduating from high school.

At that time, he noticed that many Hong Kong and mainland tourists wanted to travel to South Korea after being influenced by Korean popular culture. He also observed that hotel room rates in that country were climbing steadily along with the rise in the number of tourists.

This prompted Chan to conclude that hostels would be a profitable business in Seoul.

He invested 500 million Korean won (US$451,000) and set up the Starway travel agency and a hostel in 2013, along with some partners. Last month, he opened a second hostel in Seoul, in the city’s Hongdae district.

It is not easy for a young man to come up with the money to qualify as an investment immigrant, and develop the business at such high speed.

So, is Chan a Fuerdai, or the second-generation of a rich family?

When asked the question by a reporter, the entrepreneur chuckled and gave this answer.

“No, I am not. I lived in a public housing estate when I was working in Hong Kong. But I worked very hard when I was a tour guide. I did translation for my clients; I resold Korean fashion in Hong Kong. And I saved some money over years,” Chan said.

Hong Kong and mainland tourists normally find it easy to shop and play around in Seoul, but they often get lost if they travel to the countryside, where the landscape is enchanting but signboards are mostly in Korean, Chan noted.

“So, we are here to serve. We organize one-day tour to Namiseom Island. We also offer autumn leaves viewing tour and ice fishing tour. During the peak season, there are typically more than a hundred tourists joining our red leaves tour every day.”

Chan revealed that the profit margin in the tours is low, but pointed out that the tours “synergize with our hostel and other businesses”.

The strategy seems working. The combined net income of the two hostels now reaches more than HK$100,000 (US$12,900) per month. Starway Travel has over 55,000 likes on its Facebook page.

“One-stop service” is something that Chan emphasizes. “We can be much more flexible because we have diversified operations.”

Chan’s company also offers translation services for people who visit Korea for plastic surgeries. He said the customers normally choose to stay in his hostels after the operation.

“We would offer discount if the guests use our other services,” Chan said.

To Chan, earning money is important, but so is reputation. “To put it simply, we are eyeing the future.”

Chan never runs out of new ideas to impress his guests.

“If a guest stays in our hostel during winter, we will dispatch heat pads when he checks in.”

Later, the staff “would place two facial masks on the table in the guests’ room, with a hand-written note on the side to remind the customers that “the weather is dry, please use these masks to keep yourself moisturized”, he said.

“I insist that the note has to be hand-written,” said Chan, pointing out that the gesture will make his guests feel important and special.

“We also have our own navigation team. If our guests want to go to N Seoul Tower, but don’t know which way to go from the nearest metro station, they can Whatsapp or WeChat us. Our colleagues will send routed maps or even voice messages to show them how to get to the destination.”

“Want to eat ginseng chicken soup during lunch? No problem, just send a message to us and we would recommend the best restaurant nearby.”

Fried chicken with beer is a cuisine that has become popular since the airing of the Korean TV drama “My Love From the Star”. Chan’s staff can help customers order the items if they get a kick out of aping the movie stars.

Chan said all the services have been very well received by his guests.

He believes that his company is on the right track by providing such niche travel experiences, and sees bright prospects for his business.

“We have done research. Nowadays, 50 percent of Hong Kong tourists travel to Seoul on their own. In a year or two, this percentage will definitely climb to 70 percent. At that time, we would be stronger and can’t be easily challenged,” Chan says confidently.

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The new hostel is a two-storey structure with a roof-top facility. Photo: EJ Insight

The new hostel’s staff hold a meeting in the common area. Photo: EJ Insight

The new hostel provides 16 rooms in total. Photo: EJ Insight

The older hostel, located near a metro station, features traditional Korean setting. Photo: EJ Insight

EJ Insight writer

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