Entrepreneur Winnie So is so passionate about travel that after graduating with an MBA from INSEAD, she decided to set up Wanlilu Play, a Hong Kong-based bespoke, luxury travel planning company.
In fact, Wanlilu, which translates as ‘One is wiser for travelling 10,000 miles than studying 10,000 scrolls’ from Mandarin, is also a projection of So’s wanderlust.
“I’ve always loved travel, and I’ve always gained so much inspiration and insight from travel, which is why I picked that name,” she told INSEAD Knowledge on the sidelines of a recent INSEAD Alumni Forum & Reunion in Asia.
And So maintains this is no ordinary travel business, and that neither she and co-partner Francesa Sin are themselves travel agents, as they do not earn commissions on bookings but charge a planning fee instead.
What also separates Wanlilu from the pack are the unusual destinations they have chosen to specialise in, such as South America, Africa and Asia -- and the customisation that comes with it. Past trips have included a honeymoon to far-flung Patagonia, Chile and Machu Picchu, and a luxury corporate retreat in the jungles of Cambodia.
“Every trip is different … it’s not the sort of cookie-cutter trip that (my clients) come to me and say ‘I want to go to India, and oh I just pull out the greatest hits of Rajasthan for them,” she explains.
“I ask them what they want to see, what they want to experience. Do you want to go visit some local social enterprises? Or are you going sourcing for your shops? Things like that. So everything is unique and every client that I work with is sort of a new experience for me. Even though the destination can be the same, it can be a totally different trip.”
Although tailored to cater to specific tastes and needs, So says Wanlilu’s pricing still remains affordable. “Most people think ‘luxury’ equals expensive, but in my mind, luxury is just having freedom and being able to do what you want to do, what you want to see and experience what you want to experience.”
“At the end of the day, it’s what the client wants. It’s not me pushing ‘oh, you must go see this or that’ -- everything starts from what it is that the client wants,” she adds.
Just as Wanlilu is about giving clients complete flexibility, So applies this same principle to her work ethic. “It’s a (small and) nimble organisation. It means I have the flexibility to work from wherever I want to work … Most of my clients I converse with (are) via email or Skype, and that’s the great thing about technology these days -- it affords you all that freedom to be able to work from anywhere in the world and to conduct business from anywhere in the world.”
While she reveals that she did interview for corporate jobs during her time at INSEAD, So, a former journalist, decided to deviate from the normal route taken by many of her peers. After working for a few start-ups, she decided to set up Wanlilu in 2002.
Choosing to be self-employed, she says, stems from a highly independent and individualistic streak nurtured by her parents when she was still a child. Born in the US, they sent her to school in Hong Kong when she turned six, as they did not want her to lose her Chinese heritage. And back in the US, when parents were sending their children to summer camp, she spent her breaks back in Hong Kong reciting Tang poetry.
So says all her decisions to date, including the one to found Wanlilu, are
based on whether she finds them challenging, inspiring and educational – and of course if they make her happy. “I’m not trying to be courageous; I’m just trying to beat my own path”.
So was named in World Business (October 2007) as one of 35 women globally under the age of 35 who had "something special to offer the planet: wealth creation that’s not at others' expense."