THE LIFE! INTERVIEW

Wanderlust pays off for award-winning travel entrepreneur Yeoh Siew Hoon

As a young girl growing up in the tiny state of Penang in the 1960s, Malaysian writer and tourism veteran Yeoh Siew Hoon dreamt of leaving her hometown to explore the world.

She was fascinated by "hippie" Western tourists who came through Nepal, Goa, Koh Samui and then Penang, wandering the streets without a care in the world.

"So that was the first seed of travel. I wanted to travel, see the world, be a beach bum. It seemed really carefree," says Ms Yeoh, now 56.

Since she was bitten by the travel bug, you could say her life has been inseparable from the industry.

Two months ago, she was named Tourism Entrepreneur of the Year at the Singapore Experience Awards 2014, organised by the Singapore Tourism Board. The awards honour outstanding experiences offered by individuals and organisations in the tourism sector.

Ms Yeoh, a Singapore permanent resident, is a well-known figure in the Asia-Pacific tourism industry, with more than three decades of experience as a journalist, editor, author and business entrepreneur.

For the past 10 years, she has been the founder and editor of travel industry website Web In Travel, a company she sold to leading United States travel publishing house Northstar Travel Media in April last year. She declined to reveal how much the company was sold for.

Currently, she leads Northstar's expansion in the Asia-Pacific region as its editorial director.

"I've been very lucky in my career in that I've enjoyed everything that I've done," says the sprightly and affable woman over a cup of coffee at Leisure Park Kallang during this interview.

Born the youngest of three siblings to a Hainanese chef father and a housewife mother, Ms Yeoh says she has always been passionate about writing and that led her to take up an apprenticeship with a local daily in Penang after she completed her A levels.

She did not attend university, opting instead to start work as a cadet journalist straight away.

"Being restless and impatient, I felt it was the quickest way that I could get down to writing for a living and then eventually travelling for my writing."

She started as a crime reporter with an English newspaper in Penang, Straits Echo, spending her nights at the mortuary and calling fire stations and police stations for stories.

"Those early months spent on the crime desk were the best I ever signed up for in my life," she recalls. "I think when you know what you want to do, it's best to start earlier rather than later."

In the following years, she spent time in Kuala Lumpur as an entertainment, technology and travel reporter, before taking up a position in Hong Kong to run a trade publication focused on media, advertising and publishing.

She lived in Hong Kong for 11 to 12 years and calls that period "the most formative years of my life".

She adds: "The freedom, the competition, the fast pace and the stimulation you got, I was inspired to work very hard. It's a place where you either thrive or die."

In the mid-1990s, she based herself in Singapore to be closer to her father in Penang who was suffering from heart problems. He died soon after she moved here, but not before she managed to spend some quality time with him.

Around that time, she quit her job and set up a new company with two colleagues - a publishing company based in Singapore called Venture Asia Publishing. It specialised in business-to-business publishing (producing B2B news content for the industry) and ran a weekly trade publication called Travel Asia.

After five years, another opportunity came along and Ms Yeoh joined a Dutch multinational company based in Singapore to launch Travel Weekly Asia, a trade publication aimed at the Asian market.

It was in the late 1990s and the Internet was about to change the publishing industry.

"That was a pivotal moment in my career, the Internet was going to come and change everything, especially journalism, publishing, how we deliver content to readers," she says.

She used the Internet to her advantage, setting up a website and writing editorial content differently.

"Design was a big part of it and we worked with a fresh format. Business-to- business writing needn't be too grey. It could be a bit sexy, fun and colourful, yet analytical at the same time," she explains.

The technology knowledge she picked up put her in good stead to set up her own business in 2005.

Web In Travel started as a Singapore-based company which organised trade conferences for those in the travel industry. But over the years, the website has evolved into a repository of information and news targeted at travel agents and businesses.

Web In Travel was targeted at anyone who had interest in travel technology, distribution and marketing, and who wanted to know how technology is changing the way people travel.

On the website, visitors will find useful business tips, or news on the latest technology developments relevant to the travel industry.

The company also organises international trade conferences hosted not just in Singapore, but also in Bali, Dubai and Tokyo.

Some of its clients include Google, Facebook, travel agency websites Expedia and Booking.com and travel review website Tripadvisor.

With the sale of the business to Northstar last year, Ms Yeoh made enough from the deal to live in "a landed house with grass". Her home now is a condominium apartment in the Tanjong Rhu area.

Explaining her decision to sell her business, she says: "After 10 years, I wanted to be able to hand it over to a company that I believed will respect it and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. The industry is changing so fast and I've taken Web In Travel to a level where it could really go further, but it needed the resources of a global company to do it."

Like many seasoned journalists - she still considers herself first and foremost a journalist - she has got the "kaypoh" factor, a natural curiosity about the world and a desire to figure out what makes a person tick. That includes reading popular teen novels such as Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series or listening to the latest pop song charting on the radio.

She says: "I want to understand what turns people on. To me, it's fundamental to travel because travel for us is a business. We need to go out on the streets to see what people are buying, even though you may not buy into it. But you want to understand why.

"So I will listen to pop trash to understand why the song is as big as it is, then you'll understand glimmers of it. We shouldn't be snobbish, right? We have to be open-minded."

She is also a published author with several books to her name, including a collection of essays, Truth Lies & Other Stuff (2002), and a light-hearted travelogue, Around Asia In 1Hr: Tales Of Condoms, Chillies & Curries (2003).

Asked about her favourite holidays, she says: "I think the best memories are the moments you create when you're surrounded by good friends."

Ms Yeoh, who has gone fishing in Lake Fothergill, Zimbabwe, and flown on a plane to land on top of a glacier in the Swiss mountains, adds: "You could be eating really tough jerky in Botswana, but you could have a gorgeous sunset and good friends. To me, it's about the collection of moments."

Her best friend, Ms Tan Gim Eam, 58, who has known her since their primary school days in Penang, describes her as a fiercely loyal friend.

Ms Tan, who runs a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, says: "If I'm in trouble, she is the person I go to. She deals with stress quite well, even though she has her mood swings. But she is a great person, witty and smart.

"School was more of a chore for her, but she excelled in English and knew from very young that she wanted to write. Nothing pleases her more, so she got the perfect job."

Ms Yeoh's long-time colleague, Mr Gerry Pang, 39, calls her a motivating person "governed by a creative brain".

Mr Pang, who is Web In Travel's events director for the Asia-Pacific and has worked with Ms Yeoh for the past 10 years, says: "She may not be someone who is easy to work with, but she is definitely motivating.

"She's very outspoken, but there is no hidden agenda... and we have a common vision."

In her free time, Ms Yeoh, who is single, enjoys going on walks with her two dogs, Adele and Maximillion.

"Sometimes, you feel so lazy, but dogs, they force you to go out. But during walks, I get the best ideas, I love the rhythm. It gives me space in my mind."

She is also big on charitable causes. Last year, her company raised $100,000, the bulk of which went to building a dormitory and school for young women in Laos.

Creating educational opportunities, especially for those "on the outer edges of society", is a personal mission for her.

"They are people I identify with. Education gave me oppportunities I never dreamt of and I feel everyone has a right to one. Education is the surest way out of poverty," she says.

That said, she emphasises that "real learning begins on the job".

"I've met many entrepreneurs and brilliant people who have all been high- school dropouts. They also tend to be the ones with the most vivid imagination."

On her part, she hires people not based on whether they hold a degree, but "on their appetite for learning and their hunger for experiences".

"The most loyal warriors are those you pick from the trenches and develop and grow over the years," she says.

And she will need those warriors in the coming years.

Looking into her crystal ball, she says of the challenges in the future: "There is a paradigm shift in media consumption: if it's important, it will find me, my social feeds will tell me, Linkedin, Twitter, tells me. I think it's kind of dangerous too, because it dumbs down everything and everyone's reading from the same sources. You get bloated with all the information.

"I think the pendulum is gonna swing back again to people taking more control in finding news and information. They will be discerning regarding the information they want. Good quality content will rule."

melk@sph.com.sg