Get ready for a big splash

Guests of home-grown Country Holidays can enjoy more diverse experiences after its sale to luxury travel agency Scott Dunn

Home-grown bespoke travel company Country Holidays is going places this year, with its acquisition by international luxury travel agency Scott Dunn.

The deal, finalised on Jan 3, creates more choices for Singaporean travellers as Scott Dunn is among the world's 10 biggest brands in luxury travel and has built a niche portfolio that includes private chalets in the Alps, with nannies and butlers on call.

The London-based company declined to disclose the sum paid for Country Holidays, only indicating that it bought 100 per cent of the business.

The combined entity will be Asia's biggest player in tailor-made travel, with a global team of more than 300 staff offering round-the-clock services. There are offices in London, Chichester in south-east England, San Diego, Dubai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore that craft itineraries for the well-heeled wanderer.

Country Holidays founder Chang Theng Hwee will be the new chief executive of Scott Dunn - Asia, which will be headquartered in Singapore.

In 1994, he started his agency with his wife Tan Siew Yim and began sending young travellers on budget treks, mostly to Nepal, before pioneering luxury travel in Singapore with journeys to Antarctica and other exotic places.

Mr Chang, 53, had spent a "lifetime" building the company, so selling it after 23 years has been a very big decision, he says. But it remains a dream job. "I look forward to being able to continue doing what I always love - designing the most exciting itineraries to beautiful new places, with greater support," he says.

"This move will accelerate our growth, with all the benefits that come from being part of a leading global organisation."

In exclusive interviews with The Sunday Times, Scott Dunn's group chief executive Simon Russell and Mr Chang revealed the sale publicly for the first time. They also discussed the significance of the new partnership for travellers and the changing expectations of the Asian luxury traveller.

Both parties agree that their similar ethos and client profile are likely greater than any cultural differences. "We share a curiosity about the world and an almost forensic obsession with getting travel right," says Mr Russell, 47.

Before joining Scott Dunn in 2010, he was the director for luxury safari lodge operator &Beyond.

"The guests of Country Holidays and Scott Dunn are fundamentally the same - successful people seeking curated travel experiences. Price points across markets are surprisingly similar, so we don't anticipate having to change products wildly between markets," he says, during a visit to Singapore last week.

Scott Dunn plans to adapt to the particularities of the Asian market "rather than simply impose our British way", he promises.

On the beauty of the partnership, Mr Chang says Singapore travellers will enjoy a wider spectrum of travel experiences and a greater refinement of services in some areas, such as winter adventures.

After all, Scott Dunn, founded by Mr Andrew Dunn in 1986, started life as a luxury ski resort operator before evolving into a globe-girdling company now regularly voted "favourite specialist tour operator" by Conde Nast Traveller magazine readers.

Mr Chang also believes his clients will benefit from Scott Dunn's tech-savviness, marketing expertise and financial muscle. Its negotiating power with travel vendors, for one thing, can translate into value for money for travellers.

Among his guests are C-suite executives, entrepreneurs, lawyers and expatriates who continue to book trips with him after relocating to Europe and elsewhere, and Cabinet ministers past and present.

Personally, it will be "a great learning opportunity" for him at Scott Dunn. His work discussions with Mr Russell, his new British boss and a former accountant, have been stimulating and enjoyable. "Simon has a good sense of running a business, which I respect a lot," says the Singaporean during a phone call from Shanghai.

For Mr Russell, the magic of merging lies in Asia's stature in the luxury market. "There is a huge appetite right now for more personalised travel experiences and more exotic destinations."

Because the market for bespoke travel is less developed in Asia and hence there are fewer specialists in this space, Scott Dunn spied a huge opportunity in joining forces with Country Holidays, he points out.

Mr Chang and his experienced team of 50 - some staff have spent 10 to 20 years with him tailoring itineraries for Asians - have an insider's knowledge of the continent's travellers and local experiences.

Country Holidays has customised trips such as a seven-continent odyssey for a Hong Kong businessman and flying nature lovers in private jets across Madagascar.

Scott Dunn began wooing Country Holidays nearly two years ago, when it wanted to expand in Asia and asked Inflexion Private Equity, its majority shareholder which has an office in Shanghai, to carry out research. This involved looking at the luxury operators in Hong Kong and Singapore.

"We quickly concluded that Singapore was the best location to start our Asia operations," Mr Russell says.

Along with Inflexion, he met Mr Chang in his Tanglin office in May 2016 and a slow courtship began. "It's my baby, the price wasn't the only thing," says Mr Chang.

Both sides spent time getting to know each other to build trust, and hit it off before long. They agreed to the deal late last year before completing it on Jan 3.

Country Holidays, which has a turnover of $35 million, will be rebranded over the year. With a new Singapore partner in the picture, Scott Dunn forecasts close to $300 million in revenue for this year.

Country Holidays is the third acquisition for the global brand after it took a majority stake in British rival Imagine Travel in 2013 and bought Aardvark Safaris in San Diego in 2016.

For Mr Chang, his journey enters an exciting phase this year.

"Like many of my trips, my life has been such an adventure," he says. "There has never been a dull moment."

•Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'Get ready for a big splash'. Print Edition | Subscribe