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Stepanie Chai on setting up business TheLuxeNomad.com in Singapore

By: Jade McLean

Moving from a successful modelling career to setting up a luxury travel company was a big change of direction – not to mention drop in income – for Stephanie Chai. However, she seems to have made the transition with style…

Stephanie insists it's not just about beauty 

It’s obviously quite a change from modelling to setting up TheLuxeNomad.com – the luxury online travel portal. Why the switch and what was the catalyst behind it?
As a model you get to travel all the time. I started while at university when I was 18 and over the past ten years I’ve never stayed in the same place for more than two months – I was always flying back and forth from uni. TLN started when a friend sent me an email with the idea. Five minutes later I emailed him back and said, “I’ll do it for Asia!” And only then did I start researching. But my father and grandfather were self-made businessmen, so maybe it’s in the genes. I started TLN during the last quarter of 2011 and had already hired two staff by the end of that year. We got funding about four or five months later and we launched fully in July 2012. Technically, the site wasn’t easy to design as you’re dealing with hundreds of hotels, ecommerce, tax and so on. It was a huge learning curve but I loved the challenge.

What has been the biggest hurdle in your new career?
I don’t think there has been one big hurdle because work is constantly changing. In the early days, my biggest hurdle was to raise funds. Once that was done, it was launching the business, then “How do we get sales to go up?” We were really lucky in the first six months as sales went from strength to strength and we had a good response from the market. But one of the biggest challenges I had was working out how The Luxe Nomad could be different. I didn’t want it to be just another online booking site; I didn’t want to just copy and paste it. So one idea I came up with was the celebrity angle, and to get celebs who travel all the time to review hotels and give travel tips.

Are most people intimidated when they meet you?
Most of the time I’m in Havaianas so I don’t think I look the intimidating sort! I think to a certain extent it’s human nature to judge and assume – I’m sure I’ve made that mistake in the past. If anything, people used to assume I might be a typical model when they first met me.

You seem pretty down to earth and humble. How do you stay that way after attaining a great deal of success?
I think it comes from your family values – my parents are very down to earth. I remember meeting Sting when I was modelling and telling my parents about it; they gave me a very non-interested answer like it was just another day. It didn’t matter in the slightest. In life, there’s always someone out there who’s going to be smarter, wealthier and better looking – so what reason does anyone have to be arrogant?

Stephanie was a model before she moved into luxury travel

Is there anything you miss about your modelling career?
Modelling was a great career and an awesome stepping-stone too. I do miss it sometimes because I got to see so much of Asia, and I earned in a day what some earn in a year – sadly I don’t earn that anymore! I remember reading a wonderful quote by Cindy Crawford years ago: “You can be the most beautiful woman in the world, but if you have no story to tell, people will soon lose interest in you.” That’s true – our stories should always be changing. 

Who did you look up to when you were modelling? Was it one of the big global supermodels?
When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of Nadya Hutagalung. the host of MTV Asia and currently of Asia’s Next Top Model – she was, and still is, stunning. She has my respect as, rather than being a “typical” model, she has done a lot to raise awareness about environmental issues.

And who do you look up to now?
Natalie Massenet who founded luxury fashion portal Net-a-Porter.com. She started the site in her bedroom in Chelsea (England) ten years ago and sold it last year to a Richemont for £350 million ($700m). When she started around 12 or 13 years ago, the dot com bubble had burst and no one believed women would spend thousands of dollars online. She proved them wrong. 

Are you a classy, white-wine expensive-restaurant type of girl or an oversized-shirt beer-and-football chick?
Definitely not beer and football – that sounds like a guy! I prefer the wine thank you! I definitely don’t need to eat in expensive restaurants all the time but I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. After all, I’m running The Luxe Nomad so it’s gotta come from somewhere!

You’ve stated previously that you have a short attention span and that you’re always looking for new opportunities. Do you have anything on the agenda?
In the near future it’s a lot more of The Luxe Nomad and settling in Singapore where I moved to this year. I love Singapore because it really has transformed itself from small Lion City to international playground. One of the best things about Singapore is the expats, because you can walk down the street and meet people from all different nationalities. Diversity is the spice of life.

If you could do anything, right now, what would it be?
I think I deserve a proper holiday. I haven’t had a real holiday for maybe a year and a half or two years as I’m always checking my emails and I feel guilty if I leave the team for more than a week. I do miss spending a summer holiday in Europe as there are still so many places I haven’t been. One place in particular is La Bandita, a boutique hotel we work with in Tuscany where you can sip wine all day and enjoy copious amounts of pasta.

Always working, even at the beach 

What’s your favourite restaurant and hang-out in Singapore?
Clubbing-wise I don’t mind popping into Pangaea and Fenix for a dance. If it’s cool ambience you’re after, then head to the hard-to-get-into bar, The Library. One of my fave places to dine would have to be Yazawa for its beef udon; I also like Lucha Loco for the vibe and tacos and Latteria Mozzarella Bar for awesome gnocchi and lamb.

What do you do in your downtime?
My Chinese side takes over here as I have a penchant for a good foot massage. I’ve been going to a place called Green Apple of late. It has a massive cinema-like screen where you can watch a movie while your feet get rubbed.

Where are your favourite places to travel?
I think holidays also depend on the company, so heading to Bali and getting a big villa with friends is always fun. Earlier in the year I went to Bordeaux in France for my best friend’s wedding and we had such a great time in the chateau, eating cheese and drinking wine. In terms of cities to visit, you can’t go wrong with London; there’s always something going on.

Where did you grow up? Do you ever get homesick and think of returning to your roots?
Haha, unfortunately no. I spent my childhood in Kuching, Sarawak (East Malaysia), as my father is from there. I went to a very small international school where there were only four or five kids in my class (thus a 20 to 25 percent chance to get first prize in things!). I left to further my studies in New Zealand when I was 12 – let’s just say NZ is just as quiet so I won’t be heading back any time soon.

You have an office here and in Kuala Lumpur. What do you like about KL that Singapore can’t provide and vice versa?
Well, without a doubt life in Malaysia is much cheaper due to the currency exchange. While I love the modernity of Singapore with its beautiful buildings such as Marina Bay Sands, I also have a soft spot for KL and its large, open spaces and rustic charm.

Perhaps one good thing about Malaysia is the “Malaysia Boleh” attitude. People there are a bit more willing to bend the rules whereas in Singapore I feel there is a fear at times of going against the norm.

How can EX readers benefit from The Luxe Nomad? Give us some tips.
Living in Singapore, the world is your oyster. Bali is two hours away, Phuket an hour and then there’s the rest of APAC. The greatest selling point are our “flash sales”. Basically you just have to sign up, membership is free and you have access to our flash sales where you can book four or five-star resorts with up to 70 percent off the hotel’s own website rates, which, for me as a constant traveller, is amazing. I’m always looking for a new luxury resort and price is a big factor to get you to try something new, away from the norm.