In the mid-1980s, Pham Ha accompanied his father on the large cruise ship Thong Nhat, bought from Norway after liberation to help people earn a living, that sailed along the Vietnamese coastline, from north to south. As a boy from the countryside, Pham Ha’s eyes were opened to the outside world and the experience and beautiful scenery made a huge impact on him and captured his heart. From then on, his childhood dream was to own a cruise ship.
As he grew up, Pham Ha showed an ability to speak foreign languages and as a student he became interested in the tourism industry. Working as a tour guide, his fluency in English and French enabled him to show off Vietnamese culture and people to foreign tourists.
The journey with his father from Haiphong to Saigon helped him to realize that each new destination brings a new perspective, new vision and new thinking, which can positively affect people. The beauty of travel is not just going from one point to another, but a journey of life experiences.
Vietnam started to develop its tourism industry in the early 1990s when it opened its doors to foreign tourists, but more than a decade later, travel companies were still having to work hard to attract them to the country. Backpackers were coming in their droves, but the accommodation choices were limited, not good quality, and service standards were poor.
Thanks to his early good fortune, Pham Ha had a vision for the future combined with his personal determination to succeed, and he decided to take a totally different direction by concentrating on meeting the small, but growing, demand for quality accommodation and higher standards of service.
In 2004 he founded Luxury Travel, focusing on the niche luxury market for big spenders, creating the right travel products, providing authentic and unique experiences, and offering personalized service, catering to the wishes of individual customers. Very quickly he became the acknowledged luxury travel expert in the field. And he did this with only a starting capital of 1,000 USD.
Many friends and colleagues were sceptical about this bold idea and were worried that he might be being a little reckless. But Ha was determined, and he asserted that in order to succeed, he must find a new direction, be a pioneer, and become an expert in that field.
In the early days of his career, his father gave him a lot of encouragement, strength and faith in his own abilities. He advised him to go away to study in the city, always believe in himself, never get discouraged, and succeed without becoming arrogant. “Live well, my son" he said. He always strongly believed in the ability of his children and encouraged them to pursue their dreams and to strive to be the best, whatever they did. He urged him to take the first steps to opening his own business and not be afraid to venture into the unknown.
Always be a pioneer
Starting a business in Vietnam was difficult, especially in the early 2000s, and with such a small amount of capital. Red tape and policies changed frequently, and the internet was still a new thing in Vietnam. Pham Ha’s biggest challenge was to get the message out about Luxury Travel and to encourage guests to book through him. He had to find a new way to achieve this.
When many people didn’t understand the capability of the internet or how to use it effectively, Ha realised that this technology would be the key to helping him to make money. He tinkered around on the computer and started to build a website that met international standards and had the technology to take credit card payments. Right from 2004, when e-commerce was little known in Vietnam, tourists around the world who wanted to visit Vietnam were able to book tours and pay online through Luxury Travel's website.
After just four years, www.luxurytravelvietnam.com was recognized by the Ecommerce Development Center (EcomViet) and Vietnam E-Commerce Association as one of the top 10 websites in the country.
“I dared to think outside the box and take a risk. If we pioneer and become the best in our field, we will be able to dominate the market. My success is thanks to continuing innovation, creativity, and taking those risks” Ha said.
Luxury Travel encountered difficulties in the 2008 financial crisis, along with everybody else. There were also difficulties when visitor numbers started to increase in general to Vietnam, as there weren’t enough high-end hotels available to meet the demand and the infrastructure was poor. The company found that it had to pay over the odds to 5-star hotels, to guarantee rooms for their guests, as hotels could easily fill their rooms and showed no loyalty to wholesale travel companies.
As tourism to Vietnam continues to increase, one of the biggest challenges for the tourist industry is human resources, finding suitable employees with the service and language skills to meet the requirements of international and increasingly sophisticated domestic tourists.
Fifteen years ago, this was an even greater problem. Pham Ha had to recruit and train young people who had excellent foreign language skills, but did not have the professional knowledge and expertise in the tourism service industry. He had to teach them sales techniques and soft skills, even writing emails to guests. But he stressed, the most important factor for the tourism industry is personnel having the right attitude.
“Young people, especially students, are a blank sheet of paper, but it is harder to train those who are already in the workplace and may have fixed ideas. For training, I prefer new graduates because giving them the skills to develop the appropriate attitude will be the first thing to draw on that blank piece of paper. In the service industry, attitude is of the utmost importance, but the most difficult to learn” Ha said.
Touching hearts to win over luxury travelers
For the Chairman of the Lux Group, it is not only customers who are the service users, but also his company employees. In order to please external customers, the guests, he must firstly satisfy internal customers, his employees.
"My management style is to look after my employees so that they will look after our customers as well” Ha shared.
Pham Ha treats colleagues the same way he expects them to treat their upmarket customers, by listening and with consideration. He maintains an equal relationship between himself, the boss, and his employees.
He might have to wear an elegant suit when entertaining guests in smart restaurants, but in the office he dresses as they do, in a T-shirt, jeans, and sports shoes. Out of the office, at a company dinner, the employees always join the senior management team at the same table.
“I am a leader without position as I do not need power to be successful. Leadership is the art of influencing and sharing a vision for people to follow and achieve. Your vision is your future. Absolutely everyone is listened to and their ideas respected” Ha added.
As a leader, Ha always likens himself to being a bus driver, taking his employees on a journey with a mission of bringing happiness, based on the ‘5 Ps’: passion, people, purpose, planet, profit.
He ensures that his employees are aware that their clients are really the only ‘boss’ in the company. In order to bring in money and a better life for all, there must not only be many customers, but they must also be satisfied with the level of service they receive. That way, they come back time and again and recommend Luxury Travel to other wealthy guests. Word of mouth is free but powerful advertising.
According to the Lux Group management team, building a corporate culture is a must, one in which everyone must understand the thinking of the clients and translate this into action. The end of the working day is 5.30 pm at Lux Group, but many people often voluntarily stay at work until nearly 9 pm, to complete their work and ensure the best outcome for clients. Ha's secret is empowering and trusting the employees to work well.
“If you believe, you have to give power, but if you want to give power, you must know exactly what your staff need and how to develop them. The key is to find the right people for the right work. I only employ the smartest people who share my values”.
The task of the leader is to set goals for employees and for them to work hard to find ways to achieve them. Empowering employees to be creative and innovative is important. For new recruits, the company ensures that it creates the ideal environment for them to use their talents, to listen to them and put into practice new ideas if they are feasible and effective. And, of course, to recognize their achievements by rewarding them well.
Leading with kindness is the key for Ha to retain his talented staff because, without training employees will inevitably leave, and training brings benefits and creates an environment where employees want to stay.
“My efforts go into creating an environment of creativity, empowerment, fairness and reward. This approach has encouraged everyone to contribute and the organization has gone from strength to strength with a consistently happy team”.
The biggest goal he sets is that 99% of customers must be satisfied with their travel experience of the company. The customer is not a king until the employee treats them as a king and, at the same time, treats their colleagues the same way to ensure the absolute best in teamworking.
According to Ha, there is not one simple definition of luxury as everybody has a different view depending on their own needs. For example, a person who has traveled to more than 70 countries like Ha, luxury is not a new concept so personalization to meet their requirements precisely is paramount.
At Lux Group, luxury travel is defined as experiences and personalized services. To win over luxury customers, the key is to understand the customer completely and to be able to provide experiences that meet their expectations, touch their hearts, and even give them a pleasant surprise. “Customers only buy the products that best meet their needs, so it is important to understand our customers to be successful in sales” Ha said.
High-end spenders only account for 3 per cent of the total number of visitors to Vietnam. Unlike mass tourism, where many people prefer to travel in groups, upmarket tourists often travel in small groups of family and friends with specific requirements such as privacy, unique, and unusual experiences.
Luxury tourism is no longer a narrow concept limited to staying in 5-star hotels, but ranges across the whole experience including the method of transport, such as helicopter or seaplane, and excursions that are not normally available to regular tourists, such as a private viewing in an artist’s studio. To these clients, the most important aspect is that it is memorable.
Seniors have money, education, experience, are well-traveled, and know exactly what they want, so Ha ensures his staff are particularly well trained and endeavours to offer new products regularly, continually upgrading to meet the highest standards.
Tourism is a key journey, so the Lux Group always focuses on creating heart-warming memories for customers at every point of dealing with the company, from the initial contact, either through personal recommendation or the website, talking to employees, and making the booking. Customers always enjoy personalized service at each stage of the booking.
“A brand is like a promise; customers buy brand promise. If expectations are met and even surpassed, the guests will feel completely happy and even wowed by the whole experience. They are then guaranteed to tell friends and family who will want to find out more” Ha shared.
Doing business is to show empathy, loyalty, and responsibility, qualities that Pham Ha particularly admired in the noble spirit of Bach Thai Buoi, who promoted Vietnamese society so that An Nam, at the beginning of the 20th century, could revive the economy, encourage development, and create a noble class strong enough to rebuild the country and compete with the Chinese and French.
He was inspired to build Heritage Cruises, a boutique-style brand that is the essence of Vietnamese heritage, rich in culture, history, art, and the quintessence of the north. This unique ship is based on a design seen on old postcards and imbues the spirit of the ship, Binh Chuan, that Bach Thai Buoi launched more than 100 years ago on September 7, 1919.
This historic ship, the largest vessel in An Nam at that time, was the first ship to sail from Cua Cam, Haiphong to Saigon and arrived in port on September 17, 1920. It was warmly received by the business community there who saw the possibilities to create new markets and business and revive national pride - "le premier bateau Annamite à Saigon”- the first Annamese ship to dock in Saigon.
“I acknowledge the culture, traditions, and aristocratic spirit of the early 20th century. That is the reason tourists come, to learn about the culture and history and get under the skin of the country” Ha stated.
Bach Thai Buoi also implemented his principles for the market: trade, trust, perseverance, energy, respect for profession, trade association, public relations, thrift, and focus on the domestic market. His values and business lessons still apply to the current trading conditions to manage effectively businesses and succeed in the marketplace.
“Money is just a tool; the most important thing is what we bring to society”. For Ha, money is not the most important aspect of his work; his passion for what he wants to achieve is the main reason that led him to work in travel, and this helps him to continue his lifelong project and be determined to develop this service industry to the benefit of all.
Ha admits that he is passionate about art and culture. Collecting works of art is a personal hobby which helps him to maintain a work/life balance, as he feels that it is sometimes necessary to slow down to feel better, more creative and happier. You always do what you like and like what you do. He especially likes the paintings by artist Pham Luc, known as the Picasso of Vietnam, because they touch his emotions. In Pham Luc's paintings, Ha relives his childhood, his parents' war memories, and Vietnamese stories told through the intriguing combination of colors, lines, and shapes.
That is the reason why hundreds of paintings by Pham Luc are displayed on Emperor Cruises ships (part of the Lux Group) in Nha Trang and Ha Long. Heritage Cruises is the first floating art cruise in Vietnam, as Ha has created a small onboard art gallery featuring the artworks of Pham Luc, works of other famous Vietnamese artists, and rare artworks from the Indochina School of Fine Arts.
Ha said that visitors are very excited about this unique concept and he plans to hold an art auction on the cruise soon. He has just completed his second book about Pham Luc called "A life of art", following his first book "Picasso of Vietnam, paintings and life".
The founder of Lux Group said: “A good life is a successful one when judged by others. Our personal contentment, when we do something well, is felt deep within our soul, our heart and our mind”.