Sitting in the improbable swank of The St Regis Kuala Lumpur, it’s hard not to feel cowed. Its 10ft-tall doorways give off the impression that titans walk here. Perfect place to interview Stephanie Chai, as it turns out.
Chai looks vaguely familiar when she walks in. No coincidence: she modelled extensively and did some TV presenting in the 2000s, when local pop culture was in its last throes of being monolithic, that relatively gilded age before social media turned everything into transient flotsam.
It is an odd quirk of Malaysians throughout history that there seems to be no even distribution of achievement. To the victors go the spoils and, to everyone else, nothing much. Chai may not yet be at the same point along the bell curve as the Nicol Davids and the Jimmy Choos, but it’s hard not to get the feeling that it’s just a matter of time.
Chai has been running the Luxe Nomad for four years now, the leading luxury villa and hotel booking portal on this side of the world. And it’s still growing. Fast. When asked about the hundreds of villas and hotels that the Luxe Nomad is partnered with, Chai quickly sets things straight: “No, we’re partnered with 1,600.”
Growing up in Kenny Hill, Kuching (although she wasn’t born there, “I don’t know why people always make that mistake”), and leaving for Auckland at the age of 12 after attending Lodge School, Chai has come far. She now lives in Hong Kong while the Luxe Nomad plots its total domination of the Asia-Pacific region. Amazingly, she takes it all in her stride, and sounds nothing like the start-up blowhards who speak in David Brent.
“Just this year, we’ve expanded to Japan and China. So Hong Kong is in between, geographically. I was in Singapore, but now, we have a COO, and she’s taking care of Malaysia and Singapore. I said, ‘Okay! I’ll take HK and Japan!’” she exclaims.
A lot of this is attributed to growing up in Kuching. “There were only 300,000 people in Kuching when I was there, and it was really nice because it was a small society so everyone knew everyone else. It was not very materialistic at all. You spent a lot of time going to friends’ houses to play, playing sports, so it was a very grounded upbringing.”
But does she consider Kuching home anymore? “No, unfortunately,” she says. “I guess home is very transient. It follows where you work.” Having no family left in Kuching, Chai makes occasional stopovers in New Zealand, where both her parents still live. But Kuching notwithstanding, Malaysia is still Malaysia. the Luxe Nomad is still very much a local company done good, and Chai still identifies as Malaysian.
Chai was first approached by a model scout while in school, and on vacation in Singapore. She got into the industry between high school and university, and even took a break from her business and finance double major in Auckland to model full-time, which she says nearly got her disowned.
But eventually driven by boredom, and the good sense to pull out of what is still a youth-obsessed industry at the right time, Chai called it quits. “It’s nice, but it’s better to leave earlier then wait till I’m much older and dying. Not literally,” she quips. So she moved into TV, fulfilling a childhood dream, and presented a bunch of TV shows on then-fledgling 8TV.
But she wouldn’t go back. Not with the way things are now, at any rate.
“I don’t think we’re watching TV like we were,” she says. “If you look at who they use at events nowadays, it’s influencers, people with followings on Instagram, right? So the market has changed.”
“In Asia, we don’t value the creative industry as much as the West does. We don’t put as much money into it. I remember going for RTM auditions, for jobs I thankfully never did, and I was like ‘What are your ratings?’ And they were like, ‘It doesn’t matter,’” she recalls. “I did maybe seven TV shows. I remember asking my father, ‘Do you like any of them?’ He said, ‘I could watch maybe one of your TV shows, but even then, only if something else isn’t on!’”
The clamour for Insta-fame is not, she adds, a purely Malaysian phenomenon. “So if that changes, then sure, I’m all for creativity and innovation. But I’m not just going to be on TV for the sake of saying, ‘Hi!’” she says, mimicking those trite intros of TV shows selling pep alone.
This despite landing a role in Fair Game, albeit a small one. She was on set for a day for a scene that happened to be shot in Malaysia, but still: it starred Naomi Watts, was directed by Doug Liman, and was in the running for a Palme d’Or. “Oh, I only had one line in that,” she says, not dismissive of the experience, of course, but probably cognisant that greater things were in store.
She ventured into business with Wedding Guide Asia in 2009, a regional wedding tips site that she started after having a eureka moment at a friend’s wedding, that ended up growing exponentially to reach 300,000 followers at its peak. It was doing more than okay, but the URL of the site now redirects to Honey Brides. What happened there?
“I had two children, and the first was Wedding Guide Asia, and the second was the Luxe Nomad,” she says. “But the Luxe Nomad had investors, so there was a lot more pressure to run that, whereas Wedding Guide Asia was just me. So it was like the first child who went to boarding school! I tried hiring people to run it, but when you don’t keep an eye on it, it just doesn’t work.”
But she’s thankful for the experience. “I always knew Wedding Guide Asia was a nice, little first business to get your feet wet, and I did everything from hiring, writing, PR and working with tech development, so it was good practice when I started the Luxe Nomad. But it was very difficult for that business model to become a regional one, compared to the Luxe Nomad.”
Although the Luxe Nomad’s name might seem as if it stems from Chai’s own jetsetting around the world, it actually came from her friend, Deborah Henry. “I went, ‘Oh Deborah, I can’t think of a name.’” ‘Luxe Nomad’ was the first thing Henry thought of. “It kind of balances out. I think the brand conveys something that’s in the know, but not inaccessible. And not trying too hard.” She adds, “If I ever sell the company, Deborah, Jasmine (Luxe Nomad officer) and I will go on holiday. A nicer holiday.”
The Luxe Nomad started off as a Groupon-type flash sales site, selling stays at luxury hotels that capitalised on the googly-eyed frenzy that everyone in this region gets when it comes to slashed prices. One thing that set it apart was Chai’s recruitment of people whom she knew from TV, which leveraged on the purest power in the universe: celebrity. “At the time, the Kardashians were becoming popular, and everyone seemed to be interested in seeing where the who’s who goes, so I thought of roping in celebs I knew. I said to them, ‘Hey, if you travel, I’ll help hook you up with a holiday, just post pictures.’”
They became the Celebrity Nomads, still a feature of WanderLuxe, the Luxe Nomad’s in-house magazine. And more than just a feature to gain publicity per se, it turned out to be a masterstroke. At the time, the Luxe Nomad was up against a similar Singaporean company bidding for investment, in a battle that came straight from an against-all-odds Cool Runnings-type script.
“The competitor had raised twice the amount that we did. And I had investors tell me, ‘You’re the weak team.’ Which was true. On paper, we looked like a weak team, because I was an ex-model, another girl had studied linguistics, and I had one girl who used to work at Agoda.”
“The competitor had a founder who’d worked at Travel Ready, an American girl who had a lot of tech experience, a CMO and a CTO. So they were the superstar team,” she recalls. Of course, the underdog won. The Luxe Nomad’s ability to stand apart eventually got it the investment that it needed, and the competitor went under.
And it proved to be a shrewd move from the investors’ end as well. Chai’s ability to plan her exit before the s**t gets stale, like she did with modelling and TV, once again came in handy, with the Luxe Nomad moving away from the flash sales model. “Imagine you’re going shopping, and things are always on sale. After a while, you become numb to it. It’s always 50 or 60 percent off,” she says. So the Luxe Nomad moved into regular villa and hotel bookings, and dropped the flash sales altogether. Its sales doubled.
Which seems counterintuitive, especially since a moribund economy would be expected to kill off leisure spending (but then again, Malaysia had a passport shortage a while ago, which could either mean the haves still have enough to spend, or are departing the ship). Chai admits that the psychological effect of events like Brexit and the Ebola outbreak tend to impact the market, but so far, it’s been short-lived—in part due to the Luxe Nomad’s customer base being primarily from the region.
“I think the upside for us is that you see people shifting from luxury hotels to villas, because villas are cheaper. But we see in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia, their currencies are still very strong. So for them to go to Bali or Phuket and spend a few hundred dollars per person isn’t a stretch.”
The expansion continues. “We’re going to be focusing on Japan. Japan has a hotel shortage at the moment. They’ve gone from 10 million to 19 million tourists, and the government is using tourism as a way to increase the GDP. There’s a huge demand for vacation rentals, so we’re looking to manage apartments in Kyoto. It would be quite cool to say a small Malaysian team took over Japan!” she says.
Small Malaysian team notwithstanding, Chai has no intention of returning to Malaysia for good. “No matter where I go, I still say I’m Malaysian. I still get on best with people here. But would I return here? No. Not as long as all this is going on,” she admits, referring to recent major headlines.
“It’s disheartening to read the news. It’s like you’re in this movie, and the bad guys keep winning. And you’re waiting and waiting for the good guys to come out, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.”
Chai says that she was raised, like many of us, to keep her head down and worry about herself and her family first. “But I think that’s the wrong way to go about this. We’re all stakeholders in each other’s well being.
“So we also have to ask ourselves as Malaysians—and I’m at fault here, too—do we not have a backbone? It’s not laziness, but there is a fear in us,” she says, with a sudden severity. “Why are we so scared to stand up, to make a difference? It’s very sad. Is where we are today partly our fault? I don’t know.
“Amidst all the depression, I’m trying to create some positivity. I thought maybe I could change it from the inside. But I’d rather change things from the outside. Not that the Luxe Nomad is making a lot of changes!” she jokes. “But hopefully, we’re inspiring young Malaysians.”
And she is. Or at least ought to be. Because if there’s one thing that Stephanie Chai’s upward trajectory demonstrates—from model to business titan—it is that anyone can walk through those titan-sized doorways. The art of the possible.
Knitted V Neck Sweater, Knitted Flare Sleeves Sweater and Knitted Wool Scarf by H&M; Shirt and Shorts by Tommy Hilfiger.
Styling by Sarah Chong; Art direction by Aini Suraya Nasaruddin; Hair and Make-up by Shawn Goh; Location: The St. Regis Kuala Lumpur.
First published in Esquire Malaysia's September 2016 issue.