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Still crazy after all these years: confessions of an online nut

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaAnd suddenly, we turned twenty. How did Smart Travel Asia get here? Some tales from the past and reader brickbats and bouquets.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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At our Gloucester Road offices in the early years (from left): Tenzing Thondup, dancing queen Virginia Cheng, Ernest Lui (our stoic I.T. whiz), Estella Li, Philippa Young, Ivy Tsang/ Mouse-over 2nd image: (from left): Charlain Lim (a resourceful woman for all seasons) and the talented Winnie Choi (Web Design), our first two employees.

LATE 2002 when I told people I planned to start Asia's first entirely online travel magazine, perhaps the first anywhere (though we had experimented with an online version of my print magazine HOLIDAY Asia from 1999), they looked at me as if I had gone gaga. In retrospect, it was a pretty wild idea though the web was cranking up slowly. We listened anxiously to chirruping sounds each time we attempted to gain a connection. Those who thought they understood this unfolding magic, smirked.

Earlier that year I had visited Dubai where my son had engaged in some tourneys as part of a Hong Kong youth cricket team. I had brought along a new SONY video recorder and I monotonously zoomed in and out for the better part of a week proving later how annoying novice recordings can be. I also had some decent, less fidgety, clips of the city, sailing dhows, and wadi-bashing as we took the kids up for some stomach churning four-wheel-drive runs up vertiginous sand dunes. Dubai provided one of our first online stories.

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In February 2003 we launched Smart Travel Asia and it looked something like this by the second month. We also introduced short video clips, a first. With Estella Li (our steady and unflappable finance chief), the giggly Charlain Lim and the silent Winnie Choi (who eyed me suspiciously for many a month before cracking a smile), we moved from the Bank of America building in Central to our Gloucester Road penthouse.

There, we were later joined by the efficient and beaming Korean-American Ji-Hae Han on regional ad sales. She sat wide-eyed through my maniacal Bali drives, with me behind the wheel. After that, nothing fazed her. Then came the stoic problem-solving Ernest Lui whose dry British humour and silent concentration saved our website — from spammers and hackers and editorial idiocy — on more than one occasion.

A regional force (from left): The mercurial and inventive Maprang Petchngaovilai (Bangkok), Estella Li (HK, Finance and a steady hand), restaurant hunter Joey Choi (HK), the ever chatty Socci Cristi (Manila), Ninushka Fernandes (Mumbai), lightning fingers Tenzing Thondup (HK), Vijay Verghese/ Mouse-over 2nd image (from left): Me, Ivy Tsang, Estella Li, Virginia Cheng (all HK), Maprang (Bangkok), Socci, Nahida Coelho (Mumbai), Ernest Lui.

When that terrible Dec 2004 tsunami sprang from Aceh in Indonesia to ripple across the Indian Ocean, flattening the coastline from Sri Lanka, India and Mauritius to Phuket, Khao Lak and Myanmar, we spoke with scores of devastated resorts and survivors and reported daily on the damage, rescue attempts, and lives saved. Our message board — one of the most active at the time — connected anxious families with loved ones.

I visited Khao Lak and Phuket three days after the event and drove through the area filming video and talking with survivors, hoteliers, and senior government officials. The devastation was appalling. But Asia bounced back. Many from around the world whom we had assisted, returned as regular Smart Travel Asia readers and some became friends.

By April 2008 we had settled on a newspaper-style format with fewer bells and whistles and by September 2008 our annual Best in Travel reader-poll results, which started in 2005 as an airline evaluation, had taken shape. This was a genuine vote by frequent travellers in the know and not a paid-for list. Thailand was dominating travel so in Bangkok we took on the tempestuous and hugely talented Maprang Pidichanan Petchngaovilai on sales. Anyone who could pronounce her name or had met her in Bangkok seemed to be firmly wrapped around her little finger. On her first trip to Hong Kong, she missed her flight back in a fever of duty-free shopping. The demure Pim Tanaboonroeng later picked up that baton. Soft-spoken Virginia Cheng covered sales in China and HK and, after hours, danced hip-hop. It was a surprising double act. She was followed by Ivy Tsang who always sported a mighty grin, eclipsed only by Mavis Chee (Singapore) and her incandescent smile.

Joey Choi spent many a year looking quizzically and innocently at all before digging into brand advertising from China, Japan and Hong Kong to Bali. She later surprised us with a solo trek in Nepal and remained deeply puzzled as to why her young male guide kept wanting to share her tent at night. So did she offer him hospitality? "No lah!" And the efficient, well-read Tenzing Thondup became a roving asset on everything from editorial to sales and marketing. She was our personal office-based Google.

In Mumbai, the charming Nahida Coelho (India sales — pretty much a suicide mission) was followed by Ninushka Fernandes who consoled me with spicy Goa sausages. Young Divya Menon briefly dove into the mayhem. We attempted to recover money from a large ad agency for an Incredible India campaign and, after a frustrating passage of some years, were told: "If you accept 60 percent we'll send the money right away, otherwise..." We settled on 70 percent. Praveer Shukla (New Delhi) kept in touch with slippery clients and dealt with taxi drivers whose car engines mysteriously broke down at critical moments. Socci Cristi kept her cool through 'brownouts' and coups to feed us the latest from Manila.

{We never permitted disruptive advertising, talking pixels, or anything that could remotely be seen as malware or spyware, and our readers responded...

A Hong Kong reunion of some past HOLIDAY colleagues and STA staff (from left back row): The ever-cheerrful and fiercely talented Loretta Lam (HK, Art), editorial head Julie Gaw (HOLIDAY Asia), the creative Vicky Hui (sales), Estella Li, Libby Peacock (HK, Cape Town), and (front row): Vijay Verghese. / Mouse-over 2nd image (from left): Lydia (S'pore), Estella Li, Ji-Hae Han, Me, Virginia Cheng, and Ernest.

Many bright faces came and went. We grew as a company and our young staff grew up, emerging from teen tantrums — "But I want to sleep now," one said crossly just before a client meet — and we all grew closer, as a family. And everywhere we travelled, we ate, heartily.

By September 2018 the magazine had assumed its current form and design, still with a newspaper front page that presented the latest or most relevant stories. Many of these stories continue up till today with updates, not always as fast as we'd like of course, to provide ongoing guides to destinations, hotels, airlines, cruises, golf, weddings, family holidays and more.

We never permitted disruptive advertising, talking pixels, or anything that could remotely be seen as malware or spyware, and our readers responded. At peak we had 1.5 million during the course of any year, much of this direct through bookmarks. Their focus was independent unbiased editorial review-based information, the sort that is impossible to find nowadays as so much content is fully sponsored. We remain absurdly old-fashioned and our in-depth stories have always been printable on A4 paper though that is well out of fashion now.

We became a favoured source for honest reference on Asia. A place for comparing brands. This was for our readers. And with a growing family of frequent flyers we offered an excellent audience for hotels, airlines and destinations to talk to. Real people. Real decision makers. Frazzled parents, rushed business people, conferencegoers, lovers, honeymooners, adventurers and odd bods seeking something out of the box. It was a pretty affluent audience, and one keenly interested in offbeat lines of enquiry, the road less travelled (or trampled). Our Taipei fun guide (written by Tricia Chen) became a top story along with our report by photo-journalist Chris Stowers on Beitou spa resorts (still No.1 on our site).

Readers wrote in to compliment us on stories, to share their views, or to smack our teeth. One liked us so much he demanded: "Please send your member at once." Another berated us for a lady in swimwear on the cover for a beach issue. I pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi in a tuxedo might not convey the right message. Our readers are a great source of inspiration and ideas. We continue to write back to as many as we can with advice where requested, and with candour.

Kate Springer (2nd right, HK editorial) and Joey Choi (far right) present a Reader Poll award to Peninsula Hong Kong. / Mouse-over 2nd image (far left): Pim Pinutda Tanaboonroeng (Bangkok) presenting a Reader Poll award to SALA resorts.

Some reader letter snippets:

The gang that started the ruckus at print mag HOLIDAY Asia, (far left) Editor Peter Morgan turns on the charm and (3rd from left) Boon Hui Tsng (advertising sales, Singapore) dazzles. Vijay Verghese (2nd from right). Mouse-over 2nd image (far left) Nina Nanta from Bangkok and (far right) Ji-Hae Han (Hong Kong) presenting an annual award in Thailand.

Twenty years on and we have you, the reader, to thank. Yes it is now time to trim our stories down to suit our ADHD times and simplify formats and rethink directions after that deafening Covid silence. But at our core is the desire to talk rather than titillate, to inform rather than impress. News you can use, as I like to say. Practical how-to advice mixed up with some fine writing by roving correspondents and professional photographers, all first-person reports and I-was-there visuals.

Ours is not a cut-and-paste template with unknown sources. Most of our staff and contributors over the years came from quality newspapers and magazines and they brought with them the professional and vigorous discipline of journalism they had been taught. No app can offer the insights, discipline and knowledge that training provides. Having Microsoft Word does not make one a writer. Nor does Photoshop a photographer make. It takes passion tinged with madness to be a journalist. We invested heavily in staff training, working on the principle that apprenticeship is the best way to learn. We encouraged debate and criticism.

HOLIDAY Hong Kong , the print magazine I had launched in the mid-Nineties under the aegis of the remarkable Adrian Zecha who was rolling out his Aman Resorts, provided a useful counterpoint to Business Traveller. It was Zecha who always pointed to the difference between tourists — who were herded en masse in splendid ignorance — and the knowledgeable and discriminating independent traveller.

HOLIDAY was the original leisure inspiration aimed at the traveller, editorially helmed in Hong Kong by the affable Canadian Peter Morgan who brought a steady hand, wry humour, and a wealth of editorial experience to the rudder. He oozed charm, matching the effervescent Boon Hui Tsng who held the sales fort in Singapore. The magazine went through a few subsequent iterations.

Loretta Lam provided the art and design inspiration in spades and at various times the livewire Anong Srisuwanasorn (Bangkok) and the quietly elegant Farah Lange (Singapore) chipped in on sales. As HOLIDAY Asia the magazine was at one point driven almost entirely on fumes, plus the energy and brilliance of advertising whiz Irene Chua who went on to bigger things. A more persuasive lady would be hard to find.

Cooling down in the midst of a Koh Samui sales call (from left), Maprang, Ivy Tsang, Vijay Verghese. Mouse-over 2nd image (far right) Mavis Chee (Singapore) presenting a Reader Poll award.

A succession of fine editors — Daffyd Roderick, Teresa Machan, Julie Gaw, Jane McLean, the patient Claudine Kolle, and the gloriously animated Libby Peacock, to name a few — and some indefatigable salespeople who were frog-marched through 10 meetings a day in all corners of Asia from scorching beaches to luxe city hotels, carried the torch on to HK-headquartered Smart Travel Asia. I thank them all for their patience and forbearance. The pressure on them was immense as demands for free banner trials mounted. "Run it free and let's see how it goes after a month," hoteliers would say. My response was simple. "Give us a free stay in your Presidential Suite and we'll see how we feel after a month." A sensible trade it seemed.

Writers and photographers poured in from across the globe, some briefly joining our team before waltzing on. With tousled hair and cowboy boots, the lanky free-wheeling Charley Lanyon blew in from a dusty trip through Central Asia bringing us the dope on unpronounceable places like Kyrgystan. I tried to get him to change into clean polished shoes for meetings at the Mandarin, and failed.

Jakki Phillips, with her wild blonde locks, radiated energy and cheer and brought new discipline to the editorial desk. On weekends she kayaked and prepared for dragon boat events. Kate Springer was another breath of fresh air with an indefatigable pen. She took over from the earlier Philippa Young as our resident seeker and office conscience. We soon fell in line, saving paper, hugging pandas, drinking camel milk and so on. Good influences all.

We also had the pleasure of hosting some hugely talented young interns. Following the Napoleonic maxim: 'An army marches on its stomach,' the first young lad, Tejus Menon, was tasked with finding the cheapest burgers near the office. He succeeded brilliantly in his quest and our slender budget stretched through to another month. A fertile diaspora of cousins and others on the family tree (as well as curious neighbours) provided an endless supply of cheap labour to be shamelessly exploited. Much gratitude to my nieces Rubianka and Rahael who cheered up our office in Hong Kong, beavering away.

My son Kanishk also joined us for a while, enduring one memorable trip to Bali where his concussed father — having slipped and banged his head on a wet floor before passing out — floated incoherently through various meetings insisting, "The show must go on". Ron Nomura, the jovial tale-a-minute Grand Hyatt Bali sales mugwump dutifully pretended nothing was amiss and we watched a Balinese kecak dance, in the dark, which safely concealed a purple bloodshot eye.

In many ways, though, it was indeed a purple patch. As readership grew and advertisers started understanding our build-your-brand-and-stop-counting-clicks message, we abandoned burgers for delicious Chinese at the neighbourhood Lao Shanghai restaurant, a favourite till today. We checked hotel rooms for any boutique knee-knocking horrors, peered at the price of beer in the minibar, tested the WiFi, looked at electric socket placements, and checked the beaches at high and low tide. But, from Tokyo to New York, it was all work.

Much of my hair has shed over the years (visible on Google Earth) but we chug on. Happy New Year of the Rabbit.

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