CALL OF THE WILDCHINA: Uncommon ground travel agency braves Net, tourist sectors

While many dot-coms are falling by the wayside, travel specialist WildChina.com is fast becoming one of the hottest tickets in China’s booming tourism sector.
Hundreds of paying customers have accepted the firm’s invitation to “Experience China Differently,” way off the beaten paths that channel millions past the Terra Cotta Warriors and onto the Great Wall.
“When I first came up with my e-travel plan, right in the middle of the dot-com craze, everyone laughed at me,” Zhang Mei, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of WildChina, told ChinaOnline.
“They said, ‘E-commerce: You should talk big, think big and have big plans. Internet means big money, big business, big dreams.’ All the people around me said my plan was too small to attract any venture capital. It was not flashy enough to attract eyeballs and too service-oriented.”
That was back in mid-1999 when start-ups were just beginning across China. Zhang was also tempted to try her hand, and her track record boded well. Born in the Bai-minority town of Dali, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, she secured a university spot to study English in Kunming, the provincial capital. While working as an interpreter there, Zhang met and impressed a Thai banker who decided to pay for her to get a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard Business School. A well-paid job as a consultant for McKinsey and Co. soon followed, giving her valuable experience and sparking the desire to set off on her own.
“I learnt a great deal from McKinsey,” Zhang said. “I got to know different sectors and industries. But I felt that I never had the chance to execute the ideas, I only gave advice. It was a bit like midwives helping to deliver other people’s babies, but not producing anything. So I decided to give it up so that I could realize my own ideas—or at least try to.”
In chorus with many other ambitious Chinese returning to their motherland, Zhang was chanting the new economy mantra. But in the face of strong opposition, she grew unsure of her e-travel proposal and went to work for someone else’s dot-com. Half a year later, she quit.
“I could have done a better job in running the company. Like many such start-ups, the money came together too quickly. The marketing person often had millions of dollars to play with even before the company worked out a sound business strategy. With nothing substantial to support the business, the firm went downhill quickly as the money burnt out.”
As dot-com bubbles burst all around her, Zhang dared to revisit her original plan. With 500,000 yuan (US$60,475) from her own pocket, a friend to help out and capital from two other friends, Zhang launched WildChina in August 2000. The idea first surfaced when she took six months off from McKinsey to backpack around the world.
“I lingered in some breathtakingly beautiful places in my home province, Yunnan. I realized that China has so much to offer to visitors, yet the travel service is so appalling. There is a big gap between what the travelers desire and what they can get. My task is to bridge the gap.”
The Internet is proving a powerful tool for stoking her customers’ desires.
“Traveling is an area where people need to do lots of reading and research,” she said. “It used to take people years to decide an important trip, from getting the brochure, doing the research, to planning the trip. Now, with the Internet as the perfect marketing channel, travelers have instant access to the information they need. Therefore, they tend to make decisions much faster.”
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