In just six years Mr Nguyen Cao Son has seen Paradise Cruises be named among the most popular luxury cruise operators in Ha Long Bay.
Mr Nguyen Cao Son spends most of his time on the road. The young entrepreneur is in Ha Long Bay half of the week and in Hanoi the other half. In his job as General Manager of Paradise Cruises he has about 200 guests each night to keep happy.
Sitting in the lounge of a hotel in central Hanoi, Mr Son reflects on his eventful journey. As a youngster, he said, he dreamed of working as a journalist. But while at university he picked up a part-time job as a hotel receptionist, where he could hone his English skills. One day he realised the job had inspired him to pursue a career in the tourism industry.
Mr Son is now well-versed in tourism, having worked at a range of hotels throughout the country, all foreign-owned. So what attracted him to the position at Paradise Cruises, a local company, in 2008? It wasn’t a difficult decision, apparently, even though he had many offers to consider at the time. “I saw the potential of Paradise Cruises,” he told VET. “It wasn’t a safe bet but I always want to challenge myself.”
Quality and persistence
Mr Son arrived at an interesting time for Paradise Cruises, just as it launched its first vessel. The company’s vision is simple: to offer a unique cruising experience in the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay, blending Vietnamese traditions and multi-faceted culture with the highest standards of hospitality. The project is long term and needs commitment, as Paradise Cruises targets expanding to 100 vessels within 15 years.
Where Mr Son differs from other bosses is how he sees the interplay between competition and co-operation. While there are a number of cruise operators providing the same services, he never considers them as competitors but rather as co-operators in promoting the tourism potential of Ha Long Bay. “Instead, we see ourselves as our main competitors,” he explained. “Our daily pursuit is to be better than we were yesterday. Put simply, we have to overcome ourselves.” He also points to the rise of luxury travel, where people are willing to pay more for a luxury tourism experience. This is why Paradise Cruises targets dominating the luxury segment by offering customers the highest possible standards of hospitality.
The quality of its services seems to give Mr Son and Paradise Cruises the greatest amount of confidence. Modest in every other respect, he never once doubted that Paradise Cruises could provide better services than others. The company made headlines in April this year after being honoured by TripAdvisor for consistently demonstrating a commitment to hospitality excellence, maintaining an overall rating of “Good” to “Excellent”, as reviewed by travellers. With over 512 online reviews resulting in a five-star rating on the website, Paradise Cruises has gathered a loyal following among its impressed customers, enough to inspire them to hit the keyboard and wax lyrical to others about their experiences onboard.
Mr Son is convinced that word-of-mouth marketing is the most powerful and persuasive weapon. After all, a customer is more likely to use products or services following a personal recommendation from a friend or colleague. But the marketing component would be nothing if the services themselves weren’t that great. In the case of Paradise Cruises, Mr Son believes that the success of word-of-mouth marketing also depends on the customer’s trust in the services. “Firstly, your services have to earn enough merit to become a worthy topic of conversation,” he said. “You can only do this with exceptional services.”
The journey may be a pleasant, gradual ride for some businesses but for some it can be daunting. Some may have quick success but eventually be overwhelmed by the problems often associated with rapid business expansion. For example, good customer service is often a significant factor in business success, but ironically is also one of the first things that tends to fall by the wayside when business growth faces obstacles. In the low season, while others may think of cutting costs to attract customers, Mr Son believes this can lead to the danger of killing customer services. His strategy is different, as he wants to take advantage of the low season for boat maintenance and staff training, thereby improving customer services. “You may be losing money instead of making money, and this can go on for a long period of time,” he said. “We don’t know the end result but, don’t forget, being persistent in business does pay off.”
Anyone who has ever worked in the tourism industry knows that professionals spend long hours at work, and so it is with Mr Son. His management style is one of leading by example. “As a GM, part of your job is to inspire the people around you to push themselves ahead,” he said. “To do this, there is no better way than showing them by doing it yourself.”
With authorities aiming to cut the number of cruises operating in Ha Long Bay, Paradise Cruises doesn’t want to keep all of its eggs in one basket. The ambitious company has recently developed the four-star Halong Paradise Suite Hotel, the first luxury boutique hotel on the shores of Ha Long Bay. “Hotels and cruise ships go hand in hand in Ha Long,” he said, adding that the company will open a few more hotels in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the central region. So far this has been a low-risk strategy, but Mr Son concedes that the overall process is somewhat slow.
When he was appointed GM of Paradise Cruises in 2008 he seemed to be just the man for the job. What made him uneasy at first, though, was that he received a lot of questions about and comparisons of the pricing and services of Paradise Cruises. “Honestly, I didn’t like it and preferred to let our performance speak for itself,” he said. Six years on and no one compares Paradise Cruises with others anymore, and for him this gives a sense of accomplishment.
Despite the tough economy, what Mr Son and his team have built is a sizeable niche market with yearly turnover increasing by 20-50 per cent. Much of that success is due to quality services and persistence. The Paradise Cruises fleet has expanded over a few short years to include a total of nine luxury boats divided into four categories: Paradise Luxury, Paradise Privilege, Paradise Peak, and Paradise Explorer, welcoming some 200 guests each night. The company now has representative offices in the US, Manila, Australia and Taiwan.
When his busy business schedule permits, Mr Son loves to spend time with his family, play sport and read books. He sometimes gets into the kitchen and cooks meals for his two sons. “I tend to cook European meals that the kids beg for,” he smiled. When asked about his advice for young people, Mr Son, the son of a teacher, is of the opinion that many young people perhaps waste too much time on futile things like Facebook or their mobile phones and turn their attention away from what is really important. “Young people should focus on doing simple things first and be persistent with it,” he said.