Profile: Craig Hsu, Building a Family Business

Family, fate and tradition are the threads weaving through Craig Hsu’s success.

Helming the business begun by his father in 1986, he’s bringing second-generation ideas to an old-school success strategy.

The Hsu family’s travel story began when the elder Hsu, Amos, emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan.

“He worked as a tour guide here for people from Taiwan going to Disneyland or New York. He picked up clients from the airport and took them to places around the city. The idea of starting a travel agency didn’t occur to him. But one day, a client tipped him $100 dollars and told him to go start an agency. He brought my mom over and they started it from scratch. I took my first steps at a travel show,” said Hsu.

Hsu’s father kept up the tour guide business as he developed Travel Design USA, Inc. With a location in the Southbay L.A. suburb of Torrance, CA, it’s served the Chinese market for more than three decades.

“Back in the early days, then, there was a lot of decent profit coming in from air tickets. After the airlines cut commissions, the focus switched to hotels and tours,” said Hsu.

As his parents, Amos and Mona, grew the business, Hsu had a different career path in mind. Earning a bachelor’s degree in 2004 in political science and economics from UCLA, he headed for the world of finance. Hsu worked as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley, with no thought of entering the travel business.

That changed when his father was diagnosed with liver cancer.

Hsu took over the agency, and never went back to finance. Fortunately, his father’s cancer was caught early, and he’s doing fine now.

Hsu now runs Travel Design USA, Inc. as its vice president (with dad keeping the president’s title). The agency employs a staff of 18 in the office, with one agent based at home. Most of the business is generated by phone and email. But, some thirty percent comes from walk ins.

Though a full-service agency, cruises account for sixty-five percent of Travel Design USA’s business. Hsu also oversees a tour operator division specializing in China tours for the American market.

Since taking over, Hsu’s vision has expanded the agency’s profile.

He got Travel Design USA into the Signature Travel Network. At age 26, he was selected as Signature’s youngest-ever board member, and is currently serving in his seventh year.

“My parents didn’t know anything about the various consortia. But, we’ve had a very beneficial relationship with Signature. They have great people there and I’ve learned a lot through the years. We’re the only member focused on the Chinese market,” said Hsu.

Hsu’s clients consist primarily of Chinese Americans living in the U.S. or with dual residencies. He reaches them with an array of customized marketing.

“We have 30-second commercials running on Chinese-language TV. We also send out direct mail pieces and email campaigns in Chinese. We have newspaper ads. We’re also having a lot of success with cruise night events. We have a district manager come talk about a product and have a translator emphasize the main points for the audience,” said Hsu.

For now, the agency’s clientele falls into the 50-90-year-old age group.

“They want lots of handholding. We have Chinese escorts from our office that accompany every cruise. We use Chinese-speaking guides in 80 percent of the destinations. We even provide our own headsets,” said Hsu.

Lots of extra work takes place behind the scenes, as well.

“We have interns who translate itineraries from English to Chinese. There are lots of different dialects, with both a traditional and simplified version of reading Chinese. Getting the content right is very important. We also rely on reports from the trip escorts. All that goes into our website marketing. We create a handbook for all our clients so they can have information about the destination before they go,” said Hsu.

The dedication has paid off, however. Other Chinese travel agencies often book through Travel Design, USA.

“We act as a wholesaler in that sense,” said Hsu.

He has mixed feelings about Norwegian Joy and other ships being purpose-built for the Chinese market.

“It helps in a sense that it brings awareness about cruising to the Chinese people. But at the same time, our surveys of Chinese Americans show that they don’t necessarily like to sail with people from China. You don’t want to end up having to talk politics. Some of my clients may want to avoid those ships and not sail,” said Hsu.

One concept that has proven popular is a special yearly group sailing. In the lineup for this holiday season is an AmaWaterways Christmas cruise. And, for the past several years, Travel Design USA has taken groups of 40-60 people to Antarctica and Australia with Celebrity Cruises.

“Sometimes the sailings coincide with Chinese New Year, so we celebrate on board ship,” said Hsu.

Travel Design USA’s cruise business is now skewing toward the luxury arena.

“There’s definitely an uptick in the luxury market. We’ve been working closely with high-end lines to showcase what they have for offer. It’s a better experience for the client, and more money for the agency,” said Hsu.

Financially, the agency’s growth has gone through cycles.

“Last year we were flat, because of the election and concerns about terrorism. But since my parents started the business, we’ve grown about 10-15 percent year-over-year. Profits definitely have been there, and we’re managing the business better,” said Hsu.

While he hopes to grow the luxury market, he’s also thinking about Millennials.

He’s hired several them in the office, to help attract that emerging segment.

Though Hsu isn’t much of a social media user himself, he recognizes its importance.

“As far as business goes, we haven’t seen a big return from social media yet. It’s not the same as our TV ads or emails. But, it’s here to stay and it’s a channel we must get more involved in. They don’t have Facebook in China. There are a lot of apps we need to look at and adapt.  We’re growing for the future, and social media is the future,” said Hsu.

In the meantime, he’s got his hands full with the existing marketing strategy.

And there’s one other constant priority.

“Mom and dad come in here all the time and want to know great fams I can send them on,” said Hsu.