Some people are just not cut out for the usual nine to five office routine. They need variety, a regular change of scene and the chance to go places in the literal as well as the metaphorical sense. For them, the travel industry provides a great career option. And, as Eileen Ho, assistant general manager for S E Asia, Hong Thai Travel Services Limited, can confirm, it also offers plenty of excitement.
"You get to visit some of the world's most spectacular sights and the most beautiful scenic spots," she says, "but, when you are dealing with a group of tourists, you can never be 100 percent sure what will happen next!"
Ms Ho started her personal journey with Hong Thai in 1980 as a tour leader. "What attracted me back then was the opportunity to travel the world," she recalls. "During the 1980s, going abroad was a luxury which the average Hong Kong person could not afford. However, the travel industry gave me a chance to do that and turned out to be a perfect way of combining work and leisure."
She is, though, quick to point out that a tour leader's life is by no means easy. It requires the skills of a diplomat, historian, entertainer and psychologist - and that is just to start with! "Every client is different," says Ms Ho. "You must understand their individual travel needs and make them feel the trip is enjoyable and value for money. It might seem simple, but it's not."
You have to be the sort of person who never gets tired of excitement
After three years as a tour leader, Ms Ho was offered promotion to the post of assistant branch manager with special responsibility for training recruits and making sure all services provided met company standards. She saw her career taking a new direction, but felt the time was right for new challenges. "At first, I took charge of the training of frontline salespeople," she says. "Later, as assistant general manager, I looked after all the itineraries and planned campaigns to attract new clients while also handling contacts with the airlines and hotels. I could then see my efforts having a direct impact on the results of the business."
Now responsible for the company's South East Asia operations, Ms Ho hopes to get more involved in corporate administration and the development of policy. "There is no fixed timescale for that," she smiles, "as other things are keeping me busy enough at the moment."
Ms Ho's own experience has shown that advancement with Hong Thai depends on ability and a consistently high level of performance. Compared to when she started out, the formal requirements for joining the travel industry have become more stringent. Education to Form 5 standard is now a bare minimum and many applicants possess higher qualifications. Those who have studied tourism courses are seen to have a definite advantage.
"Within the industry, there are two routes to follow - operations and administration," explains Ms Ho. On the operational side, it is important for candidates to be strong in both written and spoken English and Mandarin and, preferably, to have some basic travel experience. Applicants are usually reminded at the outset that tourism is a "people industry" and requires a practical approach at all times. This applies equally on the administration side, which involves human resources, marketing and finance.
"A few years ago we started to recruit graduates with a genuine interest in the industry for our management trainee programme," Ms Ho adds. "This has gone very well and promotion to middle management positions can usually be expected within about two years."
Each year, Hong Thai receives numerous applications for the programme as well as for other vacancies. In Ms Ho's opinion, personality is the key to being selected and the company always looks for people who are open-minded, outgoing, active and willing to take responsibility. At the same time, flexibility and resourcefulness are crucial because any kind of emergency may come up when tour groups are abroad. Inability to handle the situation correctly will lead to complaints and adversely affect the company's reputation.
For anyone keen to see the world and build an exciting career, Ms Ho has a few words of advice. "Every single day you will face challenges and learn something new," she says. "To succeed in this business, you have to be the sort of person who never gets tired of excitement."
Ms Ho predicts that professionals in the travel industry will have countless opportunities to work in China. "Mainland companies really admire our management style and company structure and want to emulate the way we do things," she says. "Therefore, this indicates there should be steady demand for Hong Kong people with suitable operational or administrative experience."
Some tour guides are already based across the border. Ms Ho advises anyone wanting to develop a career there to be well prepared for work in a different cultural environment and, particularly, to have good language proficiency.