Aki Yang, Head of WildChina Shanghai Office and WildChina Corporate Services, was invited to share her views on “luxury travel in the post-pandemic era” at the Tourism Development Summit (旅业发展高峰论坛) in March.
As part of this presentation, Aki shared a bit about her career journey and how she came to join the WildChina team.
From Fortune 500 to Bespoke Travel
Aki joined the WildChina team six years ago in a career move driven not by prowess and financial drive, but by a yearning for fulfillment – that feeling that work is not just for personal gain, but for making the world, and an industry, better than they were before you.
Let’s rewind to the beginning though. Shortly after graduation from university, Aki joined Unilever as a management trainee in the marketing department. After several years, she felt this ‘marketing school’ had aptly trained her from a novice management trainee into a confident brand manager.
It was at this point, poised for a highly sought-after career in a fortune 500 company, that Aki found herself reflecting on her life’s purpose. She asked herself this question, “If you’re 80 years old and you look back on your whole life, will you regret it?”
At about the same time, Aki’s husband was accepted to an MBA program in the United States. The university he was studying at had an open audit policy for students’ spouses, allowing them to attend lectures at their will. So, Aki put in her notice at Unilever and moved to the US with her husband where she was able to audit classes, make international friends and travel freely. Prior to this move abroad, her travel experience was limited and the society she lived in dictated its own values and norms.
Traveling abroad broadened her social circle dramatically as she met people from different corners of the world. It was through these new encounters and travels that her worldview underwent a profound transformation. She came to realize that identity and value aren’t necessarily measured through career success and the number of zeros on a salary. Instead she learned the value of empathy and acceptance. Travel is what opened her eyes to this, and if she could provide others with this same opportunity, that seemed like the most fulfilling career there could be.
So, joining the travel industry was not merely a career change for Aki, it was a calling fueled by an unwavering sense of mission and purpose in life. Having personally experienced the transformative power of travel, Aki was inspired to share this gift with others and make a positive impact on their lives.
After Aki and her husband returned to China, Aki’s goal was clear: to find a career the travel industry. During this time, Aki happened upon a video of WildChina’s founder, Mei Zhang, talking about her story in founding WildChina and the vision revolutionizing bespoke travel in China. Aki thought, “This is exactly what I want to do. This is the kind of mission and thought I want to lead.”
The Travel Industry Mindset
In 2016 Aki joined the WildChina team in Beijing, moving into the role of Head of the Corporate Services in Shanghai in 2019, a year before the pandemic began. Despite being a small team of fewer than 10 people, the Corporate Services department managed to double the revenue compared to the previous year. But the following year brought unprecedented new challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic cast a dark shadow over China’s travel industry for three straight years. Through this long shadow, however, the light would occasionally break through. In 2020, the outbreak hit the travel industry hard, grinding operations to a complete and total halt. In the second half of the year, however, the WildChina Corporate Services department unexpectedly achieved results equal to the previous year, restoring the team’s confidence and outlook. This continued through 2021, when the team surpassed their record-breaking 2019 performance, a huge achievement even at the best of times, which this definitely was not. “The darkest time is over,” Aki declared optimistically.
In this volatile travel environment, Aki started reflecting, asking herself questions about which direction the company was going in, what kind of business it was going to develop and how to maintain the motivation and passion of the team through these setbacks.
The Power of “Aha” Moments
Experiencing the destruction and resurrection of the industry, Aki realized the importance of staying grounded. In an unpredictable environment, the only thing we can control is our mindset.
For Aki, travel has always been more than just visiting new places; it has often served as a catalyst for reflection. During the Tourism Development Summit, she shared a breakthrough moment she experienced while spending three days in Shangri-La, learning horseback riding.
She transformed from a tourist who could only leisurely ride a horse to a systematic learner, mastering proper sitting, rein control, and even galloping comfortably on the last day.
While riding the horse, there was a moment when she felt a loss of control. However, she realized that she had to trust the horse completely, as it was her only option. As she calmed down, the horse also became calm. One phrase repeatedly emphasized by the instructor left a profound impression on her, “Equestrianism not only challenges technical difficulty but also demands precise control. In the world of horse riding, disobedient horses do not exist; instead, there are only imprecise commands.”
In that moment, Aki was struck by the realization that horse riding was not just about controlling the horse but, more importantly, about controlling oneself. It also made her realize that the principles and techniques of horseback riding align with those of team management.
In marketing, there is a concept called the “aha moment”, where marketers must see beyond the surface and delve into the essence of the consumer needs. By discovering the inherent value they can then achieve market significance, stimulating a desire to purchase.
Aki has always considered the “aha moment” as a benchmark for product design and innovation. The learning horseback riding gave her one of these “aha moments” herself: it is the profound impact on individuals and the feedback on the value of the product itself that achieves a lasting effect.
“Many companies in the industry offer executive itineraries, but the reality is that conducting executive training poses significant challenges. This is because executives often possess a wealth of life experiences and insights. They don’t necessarily require conventional teaching; rather, what they need are conducive conditions that allow them to reflect on themselves using the world as a mirror.
Whether through leadership courses, mindfulness meditation, or leveraging the wisdom of nature to enhance self-awareness of the body and emotions, embarking on such journeys can enable individuals to elevate themselves to the next level and embrace a better version of themselves. These transformative itineraries have the potential to create defining moments that clients will cherish for years to come.”
The Future of Travel
Through her work with WildChina’s founders, Albert Ng and Mei Zhang, Aki learned that the focus of the company was never solely on increasing profits or maximizing financial gains. Instead, they emphasize measuring impact and value by constantly striving to broaden the company’s perspective. As Albert puts it, “Instead of learning how to be a manager, learn how to be a leader.”
The theme of her presentation at the Travel Development Summit was: travel is a way to broaden horizons. Ultimately, humans strive for self-realization. Help our guests and our team gradually move towards self-realization is the direction Aki and her team have been contemplating and innovating on. They believe that the traditional concept of luxury travel is coming to an end. Luxury travel is no longer about material luxury, but spiritual luxury.
Historically, China’s most sought-after experiences are the iconic attractions like The Forbidden City in Beijing, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, Chinese calligraphy classes, Peking Opera performances, and tea ceremonies. However, over the past two decades, China has undergone tremendous changes with advancements in science and technology yielding new ways of living and a shift in societal perceptions. Aki feels that it is important to showcase this contemporary China, continuing the real present-day narrative rather than focusing solely on the past. One approach to achieving this is by facilitating meaningful connections between travelers and various individuals residing in contemporary China. This can be anyone from factory workers to students to business executives to rural inhabitants. Aki aspires to provide moments of revelation, where travelers can exclaim, “Aha! This is modern China.”
Aki believes that travel should be more than just sightseeing and leisure activities. It has the power to open new business opportunities, to connect people, to break stereotypes and foster understanding.
Even a small experience can have a lasting impact and contribute to the cultivation of a broader mindset. This holds true for Aki, who left the beginnings of a “successful” career path to pursue a journey of self-actualization and fulfillment.
“Our mission is to create life-changing experiences. However, if our goal is to truly change lives, the design of the experience cannot be product-centric; it must be customer-centric. It is only when the experience resonates with the client’s own perceptions, inspiring new thinking, that it has the potential to bring about meaningful change.”
+86 10 6465 6602
+1 888 902 8808 (Toll Free)
803 Oriental Place, 9 East Dongfang Rd, Chaoyang District, Beijing, 100027, China