Rising to the challenge
What motivates one to run a business? For some, it has always been a dream, and for others, the desire to own something of their own is far too good to pass up. Not so for Andrew Dunn though. The founder of bespoke travel operator, Scott Dunn, laughed at his decision to start his own company.
“I was working at the ski chalet as a guide and one day, asked myself, ‘Do you want to continue as a glorified ski bum? Or are you going to make a business out of it?” And so I did. I set up an office,” he says.
That was in 1986. Today, he runs offices in the UK and USA and most recently, set up shop in Singapore. “Look at the time differences, we’re officially open 24/7,” he quips triumphantly. And yes, if you’d like to know, he wishes his name was Scott Dunn, too.
How big was the jump from working at the ski chalet to having your own company?
It was actually reasonably easy. I’ve never worked for anyone in my life. At the chalet, people loved the level of service delivered. My wife’s best friend was married to a man who ran a walking safari company in Zambia. We had a chat and decided to take the plunge.
In this day and age, how do you wow a client with your level of service?
First up: You’re not a client, you’re a guest. Secondly, everything is done by telephone. We will email you the itinerary, but all discussions take place over the phone. If we can explain to guests on the phone why things are done a certain way, they’re far more receptive, rather than them asking questions and waiting for an email response.
How would you deal with a situation where a guest wants to visit a country, say Iran, but none of your team members have been there?
We only recommend places we have visited. In this case, if none of us have been to Iran, we’ll tell the client that we’re sorry, we wouldn’t be able to plan an itinerary for you. What we will do is suggest something similar. By being honest, guests know they can trust us, that’s how relationships are built.
You’ve been in the business for over 30 years. How have the guests differed then and now?
People are, without a doubt, more demanding. When we started the ski chalet, an ensuite bathroom was the absolute height of luxury. Then it was a sauna, whirlpool, Sky television, Wi-Fi. These are now a given. Some people even go, ‘What, it doesn’t have an indoor pool?’ People’s tastes in food and wine have changed a whole lot. They’re more experienced and worldly. The luxury travel game has changed so much.
How do you deal with difficult guests then?
Actually, our biggest advocates are those who’ve had a problem with us. They pointed out an issue, we threw the proverbial kitchen sink at it and sorted it out. The best part is hearing them go, ‘Now that’s impressive’, and turn into a return guest.
What’s the starting price for a trip, and what’s the most anyone has spent?
It costs about S$6,000 per person for a short trip. We’re definitely not the cheapest, we didn’t set out to be a budget tour operator, and we’ve never wanted to be that. But we do work with your budget. The most expensive trip cost about £350,000 ($620,300) for 20 people to Africa. They were flying premium, trying three different camps in eastern Africa. There were lots of surprises: hot air balloon rides, bush breakfasts waiting at the turn of the corner…
How do you stand out among other bespoke travel agencies?
Sixty per cent of our clients are return clients. This tells you we must be doing something right. We don’t just design an itinerary for guests. We run our own chalets and villas, and have our own drivers, chefs and nannies who are fully trained and qualified. We operate kids clubs in certain hotels, and look after babies from four months of age. For those aged two and below, the ratio is one nanny to two babies. We have sleep rooms and bottle sterilisers.
Some travel operators specialise in certain regions. Do you think this puts Scott Dunn at a disadvantage?
Definitely not. This actually puts us at an advantage. We have different teams for different regions. If something were to happen in a region that the company specialises in, what do they do? Cancel the trip? We divert guests elsewhere. We’re not scrambling around trying to get hotels and airlines or doing refunds.
Lastly. why is the company called Scott Dunn, given that your name is Andrew?
As a student, I was quite poor and wanted to ski for free. I wanted to call my company Ski Skint. I told my grandmother about this and she said, ‘Andrew, people always pay for the best in life.’ She asked me to call it Scott Dunn, given that Scott was my father’s, grandfather’s, and great grandfather’s name. It would have made my life a lot easier if my name was Andrew Scott Dunn.