Ask any behaviourist and they’ll tell you that the true test of any mettle is a crisis. For Krystal Tan and Chervin Chow — the couple behind the Singapore-based boutique travel and lifestyle company Blue Sky Escapes — the past fifteen months have thrown the fragility of their business and industry into stark relief, even as their resolve and financial reserves have been stretched to their limits.
As an investment banking analyst with Lehman Brothers in New York and Singapore in the mid-2000s, Chow lived and worked through the 2008 financial crisis, but even that experience, he says, cannot compare to the challenges of Covid-19 especially now that he has skin in the game as a business operator and employer. “The travel industry reacts very sensitively to the slightest whiff of a crisis and the virus has single-handedly upended the landscape.”
Forbes estimates the pandemic has cost the global travel industry nearly a trillion US dollars; and in a country like Singapore where tourism has accounted for around 4 percent of its GDP, the fall-out has been catastrophic.
But for Tan and Chow, this has been a moment of reckoning, a test of the solidity of the foundation of not just their business model, but also of their relationships as spouses and business partners. “As a travel company specialising in outbound journeys, we’re in one of industries hardest hit by Covid,” says Tan, a London-trained corporate mergers and acquisitions lawyer until she left practice in 2017 to work full-time on Blue Sky Escapes.
In the midst of the pandemic and borders firmly closed, the couple regrouped, assessed their options, kept all their staff on the payroll, and pivoted smartly to creating wellness staycations and retreats, and a series of expert-led, virtual workshops such as morning grounding rituals, conscious eating sessions, and personal growth workshops.
And now, on the eve of the borders between Hong Kong and Singapore reopening, they find themselves gearing up for a rebound in travel, even if it’s one that will likely be gradual and controlled. We recently caught up with the couple for a sense of what the future holds for them, and for Blue Sky Escapes and the upper end of the travel industry.
How has Covid shaped or changed the original mission of Blue Sky Escapes?
Krystal Tan: I don’t think it really has. We’ve always been inspired by the huge opportunities for personal and spiritual growth that travel can bring. I have experienced the shifts in my own world-views after going on an experiential journey, always emerging with a renewed perspective and clarity. That’s what Blue Sky Escapes stands for as a company — the drive to help travellers step out of their comfort zones and to enrich their sense of selves and unlock extraordinary experiences. The pandemic hasn’t changed that focus. We feel totally aligned channeling our energy into the wellness space. We see it as a chance to help our community unlock journeys into their inner landscapes.
What’s been one of the toughest challenges you’ve faced?
KT: When the pandemic hit, we felt immediately responsible and accountable to our team. We decided not to let go of anyone, even when most, if not all, travel agencies in town were hitting pause, going bust, or downsizing. I think what’s kept us in business has been our culture of curiosity and reflection. We constantly ask ourselves: What experiences deliver an emotional impact? This hunger to explore keeps us agile and drives continuous growth and innovation.
Is the gap in the market that you spotted when you started your company in around 2015 still there, or has it changed?
KT: I believe the desire to take trips which get under the skin of a place will always remain. We help our travellers become immersed in a country, tap into local culture and seek out new and authentic experiences. Increasingly, our services with respect to trips have evolved to encompass more duty-of-care type of travel advice. With the ever-changing rules and requirements brought about by the pandemic, clients require more guidance and count on us for support through our extensive network of global connections. On the lifestyle end, we’ve seen a real spike in interest in our wellness offering, with people finally taking time out for themselves to reflect and recharge. It’s wonderful to see how the pandemic has somehow facilitated a kind of awakening in others, with more people coming out of their shells to self-reflect and question their place in the universe.
What’s your assessment of the international travel market? Will we ever return to the Before Times?
Chervin Chow: I think we’ll see a fundamental change in how we think about business travel. I mean, do you relish taking an early morning flight to Jakarta for a meeting, and rush back in time for dinner with the kids? Since Covid, virtual meetings have shown us we don’t need such short-haul business travel. On the other hand, I really do think leisure travel will rebound with a vengeance once the world feels safe to travel again. I’d like to think that the need and ability to travel ranks as a basic necessity in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. No pandemic will ever change that need to explore new ground. We are already seeing quite a bit of interest in international travel for the fourth quarter of 2021 onwards.
How have you personally coped with the stress and uncertainties created by Covid?
KT: What’s helped me most is a rigorous self-care plan which includes music and a consistent meditation practice which has allowed me to truly experience the benefits of stillness. I now begin each morning sitting in silence. It’s allowed me to tune into a space where I become an observer of things, thoughts and happenings as they unravel before me, without any judgment attached.
In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about sustainable travel and the impact of mass tourism. How do you reconcile that with what you do, and the fact that travel contributes to the climate emergency?
CC: Sustainable travel, especially preserving the pristine environments we travel through, is central to our philosophy and values. All our staff, guides and suppliers are remunerated fairly. We offer financial support to the local communities and homestays we travel to, and periodically visit them to exchange feedback on the social and environmental impact of our journeys. This protocol ensures sustainable travel and allows us be discerning about the places we visit, so as to avoid negative social change. To mitigate our carbon footprint, we work with One Tree Planted to plant a tree for every traveller we send on a journey. We are also rolling out an opt-in carbon offset programme that provides clients with the option to pay an additional amount to offset the carbon footprint of their journey.
What’s been the best part of your life and career journeys so far?
KT: It’s been witnessing the impact our work has had on our clients, partners and community; in the shifts in perspectives, inner healing and transformation; and in the questioning of old patterns of thinking.
CC: My journey so far has been so varied and rich with experiences. I’ve had the chance to explore and immerse myself in unique cultures. It certainly helps that I’ve been able to share these experiences with Krystal. Her boundless curiosity and thirst for the unknown have enabled us to take this unpredictable, constantly evolving journey together.