Innovative Minds Part V: Kay Song

Kay Song

Kay Song knew she was taking a huge gamble in leaving America almost 30 years ago as a young woman in search of a better life here in Korea. Fast forward to 2015 and she is now head of one of the most influential travel companies in the country; a company that Song built from scratch. During this time, Song has married and has two children while still managing to grow her business. Alongside this incredible achievement, she is well known for her contribution to society through her active charity work, in particular working closely with many children’s organizations. The Asia Society Korea Center met up with Song to talk about her incredible journey and to hear what advice she has for both upcoming innovators and working moms.

You were once famously handing out your business cards to people in Itaewon to promote your new travel business. What gave you the idea to venture into this industry?
When I started the business back in 1986, Korea was very a very different place than it is today. Although there were travel agencies that “specialized in foreigners”, Seoul was not a place where foreigners were easy to find; I felt that this was going to change. I decided to start my business in the expat neighbourhood of Itaewon in the hope of attracting clients who were living in the area and I opened “Itaewon Travel Agency”. I started the business with only US$2500 and so it was impossible for me to do any marketing or PR. What I lacked in finances I made up for in passion, and that is what took me to the streets drumming up business with anyone I met.

BT&I is now one of the top travel management companies here in Korea. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
There have been a lot of challenges over the years and if I am to be honest, it is still challenging to this day. The travel industry is highly competitive and more importantly, always changing. One of the biggest challenges is staying ahead of the game and preempting the changes in the market. A defining moment for the company came at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. We expected large numbers of foreign tourists so we decided to operate a special lodging service for visitors. We took the gamble of blocking out rooms at luxury hotels in Seoul and prepaying the deposits. At that time, there was no such thing as block pricing or block reservation so it was difficult to convince the hotel managers of the concept. But our gamble paid off and due to a shortage of accommodation facilities during the Olympics, the rooms we had booked quickly sold out. This enabled us to generate good revenue and more importantly we learned a lot from the experience and got a foothold in the industry.

Do you think being Korean American was a help or a hindrance on this amazing journey of yours?
My experience in the US was definitely helpful. The exposure to different cultures helped me to communicate with people from different backgrounds and it was this interaction that enabled me to open up my business. The concept of a “foreigner exclusive travel agency” in Korea definitely came from my contact with likeminded people open to new ideas. Setting up a business in Korea in the 1980’s without connections was near impossible, especially for a young woman in her 20’s. Therefore I decided to focus on travel for foreign companies as they valued service and quality more than the Korean firms did at the time; my Korean American background enabled me to do this. 

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs or innovators who are looking to set up their own business here in Korea?
I always emphasize two things - be a good person and don’t forget your roots. If you have a good heart and a good intention then you will succeed, even if it means taking a little longer than expected. If you develop bad intentions then this success cannot be maintained in the long run. Another key to our 28 year success has been remembering how we established the business all those years ago. To this day we still keep the same cardinal rule that we started with, “No Advertising, no entertaining and no hosting.” Keeping true to your roots and beliefs is so important if you want to succeed. 

Since the creation of your business you have had two children. What is life like as a working mom?
Being a mother itself is pure happiness and without doubt the most rewarding experience of my life; I always see myself as a mother before being a businesswoman. Of course there have been obstacles and challenges along the way, but with support from my husband and two sons I have been able to overcome them. 

Balancing the role of a being a parent and having a job at the same time must have been challenging. What advice would you give to other moms in the same situation?
I see many working moms around me all working hard to achieve their goals. I would like to remind them that “if you change your mind about one thing, you can change everything.” What is important is thinking positively while prioritizing your obligation as a mother; I have been able to thrive because of my family. I would also like to add that working moms should not feel guilty about not being able to spend a lot of time with their children because it is quality, not quantity that matters. Even if you spend little time with your children, if you show enough love this will be stimulating enough for the children to be given positive influences. Being a working mom also provides an opportunity for the mother and children to grow together.

*Interview by Matthew Fennell