This is the story of a woman who unintentionally started an empire. It’s the story of a woman who looks at the difficult (or even the impossible) and sees opportunity. And it’s the story of a woman who, despite decades of travel, is not only still humbled and inspired by it, but also still wants to share the joy of a place with the world. This is the story of Wendy Wu.
Talking to the Wendy Wu Tours founder should come with a warning. Yes, you will come away inspired. But then, after a bit, you may be left feeling like you’ve frittered away great chunks of your life.
“My father always said: ‘Life is like rowing a boat against the current’,” Wendy Wu tells Karryon.
“‘If you don’t go forward, you are already going backwards’. This had a profound impact on my life.”
Her colleagues have told Wendy it’s like she has an internal whip that propels her forward, oftentimes having to remind her to stop and smell the roses. But I very much get the impression that while we’re smelling the roses, Wendy’s not only cultivated a new rose variety, but she’s marketed it, sold it and it’s now the bestselling rose on the market. Because Wendy finds not just satisfaction but real joy in rising to meet a challenge.
Back when Wendy was both working full time and studying full time (because: Wendy), she remembers working through the night on an assignment for uni before having to fly overseas for work. She describes the energy she felt upon seeing the morning light break and also something else: an excitement and something resembling pride or gratification. This, after an all-nighter! But it’s this outlook that distinguishes Wendy from others.
From petroleum chemistry to travel (via a love of literature)
The route to Wendy Wu Tours had a few unexpected detours. Or perhaps Wendy Wu Tours was the detour? Because here’s the thing: Wendy Wu of Wendy Wu Tours is a petroleum chemistry graduate.
“I loved Shakespeare and The Three Musketeers and I wanted to study literature. But my mum and dad were typical Chinese parents and said, ‘Oh, literature is useless’.
“They wanted me to do something practical. Petroleum chemistry is practical.” So that’s what she studied.
“I had literature in my heart, but petroleum chemistry was going to be my career,” she tells Karryon.
But she finally got her chance to study literature when she moved to Australia.
“I loved the challenge of it,” she says.
“My English wasn’t great. I was studying literature and linguistics at Macquarie Uni and my lecturer suggested I drop literature and just do linguistics.
“And I remember I said no, I’m going to take this challenge and I will do it well.” She, of course, did. While working a full time job no less.
But travel was always there
Wendy was born in Tibet, but moved to Sichuan as a baby. She remembers her return home.
“My first clear memory was my dad and mum taking me to Tibet. I remember arriving in our Tibetan home and walking across the front gate of the building, and so many people coming out to welcome us.
“And I remember the tin roof shining under the light of Tibet. And that memory has always been etched in my head, and forever pushes me. Always thinking: Tibet and travel. Because it took 12 days by coach to arrive there.”
So began Wendy’s travels.
“Compared to most Chinese people back then our family did do a lot of travel,” she says.
Her parents were doctors and were always travelling. Wendy went with them and so as a child she was probably more travelled than most adults in China.
Looking back, Wendy now sees how travel even dictated her university choice. The young Wendy, then living in Shanghai says she chose her university (in Harbin, Manchuria) based on its attractions and distance from home.
“Here, hidden was my desire to travel,” she says.
A strange fate
“I started to feel that I wanted to do something extraordinary,” Wendy tells Karryon. But ending up in travel was not what she expected.
“I love literature. And so it is bizarre for me, so very, very strange that I ended up in travel and I love it so much, right?”
Wendy talks in wonderment of fate and the gods sending a gift.
“Because this never was predicted and never was planned.”
It all started while she was studying at university. She and her partner at the time were planning a month-long trip to China. But two weeks before they were due to go, her partner was offered an opportunity too good to pass up and Wendy was left with a holiday and no one to share it with.
“So then I decided to put an ad in the paper saying this is my itinerary and this is what you’re going to see and you will have me as a free guide. And that’s how it started.”
The response she got was huge. And Wendy saw a gap in the market. But she didn’t know the ins and outs of booking travel. So she went to American Express Travel in Carlingford, NSW and told the owner, Barry Alsop, that she wanted to escort a group to China.
That first group had about 16 people on it. And they kept returning for more. And telling their friends.
“Ultimately, from those 16 people, I possibly got 160 trips,” Wendy says.
“They kept on travelling and kept on travelling until they could no longer travel.”
The making of Wendy Wu Tours
“It never was my desire to have my own business,” Wendy says.
“I loved working for someone. And I loved having a boss.”
But her tours were doing well and so with Alsop’s blessings, Wendy left and started Wendy Wu Tours in 1998. She took two staff with her, Chris Adis and Amanda Bruno. Both are still with her 25 years on.
Wendy knows she can be tough and demanding. And she asked Chris and Amanda if they’d prefer someone more patient.
“They said, ‘Yes, you are tough, and you are sometimes terrible, but we learn so much more. And you are very clear with what you want to do. And that’s what we want to do.’”
Wendy speaks with great respect of her colleagues, her team and previous bosses. And I try to pin down who drives her, who inspires her. Who she looks to as a mentor. But Wendy is clear: it’s the customer.
“The customer tells me what they want or need and I deliver. It’s that simple.”
Wendy Wu was in Sydney to celebrate 25 years of Wendy Wu Tours.
For more information on Wendy Wu Tours, click here.
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