It was the fall of 1986 when Kay Song, then a 26-year-old hotelier in New York, fled an arranged marriage by her family and flew to Seoul alone, with $10,000 in hand.
Back then, she did not know the impromptu trip would eventually help her create one of Korea’s premier travel agencies, with the world’s most renowned enterprises on her client list.
Now Song not only leads Business Travel & Incentive (BT&I), Korea’s biggest corporate travel service agency, but also is the only female president among the nation’s top 50 travel agencies.
“Back then, I wasn’t really interested in the travel business,” said Song. “ I had no clear vision or big ambition.”
After arriving in Korea, Song landed a job as a VIP coordinator at Shilla Hotel in Seoul, assisting foreign VIP customers staying at the hotel. It was then that she discovered an untapped market.
“It was next to impossible for foreigners who didn’t speak Korean to book a flight, make a reservation for a hotel or make other trip arrangements,” she said.
With Korea’s travel business still at the infant stage and few people speaking English, she decided to explore the uncharted territory by opening a travel company for foreigners.
But it was never a red carpet ride to the top for a young woman from the United States to run a travel firm in Korea.
In Korea a person’s school and hometown clique can play a large role in business transactions and networking, and big contracts are sometimes decided by late-night drinking binges in exclusive bars in the good old boy networks.
But Song was determined.
“I took to the street and when I spotted any foreigners on the street, I rushed to them and handed them my business card,” Song said.
“I even combed phone directories to find foreign names and companies.”
Her countless cold phone calling and visits to foreign expat gatherings began to bear fruit.
“At some point, people started calling in and referred me to their friends, and I ended up getting General Electric, Hewlett Packard and Citibank as my clients,” Song said.
After a marriage and two children, Song’s company has grown into one of the nation’s top 10 travel agencies with 70 billion won ($75.4 million) in annual flight ticket sales and 300 household name companies on her client list.
Now the firm handles business trips, staff incentive trips and tours for 50 Korean companies and 250 foreign firms, including Merrill Lynch, Apple Computer, Dupont, Pfizer and Shinhan Financial Group Co.
Song said that sales, which have been growing about 30 percent on average every year, are expected to exceed 900 billion won this year.
The company even went public last year by acquiring controlling shares in Volvik, a golf ball producer that has been listed on Kosdaq market.
“It’s nearly de rigueur for travel firms here to offer jeopdae [entertaining potential clients with wining, dining, karaoke, flirting, and more with women in the name of making business deals] to win contracts with corporate clients,” said a travel industry representative who declined to be named.
“In that sense, BT&I is exceptional, since it created jealousy among its competitors, and it did so with no advertising and jeopdae whatsoever.”
Having big name clients isn’t a cakewalk for Song.
Serving company executives during important business events can be lucrative, but it can also be a nerve-racking experience compared to serving small travelers planning summer vacations.
“Many of our customers are those who make business headlines of newspapers every day, so who knows when a wrong trip itinerary may cost them a big business deal or a major customer?” Song said.
She stressed that just one mistake on a business trip may cost her a client forever.
“We literally pray together before every single business trip these days,” Song said.

By Jung Ha-won Staff Writer [hawon@joongang.co.kr]