Frank Ho, Financial Controller at travel agency Charming Holidays, tells Erin Hale how travel came to play a critical role in his education and in his professional life
Photographer by Calvin Sit
Frank Ho got his first taste of travel as a university student in Wales, where he joined a tour group during a term holiday and visited a number of famous cities in the United Kingdom, including Edinburgh, Manchester and Liverpool. Despite the cold and rainy weather of the U.K., being far away from home presented new opportunities for Ho to see and try things he never experienced as a student in Hong Kong. Though he was busy working towards his degree in accounting and finance, he travelled around Europe, visiting countries such as Greece, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
Now back in Hong Kong, Ho frequently looks back on his travel adventures as a university student. Though busy at work, he still finds travelling to be enjoyable, informative and great for his mental health. “To manage work-related stress, I find it helpful to travel and take a break from the regular deadlines that come with being an accountant,” says Ho, who has been Financial Controller of Charming Holidays since 2014 and is a member of the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs.
Charming Holidays, a subsidiary of Ming Pao Holdings Limited, is a full-service travel agency which helps customers to organize group tours to various destinations around Europe, North America, New Zealand, the Mediterranean, Australia and China. Established in 1987, the company also has fellow subsidiaries with branches in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver and Toronto. They also help customers book cruise holidays and study tours.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and countries in Southeast Asia still remain the top destinations for Hong Kong travellers due to proximity and affordability, according to Ho. But those visiting destinations further away still seek professional help from agencies such as Charming Holidays and opt to join tour groups. Tour groups also mean that customers do not have to worry about the logistics of travel such as transport or possible language barriers, which can often be an issue in places like Eastern or Southern Europe where English is less widespread. “They want to enjoy a stress-free journey with good customer service,” Ho adds.
They also organize tours to more exotic locations such as Lofoten Island in Norway to see the Northern Lights, Murmansk, a Russian city in the Arctic Circle, and a trip to see the Southern Lights in Australia. “Hongkongers prefer travelling by themselves when visiting the United States, Canada or Australia,” Ho says. “But in Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal, they might have trouble as the level of English in those countries may not be as good.”
Ho says a current trend he sees involves immersive visits. “We just formed a 10-day tour through Switzerland and Italy – it’s a ‘deep tour,’” he says. The tour brings customers to one or two countries over the course of their trip and allows them to engage in local culture in a more meaningful way. Because of this, Charming Holidays’ main customer base consists of families, professionals and retirees looking for a long-haul trip.
Ho says the company’s key drivers of cost include flight tickets, hotels and expenses for tour guides such as visas and local ground transport. “We keep those costs under control by comparing quotations from different vendors and monitoring the performance of tours in different destinations.” Though the company partners primarily with premium-quality full service airlines like Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa, group-booking helps to keep airfares low even when retail airline tickets fluctuate due to fuel costs.
Charming Holidays also helps companies to book incentive trips in the form of group tours or corporate outings to reward high performance. Corporate trips include tailor-made tours for team building activities, exhibitions and often accommodate a larger number of people than retail customer tours. “Our clients include retail customers looking for leisure tours and corporate customers looking for tailor-made tour services. Some companies might ask us to form a tour to Japan, Malaysia or Singapore, if they have had a good year and targets have been met. It’s a reward for employees,” he says.
“Some companies might ask us to form a tour to Japan, Malaysia or Singapore, if they have had a good year and targets have been met. It’s a reward for employees.”
According to Ho, the abundance of information found online has changed the travel industry significantly over the last two decades. “Social media and the Internet play a role in opening up people’s minds to new ideas and locations – consumers tastes’ often change,” he says, adding how Charming Holidays has spent the last two years creating several tours to view animal migrations in Africa to meet emerging demand.
Ho adds that low-cost airlines also allow Hong Kong travellers to book short-haul trips themselves, especially to English-speaking countries. The company has to compete with platforms which help customers to book their flights, hotels, and transportation all at once.
In September, Thomas Cook, one of Europe’s largest travel groups, collapsed, stranding hundreds of thousands of travellers abroad and affecting more than 20,000 employees. With that in mind, Ho notes the importance of “adopting and reacting to the changing business environment.”
“Increased competition, weaker sterling as a result of Brexit, changing travel habits and rise of online booking sites have had a big impact on Thomas Cook,” he says. “The merger between Airtours and MyTravel Group left Thomas Cook with a heavy debt burden and made Thomas Cook difficult to finance.” He adds that the “company should have a strong financial position to tackle any unfavourable economic environment.”
Ho says his CPA qualification greatly helps him in his role as financial controller, where he is responsible for the consolidation, financial reporting, budgeting and forecasting of all tour groups. He also monitors the financial performance of the company to ensure proper internal control and risk management.
He is particularly pleased with how he set up a new tour system and accounting system during his time at the company. “I ensured that all the relevant information could be transferred from the tour system to the accounting system to the right entry format and figures,” he says. “With the new system we can generate management and financial reports a lot quicker.” He performs regular financial analyses of the company’s costs and business operations to ensure it keeps up with relevant changes, which includes changes to accounting standards. “As accounting standards are updated regularly, I need to consider the updated accounting standard which affects the financial report of the company, such as Hong Kong Financial Reporting Standard 16 Leases,” he says.
Long before he studied in the U.K., Ho already knew that he wanted to work with numbers. “In primary and secondary school, my mathematics results were better than other subjects,” Ho remembers. This led him to pursue further studies in maths, and later, accounting.
Ho became a qualified accountant in 2006 with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants before attaining his CPA qualification from the Institute in 2008 under a mutual recognition agreement. He then worked as an accountant at Singamas Container Holdings Limited, a logistics company specializing in container manufacturing. “I consider it to be an important point in my career,” Ho says. “Working in a commercial field helped me understand how teams work to solve problems together on a daily basis. This also provided an opportunity for me to apply my accounting skills to a manufacturing and service company at the same time.”
While studying part-time for his masters of business administration from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2013, a feat he accomplished while also working, Ho travelled to Cambodia and visited several factories to learn more about their operations as part of the MBA programme. “We went to three garment manufacturing factories and studied the challenges they were facing. We then provided suggestions for the companies in their operations,” he remembers. “I saw firsthand how foreign professionals coped with problems to do with language, culture and law systems. They needed to modify their own business model to adapt to the local environment.”
Ho says he continues to attend seminars at the Institute to keep up with the latest accounting standards.
Frank Ho has worked at Charming Holidays as Financial Controller since 2014 and performs regular financial analyses of the company’s costs and business operations.
“As accounting standards update every year, I need to consider the updated accounting standard which affects the financial report of the company, such as HKFRS 16 Leases.”
Charting a new course
Ho is a passionate sailor who enjoys sailing open waters surrounding Hong Kong in his spare time. “The ocean wind makes me feel very relaxed, and it’s a great form of exercise too,” says Ho, who is also a member of the Institute’s Sailing Interest Group.
While sailing is a leisure activity, it also required him to learn a number of new skills to properly operate a dinghy in Hong Kong. “As a beginner, I remember it was difficult determining the direction of the wind. We learned how to adjust the angle of the sailboat to the wind,” he says. He eventually learned how to windsurf and also how to sail a yacht with a group of sailors. Ho also takes the opportunity to network and bond with the fellow CPAs in the interest group. “I got to meet people and establish new connections. Just by speaking with them while sailing, I feel I gained more insight into how I could advance in my career.”
He participated in the “Around the Island Race” with other CPA members, where they competed to see which team could sail around Hong Kong Island first.
Ho’s passion for travel never went away, and he now enjoys travelling with his wife and son – they visited both Taiwan and South Korea last year. His son has also taken after him in his interest in travel. He adds how his son went on a study tour in the U.K. and visited places such as Oxford and London. “I feel that my son learned to be a bit more independent after the study tour in the U.K. His spoken English improved as well,” he says.
When not travelling, however, Ho’s main hobbies remain closer to home. “Life is a journey. Apart from working, I enjoy spending time with my family. I recently learned basic photography skills and enjoy taking photos when travelling and hiking with family and friends,” Ho says. As for his next big trip, he looks forward to skiing in Osaka in Japan with his family during the Christmas holidays.
Charming Holidays arranges tours to destinations in the U.S., China, Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Egypt, the Mediterranean and South America.