The art of travel: Stephen Ho

The art of travel: Stephen Ho

Inspired voyages

Text: Denise Kok

Over a hot cup of chai at The St. Regis Mumbai, Stephen Ho, President of Starwood Asia Pacific, talks about the merits of discovering a city on foot, his favourite hotels to check into, and Perth as the destination to watch

Describe a memory from a childhood holiday.

My family was too poor to go on holidays so I never had the chance to travel as a child. What's memorable for me is the first flight I ever took. It was a flight to nowhere on Singapore Airlines and I won the experience thanks to a lucky draw. I was so excited.

What's your favourite hotel to check into?

I can't just pick one. It'll have to be the Excelsior Hotel Gallia in Milan and The St. Regis in Bal Harbour Resort, Miami. Closer to home, I had a phenomenal stay at the ITC Grand Bharat, built to resemble the grandeur of old India. That was really quite special.

St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort

Most memorable turn-down service?

I can't remember the name of the hotel, but it was one of ours [Starwood Hotels & Resorts]. After a long day at work, I returned to a photo of my family along with some nice chocolates. I had been on the road for two weeks and it was just so wonderful to see something that reminded me of home. It was a very simple gesture, but one that was very personal and nicely done. Then I called my family and said: "Guess what, you're here!"

What kind of traveller are you? Do you plan an itinerary beforehand or leave it all to chance?

When I'm travelling for leisure, I avoid planning ahead and have never gone on a guided tour. I sometimes seek out good restaurants and plan my time around them. I like to run, too, so when I'm on holiday, I run in the mornings. Running is a good way to discover a city. You discover many unbeaten tracks and places. In the early hours of the morning, you get to see how a city wakes up, and I really enjoy that. If there's a marathon happening in the city, I'll build that into my schedule, too.

Stephen Ho

Tell us about the most interesting person you've met on your travels?

It's someone you might know from Singapore — Jack Sim, otherwise known as Mr. Toilet. I find him very inspiring because he quit his business when he was very successful. He told me he could make another billion dollars and have another fancy watch, but figured he couldn't take it with him into his next life, and decided to dedicate himself to social work. He's now building toilets in India because that would benefit a lot more people. I think he even established World Toilet Day. I've kept in touch with him and we're trying to do something together. I think we can help him along with his social work, especially since we're operating in so many countries.

What is the most underrated destination you know of?

Perth. Everyone says Perth is boring, but I have to disagree. I was there for business because we're building a Westin there and noticed the city had a really diverse architectural landscape that blends in both the old and the new. Perth has done a great job in retaining so much of its heritage. If you think about Perth, it's closer to Singapore than Sydney is, and it's full of good food. It's just undermarketed at the moment. The shops there used to close at five, leading many to think there's nothing to do after dark. But that's all changing now.  

Trigg Point, Perth

Which is your favourite city, and why?

I like Tokyo and London a lot, but if I had to pick just one city, Taipei is an interesting one for me. It has a strong Japanese influence and the service there is very good. You'll find the most polite taxi drivers in Taiwan because that's part of their service culture. Another thing that attracts me is the food. There is just so much good food there and it's not necessarily expensive. 

Finally, what's the worst souvenir you've picked up from a trip?

I was in New Caledonia when someone gave me a nice piece of sandalwood carving. I packed it into my bag and brought it along with me to Fiji because we had a sales incentive trip over there. So I arrived in Fiji and the custom officers said: "Mr. Ho, I think we have a problem. You've forgotten to declare something." And I was fined USD200 for the sandalwood carving in my bag. So I had to pay my fine at another counter and ran into two other ladies who were fined for failing to declare two apples. So when you go to Fiji, make sure you declare everything


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