Former banker Nicholas Wong has ridden the snowy slopes of 15 ski resorts in Switzerland, France, Austria, and Italy since 2004. And in the last 13 years, it has been his goal to make the winter sport and the alpine lifestyle more accessible to as many Malaysians as possible.
Educated in Ipoh before pursuing higher education in London, the 33-year-old left a stable job at UBS’ investment bank to open Tropical Snowman Chalet – a 8,800 square feet chalet in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, Evasion Mont Blanc in France. The chalet organises bespoke holiday retreats featuring thrilling activities such as skiing, white water rafting, hot air ballooning, mountain climbing, and wind surfing, so its guests can make the most out of the beautiful Alps landscape.
We recently caught up with the young entrepreneur to talk about his journey of venturing out of a nine-to-five job to do what he loves, the future of travel, and his dream of growing a property portfolio in a competitive hospitality landscape.
Lifestyle Asia (LSA) Can you tell us about what Tropical Snowman Chalet is?
Nicholas Wong (NW): Tropical Snowman Chalet is a five-bedroom chalet in Mont Blanc, French Alps. We aim to initiate small groups of friends or families from Asia to visit the region. We prepare and deliver bespoke all-inclusive holiday packages. We are also available on a self-catered basis, which focuses on European travellers at the moment.
LSA: What sets Tropical Snowman Chalet apart from others in Europe?
NW: The chalet is situated in an authentic French resort with a population of 5,000 people. The resort is home to a plethora of activities – from skiing and snowshoeing in the winter to paragliding, hiking, alpine kayaking and hot air ballooning in the summer. For the less adventurous, it is very tourist-friendly with cable cars or cogwheel trains that can take you to numerous viewpoints of the Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe. It is also home to the largest glacier in France. For the more luxury and culturally inclined, Geneva is 50 minutes away, and is famed for its world-class shopping synonymous with Swiss precision luxury watches.
LSA: You worked in the banking industry for six years. What made you leave?
NW: I enjoyed every minute of working in banking, straight from graduating from university. In a way, it’s like I never left the firm as I still maintain close relationships with my colleagues and they are recurring guests at the chalet. Their feedback is invaluable to me, and their excitement about visiting it while I was planning this venture, is what drove me forward. I’ve been skiing for 12 years and would love to share the essence of the sport with my friends in warmer climates.
LSA: Do you consider your background an advantage in venturing out to this business?
NW: Tough question! While I am accustomed to working with numbers and keeping costs in line, there are moments when the pursuit for aesthetics does take priority over budget control. I set out to design the most homey, tasteful and high quality holiday home, but I do remember questioning my intent when I splashed on the jacuzzi.
LSA: What makes a property sustainable in a competitive hospitality industry?
NW: In my opinion, the hospitality industry is an ever-changing landscape where every player — be it budget or five-star hotel — is forced to innovate and improve. Outstanding quality in all aspects of the accommodation is now a basic requirement to remain competitive. I personally feel that it is more important to serve the demographics you are targeting and be the best in that sector. Tropical Snowman focuses on small group retreats and therefore the location of the chalet and attention to detail is what we aim to find the sweet spot in.
LSA: What do you hope to achieve in the next 10 years?
NW: I would like to have grown the Tropical Snowman property portfolio to include chalets in the mountains and also beaches. These will cater to small groups of friends and families.
LSA: What advice do you have for those thinking of leaving their careers to fulfil a life-long dream?
NW: Advice is a strong word. However, keeping a wide range of interests outside work whilst being employed full-time is important. Maintaining positive relationships with everyone in the company is also key, as we never know what opportunities will arise when we exit the firm. On a more pragmatic note, building an alternative source of income is useful to prevent being sucked into the corporate treadmill.
LSA: What’s a day in your life like?
NW: Every day differs as the stage of the business shifts. As a priority, I aim to answer any enquiries as soon as I receive them from my prospective guests. My days revolve a lot around communicating with the activity managers when guests have requests for ski classes, paragliding classes, hot air ballooning or even just securing a reservation at the Michelin-starred restaurants here. I touch base with my team in France daily to ensure everything is going swimmingly for my guests. I am also constantly looking out for decorative items to add to the chalet. When I have time in the evenings, I try to brush up on my French.
LSA: You love skiing. What do you enjoy about it, and why should people try it?
NW: Skiing is a very progressive discipline, you start from a nursery (green) slope, preferably with an instructor, before proceeding to the more enjoyable and challenging blue, red and black slopes. In my opinion, skiing is more of a mental game, I remember being debilitated at a green slope fearing for my life one day, and gliding past the slope the next day without even noticing it. I also remember the pride when I skied down my first black slope.
Skiing is definitely something I would introduce to my children in the future for character building and discipline. Skiing with friends and family really does strengthen the bond with each other. My best memories were formed in the mountains. I remember stopping for lunch on top of a mountain after three hours of skiing and having the best conversation with someone I liked. Dinners are usually a boisterous affair, recollecting the slopes we have navigated over the course of the day. I can also guarantee the best night’s sleep after a long day of hitting the slopes.