Travel fairs pioneer is packing his bags

Travel fairs pioneer is packing his bags

SINGAPORE - The man behind the hugely popular Natas travel fairs is leaving his job, though he's not taking a permanent vacation.

National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) chief executive Robert Khoo retired aged 61 earlier this month, after 13 years as the voice and face of the country's travel agencies.

He will take a six-month sabbatical to complete his PhD in education, but Mr Khoo has never been afraid of change.

He started out working in a textile factory at the age of 16 as a management trainee.

A year later, his employer sent him to Hong Kong to get a diploma in textile engineering, but by the time he returned and completed his national service, the factory had shut and moved to Indonesia because of rising labour costs.

Thinking the travel line would be interesting, he started Universal Travel Corporation with his older brother Boo Liat in 1975 and soon fell in love with his job.

"Having come from an industry where I spent hours in the factory facing cotton fibres, it was a drastic change," he said. "I told myself I will never go back to the textile line again. This is fun."

The brothers decided to carve a niche by selling packages to exotic destinations. Universal is one of the major players doing this today, offering tours to Mongolia and North Korea.

Mr Khoo joined Natas as a volunteer in 1982, a time when there were no travel fairs. National tourism organisations mooted the idea of an event to promote their countries and, as the head of Natas' outbound committee, Mr Khoo took charge.

The first fair in 1987, with 48 exhibitors and 60 booths, hardly made any sales, he recalled.

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