In our first Meet & Greet of 2017, we spoke to Jon Santangelo, founder of Asia-based destination wedding company Chariot, to find out more about his business, the Asian wedding market, and Chinese outbound travel…
Why did you choose the name ‘Chariot’ for the business?
In addition to the word having a pleasant ring, we wanted to capture the essence of our business in one word.
Chariots are emblematic of the ancient times and symbolize power. They are romanticized as the elegant and efficient vehicle of horse and carriage used for occasions of ceremony or for pleasure. They were a convenient, fast method to travel for many people.
Our company aims to emulate these qualities by arranging elegant destination weddings for travelers from abroad, in a convenient and efficient manner.
Finally, we chose the name “Chariot” instead of “Carriage” because we felt that the word connotes a greater sense of wonder and prestige.
Ultimately, Chariot takes couples’ dreams of tropical island weddings and brings them to realization. *The full name of the company is called The Chariot Company, and Chariot for short.
What’s your background, and why did you decide to launch Chariot?
Chariot launched in the Fall of 2016 after about a half-year of conceptualization, preparation, and canvassing of partners. My partner and co-founder Rachel and I share working backgrounds in international hospitality and marketing. We think the launch’s timing is right, as Southeast Asia travel and hospitality sectors are continually growing and attracting foreign travelers. Not to mention the serene tropical paradises make dreamscapes for destination weddings.
As for my background, I started working at a young age in my touristic hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. I continued with my first job at the Crowne Plaza Resort for a few years and was also influenced by coming from a family of business owners. These early factors helped shape my career.
By the time I graduated college, even though my degree was not in hospitality, I had several years of practical working experience from jobs and endeavors to help me edge out my first job outside of the U.S. with Hilton Hotels in Beijing. A year later, I decided that I didn’t want to make a career of working inside hotels, but instead remain in bustling Beijing and try to stay in the travel industry. I took a job as assistant marketing manager for a direct competitor of Airbnb. At that time in 2011, the shared economy concept for accommodations was almost too early in China, and it didn’t catch on long enough to materialize, but the experience of working in a startup was well worth it. Following that in 2012-2014, I revamped a small headhunting firm’s international hospitality internship program, and part of my role involved acting as a recruitment consultant for 5-star hotels in China.
Most recently, I spent my last two and half years in Beijing as the communications director for China’s study abroad agency association. In a way, I have always kept one foot in the travel or hospitality industry. In 2016, I left China for the Philippines, but I wasn’t set on officially launching Chariot until we tested the market first.
What changes have you seen in outbound Chinese tourism in recent years?
Having followed the outbound Chinese tourism market over the last several years, I’ve noticed the one “change” that’s steadfast are its numbers: they keep rising. This engenders other positive changes. For example — Travel for luxury and education abroad is expanding.
The base of travelers among millennials and the middle class is growing. More airlines have established routes with China. Regarding language, overseas destinations are becoming increasingly Mandarin friendly.
The growing travel market is also savvier than it once was. As individual travel surpasses group travel and tours, user-driven sites such as Mafengwo.cn (nicknamed “China’s TripAdvisor”) help travelers become better-informed consumers, as more users share their insights, tips, and opinions. Another significant game-changer over the last several years is the Chinese social media, WeChat (Weixin). There, when one person showcases their photos of international travel accompanied by emotional or insightful posts and share it with their peers and friends, the details carry a lot of clout. Chinese travelers want all kinds of information, and traditionally they seek it from close contacts.
In contrast to this, travel agencies collectively organize nearly 14 million trips annually. With an average 17% year-over-year growth (according to ChinaTravelOutbound.com), travel agencies remain viable. (Chariot is both a niche travel agency and a wedding event planner.)
When choosing to study abroad, Chinese travelers behave independently. They diligently research a destination or educational institution abroad. Over the past several years, the number of Chinese being educated abroad has grown by about 25%, now numbering half a million students per year.
Bottom line, travel is rising across the board.
Chariot co-founders Jon & Rachel
Why did you select the Philippines as your first destination? What other
destinations do you plan to add in the future?
The Philippines’ Boracay, Bohol, and Palawan islands have potential as alternatives to nearby competing destinations, Bali and Thailand, which are considered the pinnacle of destinations for tropical weddings.
Although islands like Boracay and Palawan may not differentiate themselves much in terms of air travel expense, they lead in overall value when you consider the cost of accommodations, sightseeing, and activities as one collective purchase; compared to Bali and Thailand.
Outside of the Philippines, we are considering adding programs in Hawaii and possibly a few other destinations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Organising travel to a developing region like SE Asia can be challenging at the best of times; wedding travel adds a whole new layer of logistical complexity and also responsibility for the tour operator, as most people only get married once. How do you work with local partners to ensure everything goes smoothly?
First, we recognize that within the hospitality business, some aspects of the culture here in SE Asia are considerably different than Western expectations. Our methodology at Chariot is to select local partners who share our high standards. It’s pretty straightforward: if the partner demonstrates a high level of responsiveness, professionalism, reliability, and ethics, we’ll move forward. Most people splurge on only one wedding ceremony, and it’s obviously paramount to them, so we have to be sure our partners are just as invested as we are in successfully planning and executing the wedding and every aspect of the couple’s experience. In the business of events, your reputation for delivering the best experience is everything. We look for partners who understand this and will go the extra mile for every destination wedding we plan.
What’s the strangest request you’ve had so far? Are there any requests you would
While a few requests have been intriguing, so far we’ve not been asked for anything strange. Instead, inquiries tend toward the delightful. For example, many couples prefer the intimacy of a private ceremony and ask us to find a quiet, secluded place that will make their partner happy. There is one couple who took this to a more extreme level, hoping to rent an entire private island for their ceremony and honeymoon. So far, we’ve not encountered anyone who asks for something we would refuse, but we’ll see what the future brings!
Finally, how do you see the future of wedding/honeymoon travel in Asia, a region
where weddings tend to be very traditional, local family affairs?
As the ASEAN economies grow and consumers become more internationalized, we believe you’ll see destination weddings where the event will be just the bride, groom, and their parents, or possibly just a few close friends. This is already happening here on a small scale now. Ultimately, the norms of family traditions will prevail where all if not most members of the family continue to live within easy travel distance of one another. However, as younger people take jobs that move them far from their families’ roots, some will be more interested in being married at a place oriented toward their present interests rather than their past.