Scheduling a time to interview Stanley Yen (嚴長壽) was no simple task. The Landis Hotels and Resorts Group president had a packed schedule promoting Taiwan at conferences overseas and showing off the country’s eastern region to groups of diplomats, among other things.
Hailed as the “godfather of Taiwan’s hotel industry” (飯店教父), Yen, 62, has one of the most recognizable and respected faces in the country’s tourism sector. He began his career as an errand boy for American Express in 1971 and quickly moved up the ranks to become its general manager in Taiwan at the age of 28. Four years later he left that position to work in Taiwan’s flourishing hospitality industry. He is now Group President of Landis Hotels and Resorts and President of the Landis Hotel, Taipei.
But he is not just a hotel manager. By his own account, Yen is a member of roughly 20 foundations — including the Taiwan Visitors Association (台灣觀光協會), where he is honorary chairman, and Taiwan’s International Travel Fair — and is on the board of directors for two hospitals.
He has published four books including From Messenger to Manager (總裁獅子心), a rags-to-riches tale peppered with managerial tips that has sold more than 500,000 copies. His most recent work, Be an Angel to Oneself and Others (做自己與別人生命中的天使), calls for Taiwan’s younger generations to have faith in themselves.
It’s only to be expected that the stacks of books and knickknacks in his spacious office have been culled from all over Taiwan. Taipei Times reporter Noah Buchan sat down with Yen to discuss the innumerous trips around Taiwan that resulted in this impressive collection of souvenirs, his rise through the ranks of the hospitality industry, the state of tourism in Taiwan, and the country’s youth.
Taipei Times: The last time we spoke [December 2008] you were on the way to Ilan — or you were promoting the east coast of the island. A few weeks ago you were down in Pingtung.
Stanley Yen: I’m virtually everywhere, almost every county, talking to every mayor — all my weekends are used. The weekend before this I was in Singapore and Malaysia and the weekend before that I was in Hualien.
TT: You seem to place a lot of emphasis on Taiwan’s east coast.
SY: I’m fighting against time. I’ve seen some very greedy developers trying to force the government to build a highway to go across the tunnel bridge. Out of 87km they are going to destroy a lot of the environment and sensitive areas. I’d rather we have enough traffic, but what we also need is for people not to go there for just one day. They should go there and stay longer.
[President] Ma [Ying-jeou (馬英九)] joined part of the program. It was very positive and all the diplomats were very touched because they saw things that they ordinarily wouldn’t see — not just the scenery but also the people: the artists, the outstanding singers, carvers, dancers. The lifestyle … But our travel agents and our government still separate tourism and culture without understanding the true value.
TT: What do you mean by true value?
SY: First of all, before you know your customer, you have to know yourself. What is Taiwan’s strength? I think that culture is the most important value in this country.
TT: How would you characterize Taiwan’s tourism scene?
SY: I divide tourism into three phases.
The first is what I call, “riding the horse and admiring flowers” (走馬看花). You are riding on a horse and you take the quickest time to see the flowers. So people will go to Sun Moon Lake (日月潭), Alishan (阿里山) — you know, a quick trip. This happened 30 years ago when people from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia came to Taiwan. At that time they would go on a seven-, eight- or nine-day tour and cover every major city and then disappear. And now China does the same thing. They will go to any destination they’ve heard about.
And this is what Taiwanese did when we went to Europe. We would cover as many cities as possible and once we’ve done it we don’t go back. That’s one thing I’ve experienced. A lot of money, a lot of time. Today, nobody wants to do that anymore.
TT: What do Taiwanese do now?
SY: Everybody goes for 10 days or two weeks and only … to one or two cities. Prague and Vienna for eight days. Or southern France for eight days.
TT: So the style of tourism for Taiwanese has changed quite significantly.
SY: Taiwanese have become more sophisticated. We now go to see the culture and this is the second phase called “in-depth traveling” (深度旅游). And that’s more related to culture and lifestyle.
The third level relates to all modern people. You have so much stress at work and you want to go somewhere to relax and do nothing. People go to Bali. They go to the mountains and bring a couple of books for one week, they have a little massage and spa and meditation. After one week they are happy and they come back. And I try to introduce that to our government and our people and our industry.
Of these three categories the most unsuitable for Taiwan to develop is first-generation tourism. Especially with China.
TT: Why is that?
SY: Because if you try to compare, for example, West Lake (西湖) in mainland China, Sun Moon Lake means nothing. If you go to Ali Mountain [China], has so many mountains — Nanshan (南山), Huashan (華山), Huangshan (黃山) — they have all these beautiful mountains with clouds. They have all these minority tribes and indigenous people. If you try to impress them with that, it’s probably not going to work.
TT: So what aspect of tourism should Taiwan try to promote to China?
SY: You have to remember that Taiwanese have influenced China so much — every kind of food in China. If you are talking about breakfast, yonghe doujiang (永和豆漿). If you are talking about tea, they say Taiwan has the best quality tea. And you talk about pop singers, from [Theresa] Teng Li-chun (鄧麗君) all the way to [Jolin] Tsai Yi-ling (蔡依林). All the lifestyle of Taiwan has basically been introduced to their life.
TT: Why is it that Taiwan can exercise this kind of influence on China?
SY: During the Cultural Revolution, China was totally blank. So we actually have implanted in their mind the books, literature, temples — all these things from Taiwan. All these things they don’t have or are not allowed right now. So when you are thinking about this, we are so rich.
But you have to let them have freedom to go where they want. Not the tour buses going from one city to another.
TT: But what about security concerns?
SY: You have to choose the right people. Why not allow people to come freely but choose the right people? Pick out 12 countries — anyone with a Canadian multiple visa, anyone with a US multiple visa, anyone with residency or multiple visa from Japan — these people have already been screened. These people can come [and be issued a] visa on arrival, except if you are a government official. Just block [them], and let everyone else in.
These people are well educated and sophisticated. They are experienced travelers so we should let them travel freely.
(It’s possible that the current administration will heed Yen’s suggestions. Yen’s expertise in the domestic and international tourism sector resulted in him becoming an official adviser to former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration and an unofficial adviser to the current one. But his rise to the top of the industry was particularly remarkable: Yen, who says he was a terrible student — “I was good at doing everything except studying” — had to leave the school system before he could find his “true passion.”)
TT: Was it fate or hard work that brought you to where you are today.
SY: I was born at the right time, at the right moment, with the right opportunity. I don’t think this experience can be repeated. Forty years ago, for any young person you have two choices: 20 percent go to university and have an assured future. The other 80 percent have to work their way up.
TT: You became a general manager at American Express at a young age. How did you feel about that at the time?
SY: At first I had no confidence. I didn’t believe that I could be a good general manager. I was only 28. I was the only one tested in Asia. At that time few young people had this kind of opportunity. After three years I was invited to go to New York at a time when everyone wanted to immigrate to the United States.
I was very grateful that I was able to enter that company at the right time. If I entered today, I probably wouldn’t have the same opportunity. At that time the company was small and moving up. And now the company is shrinking and even if you are a messenger today, everyone is a university graduate.
TT: Your own experiences have placed you in an ideal position to speak to Taiwan’s youth. What suggestions do you make to them?
SY: I think there is something missing in our education system — even though we do it very well. Taiwan has inherited a lot of culture from China and Japan and other cultures and we have our own style now. But we could do more. Everybody is going to school and getting [a] degree — everyone can get accepted to university now — but we still spend too much time in testing memorization rather than having children from a young age discover their true potential. It could be in art or maybe in literature or maybe in sports, something to build their confidence. Rather than saying, I don’t care if you like basketball, that’s not going to help you to go to a good university, I say, why can’t we get more young people to listen to themselves? And if the education system is not ready for that, they have to start looking for that and find where their true passion is.
TT: This seems to require a shift in perception. Taiwan is in the depths of a recession. Will we ever see a return to the economic growth of the 1980s and 1990s?
SY: Are we still looking for an economic miracle? Are we still looking to make more money? One day we are going to reach a plateau. It’s not going to continue. But will our people still be happy with themselves if economically we do not continue to grow? Will people be happy with what they have? I think definitely.
I describe that as a simple lifestyle that has to be introduced into our country. We have to realize that we should not only just keep looking for economic success but we should also see that true value.
TT: How does Taiwan do that?
SY: In the first generation of tourism, most of the time you package something that your people don’t even have time to enjoy: Aboriginal trips, etc. But when you reach your full level, [tourists] come and admire our lifestyle.
In another way, China or Hong Kong ... [want] to go see a movie but don’t want to be crowded into the theater. They want to go to a 24-hour bookstore ... [or] eat [Taiwanese snacks] (小吃). That’s a whole lifestyle and we have already reached that level.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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