Glynsen Wong, Singaporean based in Korea
Story by Koh Eng Beng | Photos by Charmaine Wu
Glynsen Wong, 33, is married to a beautiful Korean lady, and runs a boutique guesthouse in the city of Busan in South Korea. He is one lucky Singaporean who’s living the dream K-lifestyle. A former economics teacher in Meridian Junior College, he left his job to start Morning Dew Guesthouse last year with his wife Victoria Park, 28.
During my stay in Seoul, I contacted Glynsen to ask if I could interview him to find out how he started a guesthouse in a foreign country. He invited me and Charmaine to their guesthouse to stay for a night. Great hospitality for fellow Singaporeans! We were impressed with his beautiful guesthouse.
Glynsen first visited Busan in 2012 and fell in love with the mishmash of old and modern buildings, the mountains, blue skies and seas. He began to have this wild thought of starting a business in the seaside town. “It seems like a nice place to have a guesthouse.”
Call it fate or what, a year after he left Busan, he got to know Victoria who would become his girlfriend and now wife. Victoria, who’s an English Literature graduate from Dong-A University in Busan, was then working in Singapore in the hospitality sector. They then began a long distance relationship before tying the knot in 2015. In between, they were taking concrete steps to start the guesthouse.
It took three years of preparation. They bought a piece of land at a prime location, just minutes away from the main subway station in the city. Next up was getting the necessary approvals to demolish the existing building, and design a brand new four-storey guesthouse.
They ploughed a six-figure sum into the guesthouse. Glynsen’s mother, a retired teacher, also invested in the business. The couple and their baby girl stay on the highest floor of the guesthouse.
The first premium guesthouse in Busan, it is usually fully booked by the locals during the weekends. Of course, in business, all is not fine and dandy. For example, when they first opened for business in December last year, there were zero customers in the first month. They realised that business is not about designing or building the best guesthouse, you have to sell, promote and market.
If you are thinking of starting a business in Korea, check out the tips from Glynsen and Victoria…
Giving up your teaching job to start an Air BnB business in a foreign land was very un-Singaporean. What were your considerations before you took the leap of faith?
Glynsen (G) : My wife was one of the few people who said, “Oh, starting a guesthouse is interesting!” But people would usually say, “What about stability?”
I like being a teacher but it’ll be the same routine for me everyday for the next few decades: Wake up at 5.30am, go to school at 7.30am, start teaching, then do tons of marking. That was my life, which was okay because I enjoyed teaching. But I wanted to try doing something different.
It’s not as if I am giving up teaching forever. I still like to teach, I enjoy it very much. If I were to go back to Singapore, I would still be able to rejoin the teaching force.
What sort of planning did you do?
G: Actually, nothing was really solid. It was all thoughts in my head. Along the way I went to ask the authorities questions like what should I do to get a visa to start a business, so and so forth.
To move forward, I needed a visa so that I could stay in Korea. I couldn’t start my business on a tourist visa. There were so many administrative processes, I eventually paid someone to settle the admin work. It’s a lot of hassle, it took three months to get everything done.
I didn’t have a business coach or mentor. It was all trial and error. We went to the real estate agents, look at potential places. We decided to buy a piece of land instead of rent.
Renting has no end because we have to keep paying. At the end of the day, it’s not yours. But if you buy the piece of land, it’s yours forever. Being asset rich is not a bad idea. The mortgage is not much lower than the rental, but at the end of the day once the mortgage is paid up, this piece of land land is ours. I can further decide what I to do with it.
How do you attract customers to your guesthouse?
Victoria (V): I thought after taking almost a year to build our guesthouse, it’s going to be do so well. I had a high hope. “Oh finally, it’s time to make money!” But the business didn’t do well in the first 3 months. We didn’t know how to promote or advertise. In fact, we didn’t have any guests in the first month.
And when we finally had guests, they said it was really hard to find the place. Our guesthouse didn’t even showed up on Naver Map (the equivalent of Google Map).
G: The biggest problem is marketing. It’s not about the simple stuffs like listing your guesthouse on travel booking websites. You want people to give good reviews, but people want to see good reviews first before they book your guesthouse. So we had this problem. Eventually to overcome the problem, we paid for advertising on Naver (a Korean search engine).
V: The advertisement on Naver had a great effect. It showed on the top so it’s easy for people to search for our guesthouse. I knew once people come here they would like our place. At first there was zero review about our guesthouse. After one guest left a review on Naver, one after another left more reviews.
G: But it’s difficult to get reviews. They don’t have the habit of writing reviews.
For example, on my Airbnb site, when I can get foreign guests, they are more likely to write a review. But Korean guests don’t write review. This is bad for us because Airbnb sees it as your guests are not satisfied with you, so they don’t write a review.
At the same time, when there’s no reviews, people won’t book your place. So it becomes a chicken and egg problem, we’re always stuck in this cycle. How do we get people to come? Well, we paid for the advertisements. Neither of us is going to be a social media star anytime soon, so, yeah we just paid for the advertisements.
Why are you confident that your customers will like your place?
G: Generally speaking, guesthouses in Korea are too small. When I stayed in Seoul, the room was one and a half time the size of a single bed. When you sit down on the toilet bowl, the sink was literally above my knees. Rooms in Korea are all very small because the owners want to maximise the number of rooms in a building to get more businesses. We didn’t like that.
We went the other way. We only have 8 rooms in our guesthouse. Our rooms are big, spacious and offer privacy. That’s the good thing about designing your own building, we can insist that we want this and that.
Check out the wonderful reviews left by the guests on TripAdvisor.com:
I really love the minimalist modern deocor of the guesthouse! Initially, my friend and I were exhausted from all the travelling (because we took a early morning train from Seoul to Busan), but when we reached the guesthouse, we were welcomed very warmly by our host, Glynsen and given some refreshment to settle down before he recommended extensively on the various places to go in Busan. He gave very good suggestions and we thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing that he recommended! It has a very central location that enabled us to easily head to Gamcheon Cultural village, Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, Heundae and Gwangalli Beach, Taejongdae, Somyeon street in a short span of 2 days! The room that we resided in was very cosy with a plush bed which was tidied up neatly everyday. We were very pleased that body, hair shampoo and clean towels were provided together with heater in the bathroom! The host also went out of their way to help us fold our laundry and kept them nicely in a bag when we were in a rush:) Our best stay in Korea so far!
G: At first, we wanted to have have a dorm on the first floor, but it will cut into the private room business and vice versa. People like private rooms, because they are big, spacious, and have proper washroom. If I run a dormitory, I could possibly fit in eight to ten beds in one room. More revenue but we’d have to serve 80 people (for all eight rooms). That’s crazy!
V: So we decided not to do the dorm. So far, only two of us work here. Since our baby was born, we have to take turns to take care of her. It’s actually not easy for one person to clean a room alone. It’s getting tiring to clean the rooms every time. After everyone checks out, it could take us even 2 to 3 days to clean up all the rooms.
G: We have to take out the trash, clean up the room, clean the toilets, wash and dry the sheets, Everything takes time.
V: So we have the plan to hire a part-timer soon if we get really busy.
G: For example, if we’re almost fully book for one whole week during a big holiday, to the point that we cannot handle any more, even if we have one or two vacant rooms, we have to reject the bookings. We won’t be able to handle it.
Do you have any tips for people who want to start a business in South Korea?
V: You have to get to know the people here. Even I had a hard time as a local, so it’s almost impossible without any local help.
This feature is part of a collaboration with the Happiness Notebook. Titled For the Love of It, the project was conceived to inspire a generation of dreamers to act boldly. Through stories of individuals who are wildly successful in pursuing their passion for a living, Charmaine and Eng Beng hope to inspire more people to dream big and be bold in pursuing their goals.