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What I wish I knew: making a radical career change

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CEO and Founder of TMGroup, a Vietnamese travel company with hospitality and aviation businesses under its belt, Tran Trong Kien’s success was born from humble beginnings as a medical student in Hanoi. Here, he tells Click. the lessons he’s learned along the way

When I was at the end of my medical studies, I found the last couple of years very hard. So, I decided to take on a weekend receptionist job at a hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, to get some time away from the hospital and bring in some extra money to fund my studies. While I was there, a French couple - incidentally both doctors - asked if I had recommendations for places to visit. Once I’d explained where to go, and they found out I was a doctor-in-training, they invited me to go with them.

We spent the day together visiting villages, drinking tea with locals and they had the opportunity to chat with a Vietnamese medical student and learn all about the country and culture. I realised that this is what people want – instead of being ferried from A to B on a well-scripted tour, travellers want something more authentic.

Authenticity is key

Doing something more spontaneous and making these connections to the local culture and people became my business, and so I launched Buffalo Tours in 1994. I thought I’d do it for a year or two, then go back to medicine - but here I am 25 years later.

That was the beginning of my travel empire, and its ethos still serves all my businesses today: create authentic experiences, enable connections and respect the local culture and people. In our hotels we carry this as our business model, which is a part of our success. We began with one and now we have 16 hotels and resorts where local experiences, cuisine and culture are all part of the service.

Create unique culture

But it’s not just about the guest experience. My greatest success has been creating a unique work culture for my staff. We have combined people from amazingly diverse backgrounds, be it doctors, pilots, security workers. Some have decades of experience, and others are trained when they join us, but we all work together and everyone is equal, and that’s what’s unique.

Water plane
Without innovation, we wouldn’t have got anywhere with our airline businesses. Photo: credit to TMGroup


It’s also essential to be kind. We have to be kind to each other, kind to our guests, kind to our business partners and kind to the environment and community around us. These are the keys to a successful business and ultimately this will lead to positive growth. That, and innovation, of course.

Be bold and innovate

Without innovation, we wouldn’t have got anywhere with our airline businesses. When we started up Hai Au – our seaplane aviation arm – we were the only company to offer such an experience. I had seen the planes landing in Sydney Harbour and thought how incredible it could be in Vietnam, so when the opportunity came to acquire an airline that wasn’t doing great and turn it around, I jumped at the chance.

We now offer beautiful views of Vietnam’s coastline and islands from our seaplanes, as well as connecting travellers with their onward destinations by way of an exciting mode of transport. We’ve flown over 12,000 hours and carried over 120,000 passengers so far.

And we’re expanding again, this time with a new airline – Kites – which will connect small, underserved communities in Vietnam that have short landing strips that can’t take larger planes.

But innovation isn’t about doing everything. As a business, we’ve done lots of different things and one thing I wish we’d done better is break into hotels in a stronger way. If we had done it earlier and been bolder about it, we’d have a larger share of the market now. Having said that, I’m still hugely proud of the success we’ve achieved with our high customer satisfaction scores and expansion.

Know your definition of success

For me, success isn’t all about profit. Many people think success is about how big the company is, how much money you make or how important you are or how powerful you are. But I believe that true success is having built and grown something - and to have inspired and encouraged people to be better and become better citizens.

It’s about something more than just profit, market share and the power you might be able to wield. To be able to inspire and impact the community and people around you is true success.


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Hero image: credit to Ben White, Unsplash
  • As a business, authenticity gives you an edge, whether it’s in the experiences you provide or in your attitude towards your work
  • Creating the right working environment and a healthy culture for your staff is a major part of success. You’ve got to be kind, and your employees need to feel they’re respected equally
  • Success is about more than just profit and market share, it’s also about how you impact people, from guests to employees
  • Innovation is essential. Copying existing business models will no longer cut it – you’ve got to create something unique