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Luxe Nomad CEO Stephanie Chai focuses on villas, Chinese travelers

Breaking into the fiercely competitive travel industry may seem tough but one young CEO jumped in feet first and ended up swimming rather than sinking, in some very nice pools.

"I really had to think on my feet," says Stephanie Chai, the founder and chief executive of luxury travel booking website theluxenomad.com.

The site started out in 2012 as a place for hotels to advertise flash sales, and then added features for users to book directly on the site. But hotel booking is dominated by big companies with deep pockets that aim at the mass market - the likes of Agoda, Expedia, and even Airbnb - so in 2015 Chai moved the site's focus to the niche area of luxury villas.

"I was in the hotel business [and] my average booking size was maybe $1,500," Chai told CNBC's "Managing Asia."

"When I'm in the villa business, my average booking size is $5,000. So it's kind of the same amount of work, but earning a lot more here."

The company has raised about 1.5 million Singapore dollars ($1 million) in three rounds of funding to date, and counts Douglas Khoo, one of the founders of Chinese online travel booking company Qunar.com, among its investors.

Stephanie Chai, co-founder and CEO of The Luxe Nomad
Stephanie Chai, co-founder and CEO of The Luxe Nomad

But even with a network of 1,500 properties - 800 villas and 700 hotels- and four years in business, turning a profit can be tough.

"We are profitable on certain months," said Chai, who did not provide earnings numbers but added, "I've pretty much doubled my revenue in December from the previous year and my expenses remained the same...it's been a really good return."

Luckily, the 33-year-old, who was born in New Zealand and raised in Sarawak, Malaysia, was aware of the risks inherent in being an entrepreneur.

"My dad was an entrepreneur, so was my grandfather," she said.

Chai has a degree in finance and international business from the University of Auckland but started her career as a model.

A combination of boredom and the desire to pursue an idea she strongly believed in led Chai away from the glamour of the fashion industry into tech start-ups, where used $60,000 of her own money to start The Luxe Nomad.

Chai admits that she didn't know what she was getting herself into.

"Sometimes you have to follow your gut instinct," she said. "I didn't know much [then], I only knew a bit about Wordpress and setting up a blog. I had no idea about e-commerce."

But she quickly warmed to the idea of running her own company. "You get to call the shots, be creative. It's a fantastic challenge," she said.

The freedom to make business decisions also comes with downsides - answering to investors, for example. Chai said an investor who funded The Luxe Nomad was against the move into the nich villa market.

"It's hard to please everyone...things happen as they are meant to be," she said.

Now Chai has set her sights on tapping into burgeoning outbound Chinese travel market.

Despite a slowing economy, Chinese have embraced overseas travel. Chinese online travel booking site, Ctrip, estimates that about six million Chinese tourists will travel out of the country during next week's Lunar New Year holiday.

"I was in Greece last year, looking at villas, and I asked them, are the Chinese coming?" said Chai, adding she discovered many Chinese tourists were looking at villas in the Mediterranean country using mass booking sites such as Airbnb and booking.com.

The lack of China-focused luxury booking players in hotspots such as Greece paves the way for Chai's Luxe Nomad, which is already working on a Chinese language site to cater to the mainland's frequent flyers.

"I think it's great we've got all the fundamentals set up," she said. "Now it's time to brush up on my Mandarin."

— Huileng Tan contributed to this report.

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