#11: Sufen Koh, Market Manager at Expedia Group in Singapore

Sufen and I met while studying in Amsterdam where we bonded over our interest in indie music (often Icelandic at the time), which we occasionally listened to in her student flat while consuming what some would describe as “too much gin”. She also taught me how to make a killer chai latte. Sufen is outgoing, caring and curious, which sounds like perfect attributes for her current role. We spoke in late July during an early Singapore evening / late London morning.

Sufen spent eight years at Microsoft, in a number of different roles, before moving to Expedia Group to be a Market Manager in October 2019. Besides gaining field experience, one of her main reasons for taking on this opportunity was to work with something she’s passionate about.

“It needed to be something that I love, and I love traveling as you know. It’s just part of my DNA. I think it’s much easier to work and sell something when you are deeply passionate about it. It also has the link with technology, where I can bring my experience from the tech industry and marry it with a bit more of a people centric focus.”

In her role, she works with Expedia partners, essentially hotels, to help them get the most out of the travel platform while ensuring that Expedia’s customers get the best deals they can. It isn’t a surprise to learn that Covid-19 has dealt a heavy blow to the travel industry in a country that is reliant on business and tourist travel. For Sufen, the nature of her day to day job has changed as a result.

“Pre-covid there was a lot of focus on different types of partners. I work both with independent hotels that are quite flexible and look for guidance, but also with five star chain hotels and luxury brands that have different strategies, goals and ways of working. Every day and every interaction was different. It’s been a real challenge to navigate this situation during the pandemic since no one really knows what will happen. Besides looking for signals of recovery in search data, we need to be aware they reflect the current aspirations. Before we see the uptick in demand, it’s incredibly tough to say what the recovery will look like.”

The hospitality industry has traditionally been focused on personal relationships. However, in recent years, online travel platforms such as Expedia, that both disrupt as well as enable the industry, have made data-driven decision-making increasingly important.

“Data and market insights play a significant role in strategy and we also use them to

bring value to our partners in terms of what people are looking for, and how they can look attractive on our platform vis-a-vis their competitors.”

The culture of leading US tech companies has been heavily researched in recent years. Microsoft began a high-profile cultural realignment when Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, with the aim of changing the culture to one of ‘learn-it-alls’ instead of ‘know-it-alls’. I’m curious to understand if Sufen finds Expedia’s culture different compared to Microsoft as they are both essentially focused on digital platforms.

“Microsoft is very purist in a sense of creating technology for innovation’s sake. It’s industry agnostic; I could be working on healthcare one day and finance the next. It really depended on what your focus was and how you applied the technology. I was in the cloud computing side of things which is sexy and has received a lot of attention. It’s filled with brilliant people, it’s very inspiring and competitive. But there were also areas where I felt my strengths were not fully maximised.

Expedia is also a tech company, but it’s applied to travel. So we’re talking about end to end use of the platform; from search, to book, to stay, to activities, to post review. It fascinated me since you need to be really in tune with people's likes and dislikes for it to drive value. Because it’s something people do for leisure there is a different appeal to it. With Microsoft a lot of it was enterprise focused. With Expedia the journey is very personal to each customer, there is a lot more vested interest in it because ‘it’s my money I’m spending’.”

Many people across the world have now been working from home for several months. A common problem is the difficulty of switching off when one's workspace and living space is the same. Sufen had a lockdown head start following a snowboarding trip to Japan.

“The day we were leaving I got an email saying, if you are coming back from one of these countries [Japan being one of them], do not come into the office. My team thought I would go insane since they know I’m sociable and I would be the only one at home. The first week was fine, but the second week I started feeling a little bit of FOMO and a sense that I wasn’t getting the routine right. I couldn’t figure out if I was a morning person or an evening person.”

While in Japan, Sufen attended a rave organised by Cercle on a mountaintop.

With no after work appointments, and no need to commute to the office, Sufen experienced a feeling many can probably relate to; days that just stretched out without a clear start and finish.

“It took me about six weeks to find a proper routine and I was very open with my team that I was struggling. It’s tough to face the same four walls every day and not meet anyone. So being vulnerable helped. I thought if I was open everyone else would be open too, as we all shared the same struggle.”

Sufen’s routine included morning walks and spending a few hours in the evening relaxing, which happened very rarely before lockdown.

“Usually I’d be out meeting friends, going to the gym, always doing something. But doing nothing seems to have helped. After six weeks I had a bit of a downturn since it was the same thing day in and day out. It felt very repetitive, which was hard to deal with since I’m a person who enjoys novelty and variety.”

During this time Sufen had a conversation with a former manager about the nature of work, which they had both been interested in from a productivity perspective while at Microsoft. One of their conclusions was that work is no longer linear, which led Sufen to deconstruct her work into specific areas that she could carry out when it suited her.

“I deconstructed work into calls, meetings and admin. I realised I could do calls with partners in the morning and meetings with my team in the afternoon. Then I could do my admin in the evening. It helped me see what I could control and what I couldn’t, such as partners calling me. So being able to differentiate that was helpful. It turns out I’m more of a night person when working from home, and I always thought I was a morning person. So to me that was perplexing, shouldn’t it be something intrinsic? But apparently it’s not, it’s dependent on my space, so I was surprised by that.”

Another perspective that came out of the conversation Sufen mentioned was that time is no longer the limiting factor it used to be.

“Attention is the new currency. There is so much content out there, so many things to do, and so many channels of communication. How do you know what to do when? It’s about where you put your focus. Now I have an endless amount of time, but my focus and productivity is affected by my attention span because there is so much content to filter out. That is why things feel overwhelming, because we have a lot of time, but at the same time you feel like you have no time. People are asking ‘what are you watching on Netflix? I have one hour but 50 choices’. It’s analysis paralysis and it’s the same with work. That deconstruction exercise helped me a lot in terms of productivity.”

I wonder what lasting changes Sufen thinks this global home working experiment will lead to? Which behaviours will stick, and which will no longer be relevant as we eventually return to a more ‘normal’ situation, whenever that might be?

“A big part of my role is people facing, I would physically go down to hotels, shake hands, make eye contact. These meetings are definitely irreplaceable. At Microsoft I became used to online meetings, but in hospitality it's different. They don’t always turn on their cameras, joking ‘oh, I’m in my pyjamas’ or ‘I don’t have make up’, which to me is fine. I understand it’s not a culture they are used to. But I always keep my camera on since I want them to see me. So when we go back to some kind of normal I think it will be a mix.”

Sufen admits that the situation has changed the conversations she is having with hotels. Having a high level of empathy has been crucial.

“I know it’s a trendy word and everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to Simon Sinek have been talking about it. But I’ve experienced the impact of showing empathy to our partners, that we’re in it together. I’ve realised that you need to show a lot more of that human side. Some partners have also surprised me with words of encouragement as well.”

She has also been able to use technology to reassure partners that even though the situation looks bleak at the moment there are things that can give reason for hope.

“Before I always used tech to empower people to make decisions, to be faster. But now it’s about showing what is happening and trending. It might be aspirational, but we can see that searches are picking up. You’ve got to use the data in a different way to show empathy. We are a tiny island of almost 6 million people and we rely heavily on international travel, not just as a destination but also as a transit hub. So you see a huge chunk of that travel taken away in your data. Your demand disappears overnight. Singaporeans are travel savvy and it’s two hours to Bangkok, to Phuket, to Bali, so we are spoilt for choice. Thankfully, some of those people are now looking at staycations just to get out of their house. It’s not comparable to international demand, but domestic demand is there, so using those numbers and perspectives to bring a different kind of insight, to tell a story that is more human.”

And with those perspectives on the nature of work and the importance of empathy, Sufen returns to her Sunday evening in Singapore, while I get ready to start the day in London.

You can follow Sufen on LinkedIn.