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Boca man's web site fills need for travelers to China

By Doreen Hemlock
Business Writer
Posted February 28 2005

  E-mail story
  Print story


Living in South Florida, engineer Qiang "Charlie" Li often wondered why he found the cheapest airline tickets back to his native China through Chinese travel agencies rather than Internet sites.

The Boca Raton resident queried fellow Chinese academics and students in the United States through an online newsgroup, and in just one day received 3,000 responses backing the idea of a Web site for low-cost China travel.

Li got to work on the project, quit his teaching post at Florida Atlantic University, and in 1997 launched flychina.com. His wife kept her job elsewhere to help fund the start-up.

Today, Li's Fort Lauderdale-based company FlyChina Infotek Inc. employs nine people, including his wife. Sales reached $5.5 million last year and are projected to top $7 million this year. His client roster now reaches far beyond Chinese academics in the United States to include U.S. and European tourists and executives traveling to China.

Prospects for long-term growth appear excellent too, as China is forecast to become the world's top travel destination by 2020, surpassing France, according to the Madrid-based World Tourism Organization.

Li said he gets cheap fares by specializing in China and buying tickets airlines sell at "unpublished rates," the way consolidators do. Bigger Internet travel sites tend to use software that searches published fares.

Furthermore, he kept company expenses low and its focus tight to achieve profits after five years.

Marketing is mostly word of mouth or through Internet search engines, with little cash spent on advertising.

He's launched new services -- including hotel bookings and tours in China -- only when he's found sufficient client demand. He strives to keep close contact with clients for feedback, recently offering a chance at free tickets for those who filled out an online survey.

"The key is to listen to clients' needs and fulfill them," said the Tianjin-born Li, 44, who moved to South Florida in 1986 to pursue a doctorate. "You need to build a team to offer diligent customer service."

Li's team includes Beijing-born sales manager Linghong "Larry" Ge, 38, who studied aeronautics in the United States. Ge now works remotely from Kansas City, because his wife's job was relocated there.

"We're asking suggestions from our passengers all the time," Ge said by phone. "Customers have told us they want to pay online, so we're working on that now."

Low prices and personalized service keep Miguel Figueroa of Miami coming back for tickets from flychina.com. He works for a company that sells computer parts for trucks and other equipment made in a factory near Shanghai.

Figueroa said flychina.com gets him roundtrip fares for a bit more than $1,000, including flights between Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

"I think they're cheaper than others," said Figueroa, who often flies to Asia on American Airlines to earn frequent-flier miles that he also uses for sales trips in the Americas. "Maybe they have more connections with airlines in China."

Indeed, flychina.com will offer more flight options soon.

Li said Beijing and Washington recently agreed to expand U.S.-China airline service, with American, Continental, Delta and United among the U.S. carriers seeking to add routes.

Doreen Hemlock can be reached at dhemlock@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5009.




FlyChina Infotek Inc.

(operating as flychina.com)

Business: Sells discount airline tickets and travel to China

Where: 5300 NW 33rd Ave., Suite 219, Fort Lauderdale (www.flychina.com)

Owner: Qiang "Charlie" Li and partners

Established: 1997

Revenue: $5.5 million in 2004

Employees: Nine

Advice: "Listen to clients' needs and fulfill them. Each problem is an opportunity to improve work procedures."



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