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Francesco Galli Zugaro expands river cruise business from Singapore

We travel to Cambodia to meet Aqua Expeditions' founder who is causing ripples with bespoke river cruises along the Amazon and Mekong.

Luck, some might say, is one of the most important elements for success in business. But if you present this notion to Francesco Galli Zugaro, chances are, he will not buy it.

It was certainly not happenstance that the Italian-American, who has lived in 14 other countries, chose to relocate himself and the headquarters of his boutique river cruise firm Aqua Expeditions 13 time zones from Lima, Peru, to Singapore in August 2012.

It is not by luck, he asserts, that his six-month-old river cruise vessel Aqua Mekong is set to break even by the end of next year, when the hospitality industry norm is four to five years. And he certainly did not just decide to sail down the Mekong River by throwing a dart at a spinning globe – as I am about to find out.

My photography crew and I are on our way for a three-day journey aboard the Aqua Mekong, which has been travelling upriver from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, to meet us. The skiff that would take us to the 20-cabin river cruiser cuts through the darkness of a moonless night. Save for a few scattered stars that dot the cloudless sky, there is no light to guide our path as we pull away from the neon-lit buildings along Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath Quay, where we board the 10-seater tender a few days after the New Year rang in.

The boat comes to a stop five minutes later – in the middle of nowhere. The guide explains that this is the intersection of the four rivers – the Upper Mekong, the Lower Mekong, the Bassac and the Tonle Sap, and that we are waiting for the Aqua Mekong to anchor before approaching it.

Aqua-Mekong

As we draw closer to the boat that looks like a floating condominium block, we see a man dressed in a white shirt and dark blue chinos standing on the deck, ready to greet his guests.

“Welcome on board,” Galli Zugaro says with a wide smile, when we climb onto the deck. Never mind that it is nearly midnight and he has been up since 6am. The sprightly 42-year-old takes us for a tour around the 62.4m vessel, like a proud new homeowner would introduce his residence. The luxury cruiser is new, having made its maiden voyage on the Mekong just last September.

Its contemporary interior – personally designed by Galli Zugaro – is bathed in inviting, warm colours. In the communal living area, plush sofas beckon guests to gather and socialise. A games room, which has assorted board games and a crystal and teak foosball table with cork balls, provides a surefire setting for strangers to strike up friendships, especially when they are travelling and dining with the same group of people for at least three days. But it is easy to forget that you are in a confined space – and that is the point. “I created spaces where people could quickly become comfortable in,” Galli Zugaro says. “The look and feel are very similar to my home in Singapore. I like clean lines.”

Indeed, a few guests are lounging on the observatory deck, which has been transformed into an outdoor cinema screening Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Given the posh digs, Henry Mancini’s Moon River cannot be more apt to signal the start of our journey.

Along with us and some dozen guests, 19 members of Galli Zugaro’s family, including his wife Brigit and three children, have congregated on the Aqua Mekong to celebrate its launch. His stepfather and mother have especially flown in from Washington, D.C., where they live, halfway around the world, to experience the river cruiser.

Transplanting a business over the same distance is another matter altogether, however, and it took Galli Zugaro more than a year to be convinced that Singapore would be a more suitable base than Hong Kong, which he was also considering at the time. The deciding factor? Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB). Its consistent efforts to help foreign companies go international by inviting them to set up shop here impressed him. After talking with EDB officers in Sao Paolo, Brazil, he decided to give this tiny red dot a shot.

Francesco-Biking

ADVENTURE SEEKER
While he takes calculated risks in his business ventures, Francesco Galli Zugaro keeps his own life on the edge by injecting an element of danger into his personal travels. His most daring trip to date was a four-day road-cycling trek through Namibia’s Damaraland Desert last November (pictured above). He was alone.

“It was full of free-roaming elephants and lions. I was cycling 70km a day through the rough and dusty terrain. My wife thought I was going through a mid-life crisis. I needed that rush of pure adrenalin as a sort of rejuvenation.”

WORLD CITIZEN
“I suppose you could say that I am somewhat restless,” he says. “It probably has to do with the fact that I’ve moved around a lot in my life. I’ve lived in 14 countries growing up, which has had a profound impact on me as person.”

Born in Zurich, Switzerland, to an Italian father who worked in the aviation industry and an American mother, Galli Zugaro lived all over Europe and the Middle East before attending Boston College in the US where he graduated with a double major in communications and German. He also speaks Spanish and Italian.

After working for a few years in New York and London, and backpacking in Asia for six months, the nomadic soul decided in 1997 that it was time to uproot again, this time to Ecuador where he had a job offer to work at a telecommunications startup and where his family would spend the next 10 years – “the longest I’ve ever lived in one country”, he says.

It was in 2006, over a Christmas dinner with his in-laws in Ecuador, that Galli Zugaro pondered the possibility of starting a river-cruise business with his father-in-law, Fred Brown. By then, he had already learnt the ropes of operating a luxury cruise liner, after spending five years as vice-president of marketing and sales at Galapagos-based Ocean Adventures.

“When the owners sold the business in 2005, I felt that my challenge was over. I was working very long hours and, even though I enjoyed what I was doing, I was ready for the next phase in my life and to start my own thing,” he shares over drinks at Aqua Mekong’s bar.

After sampling riverboat operations around the world, he explored the Amazon. Convinced that there was an opportunity for cruising along the undiscovered Peruvian section, he embarked on an expedition into the depths of the jungle.

“From my years in the cruise industry in South America, I knew there was a lack of this product in the Amazon, particularly the Peruvian stretch which was unexplored. And, if we provided skiffs, we could go deeper into the jungles where no one has been,” he says.

Along with the backing of Brown, who has held senior management positions at international conglomerates and now serves as Aqua Expeditions’ chief financial officer, and a personal investment of US$4 million (S$5.5 million), the pair built their first vessel, the 12-cabin Aqua Amazon, which set sail in March 2008. Galli Zugaro also moved to Lima, Peru, where he and his family would be based for the next five years.

“I had a young family and, sure, it was very risky. But I had very good support. I knew the industry and I had good relationships with tour operators around the world so it was a measured risk,” he says. The business proved to be so successful that the second vessel, 16-cabin Aria Amazon, was constructed. It took its maiden voyage in 2011.

Having been proven right, Galli Zugaro began toying with the idea of moving again in 2012. “I wanted to prove that our business model worked, that we didn’t just get lucky.”

For months, he explored some of the world’s most famous rivers including the Nile, Yangtze and Zambezi. Then he arrived at the Mekong and everything clicked. The cultural landmark and a river untainted by tourism checked all boxes.

“The attractions like the Mekong and Angkor Wat are exotic and world-renowned,” he says. With the insight of a dedicated globetrotter, he asserts: “Angkor Wat is the Machu Picchu of Asia.”

Francesco Galli Zugaro designed spaces where guests could mingle freely on Aqua Mekong, like its contemporary bar which is designed by Singapore's Proof and Company.
Francesco Galli Zugaro designed spaces where guests could mingle freely on Aqua Mekong, like its contemporary bar which is designed by Singapore’s Proof and Company.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
Aqua Mekong, which stops in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Saigon in three-, four- or seven-day itineraries, is the culmination of all the observations and refinements that Galli Zugaro has amassed in the past eight years since he founded Aqua Expeditions. Today, the company has offices in Peru, Singapore and Cambodia.

Anyone who’s seen him at work will observe that he’s not one to leave anything to chance. At 6.30am, just when you think he would be having a leisurely breakfast with his family, he is nowhere to be found. When I finally run into him – with a half-eaten croissant as his breakfast on the go – along the corridor an hour later, I realise that he has been laying the groundwork for our photo shoot later in the morning: freeing up the use of one skiff for the photographer and making sure the captain knows which direction to steer the boat for favourable lighting.

He had also hand-picked the materials for the boat’s decor, from the charcoal lacquer tiles which mimic the look of bamboo in en-suite bathrooms and Swedish plywood flooring, to furniture from Romania and the aforementioned foosball table from Europe. Staff uniforms are designed by Madagascan-born, Saint Laurent-trained fashion designer Eric Raisina, who is known for his work with Cambodian silks.

If you don’t know Raisina, note his name, because Galli Zugaro has a penchant for selecting the best in the business. The Aqua Mekong’s Indo-Chinese menu is created by Australian chef David Thompson of Bangkok restaurant Nahm, which claimed the top spot in last year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings. “Thank goodness I signed him on before he won that,” he says with a chuckle. They met through a mutual friend.

The bar, too, decked out in warm wood panelling, was designed by Singapore alcohol importer and distributor Proof and Company – the same guys who opened cool watering hole 28 Hong Kong Street near Chinatown.

At meal times, the spiritual captain of the boat mingles with the passengers – Bill Gates’ parents are said to have been past travellers – and banters with them like they are old friends. Ever the consummate host, he’s checking in on his guests and making sure that they are well taken care of. “The first thing I noticed when I boarded the boat was Francesco’s attention to detail,” his stepfather, Ronald, says. “This boy has always been meticulous. Before going to bed when he was younger, he would lay out the clothes he planned to wear the next day. Who does that?”

WHATEVER WORKS IN THE AMAZON…
Galli Zugaro is now applying his wealth of experience to this part of the world. He has designed the Aqua Mekong, which was built in Vietnam by Singapore-listed offshore fabrication and engineering firm Triyards, so only half of the cabins have balconies, though all have floor-to-ceiling windows and eye-level river views. Many guestson the Amazon route leave the balcony largely unused, so it was only logical to increase room space for such guests and have the balcony as an option for those who appreciate it more. Depending on the room, the price of the cruise ranges starting from US$1,105 per night.

And following his practice of researching the Amazon, Galli Zugaro spent weeks on the Mekong exploring every tributary to plan on-shore excursions – visiting food markets, remote villages, food factories and entering into private audiences with monks at a monastery – what he calls “soft adventures”, for his well-heeled passengers. The bespoke boat, like its sisters in the Peruvian Amazon, carries skiffs that allow guests to meander through the shallower parts of the river and visit lands that are accessible only by water.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed by industry watchers. “The demand for small river cruises is on the rise,” he observes. “When we started, we had difficulty getting financing because no one knew us or about the business. We finally struck a deal with Singapore-based private equity Luminor Capital and raised $7.6 million to build this boat.

“Now, there are at least eight to 10 other cruise operators which are trying to do what we have mastered.”

SETTING ANCHOR
Six months after Aqua Mekong has set sail, Galli Zugaro still travels with her every fortnight. He returns to South America every quarter to check in on things. Aqua Expeditions currently employs 200 people in Peru, Singapore and Cambodia.

The next logical step would be to build another boat for the Mekong for “economies of scale”, but that won’t happen any time soon. For now, he wants to perfect operations on the Aqua Mekong, which includes building rapport with his Cambodian crew. “No one laughs at my jokes,” he laments. “I’ve learnt from working with the locals that they prefer being given encouragement personally to being praised in front of their peers.”

There are still lessons ahead, then, for this world-hopping captain in search of the next adventure. “My wife and I got engaged in Bali,” he reveals. “I always knew I wanted to return to Asia.

“It will be our home for a good long while.”

Learn more about Francesco Galli Zugaro’s life on the wild side in the Amazon in the digital edition of The Peak here.