중앙데일리

American moves from teaching to discount business

June 25,2008
Bill Swisshelm shows off his “Around Seoul Card” during a recent interview in Seoul. By Moon Gwang-lip
Living in a country where non-locals are often overlooked by marketers for their relatively small purchasing power and given little marketing benefit, some expats try on their own to bring customized service to their fellow transplants.

For Bill Swisshelm, a 39-year-old American resident in Seoul, it is a discount card for use in restaurants.

With "Around Seoul Card," foreign residents or even tourists can purchase meals at 10 percent discounted in dozens of restaurants in Seoul, Swiss-helm said.

"There was no way for foreigners to get discounts in Korea," said Swisshelm, who has lived in Korea for a decade, in a recent interview. "There are a lot of Korean marketing companies, but they tend to forget hundreds of thousands of foreigners."

It was the winter of 2005 when Swisshelm took on the idea of a discount card business. Swisshelm, who taught English for seven years in Korea, immediately transformed himself into a businessman.

It was, however, a series of trials and errors, he said.

"Teaching gives one a very different mind set, and it takes a while to develop a business mind after teaching for so long," he said.

Still, he said there has been improvement.

The card was initially named Eat-a-One, pronounced like Itaewon, as all the member restaurants were in the expatriate-frequented district.

In March this year, the card was reborn as Around Seoul with the aim of expanding membership to restaurants in other parts of the capital city. Five restaurants including two outside Itaewon were added to the membership this year. The expansion, he said, is being helped by a Korean-American partner who joined him as the designer of the Web site for the business (www.aroundseoul.com).

"Restaurants outside of Itaewon, for example in Jongno, Gangnam and Hongdae, are not really interested in being associated with Itaewon," he said. "Many foreigners go to Itaewon maybe once a month. They wanted to get more benefit near where they live."

The year-long membership fee for the card is 25,000 won ($24), expensive compared to discount cards distributed almost free by local credit card or telecom companies.

Nonetheless, it is worth keeping it, Swisshelm claims. He says card holders can enjoy an authentic cultural experience at handpicked restaurants.

"Selected by authenticity, most of them are either owned by foreigners or Koreans who have lived in those countries and fell in love with their cuisine," he said. "Not only the food is authentic but the atmosphere is authentic and the music is also from those countries, so it is a real cultural experience."

The main customer base of the card are expatriates in Seoul, but it can be used also by Koreans.

Swisshelm says more Koreans are showing interest in holding the card and more may join in when the Web site begins its Korean-language service this fall. He is expecting the number of card holders to increase from 400 to 1,000 this year.

His ultimate goal is to give card holders discounts for every service available, not just for meals.

Already, a cigar shop, a massage studio and two theater groups are giving discount benefits to his card members, Swisshelm said.

He said if membership grows, he will try to make a partnership deal with banks whereby card holders can use banking services conveniently and cheaply.

"I want it to be more like a membership card with different benefits all around Seoul," he said.


By Moon Gwang-lip Staff Reporter [joe@joongang.co.kr]



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