PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Nine years ago, Yang Ho Cho, who is the chairman and chief executive officer of Korean Air but who is really a regular guy, got five of his buddies together and they did one of those bucket-list things. They drove across the United States, Los Angeles to New York. Yang Ho Cho is not, after an extraordinary career in business, lacking for means. He could have arranged the trip so that he and the crew stayed at the most upscale of hotels and ate only the finest meals. Not the point. They wanted to feel the United States, to have a genuine experience, to talk along the way with real Americans.
They did have two big cars, a Lincoln and a Lexus, for all six guys and their bags. But for most of the trip they stayed at $30 per night Best Western motels. They ate with near-religious fervor at McDonald's for breakfast; at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway or (again) McDonald's for lunch; and, always, at a Chinese joint for dinner.
"No matter how small the town was," he said, laughing, remembering the adventure, "there was always a Chinese restaurant."
This third straight Korean bid for the Winter Olympic Games brings with it an almost-entirely new set of characters. Perhaps no one embodies that fact more than Yang Ho Cho, and that holds significant consequence should the International Olympic Committee chose Pyeongchang in its July 6 vote for 2018. Munich and Annecy, France, are also in the race.
The IOC's 2018 Evaluation Commission, after visiting Annecy last week, turned this week to Pyeongchang. It travels March 1-4 to Munich.
With the exception of a very few notable personalities, among them the former provincial governor here, Kim Jun Sun, the prior two Korean bids -- both unsuccessful, for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games -- left a remarkably unremarkable impression. The image that lingers: packs of men, almost all men, dressed alike in dark suits, smoking a lot of cigarettes, speaking the Korean language almost exclusively, obviously giving off the impression of competence in their spheres but just as obviously not resolving to the IOC's satisfaction one of the most elemental questions any bid campaign presents:
Do I want to do business with these people?
In any enterprise, the wanting-to-do-business factor depends on the getting-to-know-you factor -- and all the more so in the Olympic sphere, where bids cost tens of millions of dollars and Games run to billions. The IOC has a franchise not only to extend but to protect.
The IOC thus moves with prudence and common sense.
So does Yang Ho Cho.
This is a man who oversaw nothing less than a thorough transformation of his airline's corporate culture. He took over after a series of accidents in the 1990s; he instituted changes that turned Korean Air into one of the world's safest carriers.
This is a man who moves easily now at the highest levels of Korean and western business, government and politics.
At the same time, this is a man who moves comfortably in any environment -- having seen pretty much everything along the way, including the Vietnam War, the Korean DMZ, gritty downtown Los Angeles and a lot of McDonald's menu boards.
He is a genuine human being. He is accessible and real. "I want not just to shake the hands of the IOC members," he said here Thursday night, one of a series of conversations in various locales around the world over the past several months. "Instead, I want them to say, 'This is a guy I can work with for the next eight years.' This is what we want to show."
Real people, even important businessmen, sometimes make mistakes -- that's life. Yang Ho Cho accepts responsibility and asks to move on. Last year, Korean Air signed a sponsorship deal with the International Skating Union. The ISU's president, Ottavio Cinquanta, is a ranking IOC personality. The IOC thereupon issued a warning to the Pyeongchang bid committee, and the airline agreed to postpone its sponsorship of the skating federation until after the July 6 vote.
"We had good intentions," Yang Ho Cho said. "There wasn't any hanky-panky. I had to learn.
"... If you're talking about transport -- I'm an expert. Sports -- I'm learning."
This Korean 2018 crew is -- like Yang Ho Cho -- entirely, indeed profoundly, different. They move, many of them, effortlessly in English -- like communications director Theresa Rah.
They invite you to sit with them in the hotel bars. If that doesn't sound like such a big deal -- it's a huge change from the prior two bid cycles.
Early on, it was decided that the 2018 strategy would be to reach out, early, to non-Koreans who could help -- among them, the English communications and strategy advisor Mike Lee, who played a key role in Rio de Janeiro's winning 2016 Games bid, as well as the American counterpart Terrence Burns, who helped Sochi win for 2014.
Most intriguingly, Yang Ho Cho is not the emotional center of the campaign. Nor is he aiming to be. In that regard, the German and Korean campaigns make for a vivid contrast. Munich puts forward a star: Katarina Witt, a two-time Olympic figure skating champion. Yang Ho Cho is more orchestra conductor than star.
It is perhaps illuminating that though Yang Ho Cho of course speaks English -- he went to high school in the United States -- he had no trouble a few months back acknowledging a succession of 2018 advisers who suggested that with a little bit of practice he could sound just that much better.
How many chief executives are truly willing to accept such coaching?
"Why not?" he said Thursday. "I can learn from anyone who can teach me."
If you know Yang Ho Cho's back story, though, that's hardly surprising.
Korean Air is the family business. So he didn't exactly grow up in poverty.
But he didn't exactly wallow in privilege.
Yang Ho Cho's passions have always been travel and photography. After high school, he went to go see the sights in Europe. His father sent him to the continent with $3,000.
"I spent only $2,000. I gave him back $1,000. After that," he said, "my father never questioned my spending."
Next: boot camp in the Korean Army. When that was finished, he was sent to the DMZ: "We had no electricity. We had to use kerosene lamps just to see. For me, it was just too much of a shock."
Anything, he reasoned, had to be better.
So he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Again -- he volunteered to go to a war zone. "At least in Vietnam," he said, "they had electricity."
He spent 11 months there. "After that -- it was back to the DMZ." And after that, he had learned something about himself: "If I can live at the DMZ, I can do anything."
When his military service ended, he went to college in Korea, then moved to Los Angeles, to learn the family business in earnest.
He and his wife lived downtown. He was getting paid $800 per month. Their rent was $300. It was a big treat to take the kids out for French fries.
While in Los Angeles, he earned a master's degree at USC -- where he now serves on the board of trustees.
He still has the California driver's license he got all those years ago. It came in handy on that road trip to New York.
He and his crew saw the national parks in Utah; then took in Santa Fe, New Mexico; went back up to Oklahoma; headed down to New Orleans; east to Savannah, Georgia; then made their way up through Washington, D.C., to New York.
Oh, they did make one other important stop along the way. They went to Memphis, and for one very important reason.
That's where you can find Graceland and, as Yang Ho Cho said with a laugh, "I like Elvis."