After his secondary school graduation, Chon set out to the United States from his native Korea with a curiosity about the world, to study hospitality and become a hotelier, engaged in a profession that would allow him to travel.
A master's degree, a PhD and many years later which he successfully spent in research and education in the US, Chon was headhunted and persuaded to move to Hong Kong.
"I saw huge opportunities lying ahead of us in Asia. It is now the centre of excellence in this business, so I reasoned with myself, why a university in Asia should not become a world leader in providing [hospitality] education. That was the grand vision I saw and that's why I came to Hong Kong 11 years ago," says the dean and chair professor of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "When I was talking about this and the planned move to Hong Kong, many people didn't understand what I was talking about. But now they can see that this is where all the action is taking place."
Although not many colleagues believed in Chon's great vision, by 2005 the School of Hotel and Tourism Management ranked fourth in the independent ranking of the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research. In 2009, it became the second in the world, just after Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.
"I'm very proud of this, because we were recognised for our excellence. This is a source of pride and confidence for our students," he says.
Chon has received several awards over the years. This year, Chon received the United Nations World Tourism Organisation's Ulysses prize for his outstanding contribution to tourism knowledge. "I was really humbled. I believe I was the ninth recipient of the award and the first person from Asia," he says.
Chon's latest achievement is the new 28-floor building next to the Polytechnic University, housing the school on nine floors and a training hotel.
There are about 3,000 universities in the world offering hospitality degrees, many of which have training hotels. Chon studied many of them before coming up with a new model of operation, to innovate and be one step ahead of competition. "Universities have to be innovative, thinking of new ways rather than following tradition. We had to come up with a new model," he says.
While Hotel Icon is a full-service commercial hotel responsible for its profit and loss, it is also a training hotel allowing students to personally experience every detail.
"If the students take a class on hospitality facilities management, they learn what a restaurant layout should look like, how to set up a kitchen, what ventilation system or air conditioning they need. Previously all this was just classroom learning but in our school you just have to walk into the actual facility and you can learn on-site. That is what I call full integration. This is a very unique model," Chon explains. Part of the courses will be taught on-site. Out of the hotel's 262 rooms, three are dedicated to teaching and showcasing new ideas. "If the ideas work, we will share them with the industry," Chon says.