[Isshōkenmei] Chance encounter and opportunity (8)

By Lee San

During those days running the “ANA Holidays”, it became obvious that someone absolutely familiar with Japan emerged in Malaysia’s Japan outbound industry.

Who else but Lee San?

Thanks to the support and recognition from ANA’s sales manager for Malaysia Mr. Bernard Woo, we were able to pool our expertise together to create truly creative and thematically rich itineraries for Japan, and through travel agencies nationwide promote and market our service. It seems that all the experiences and preparations I had accumulated during those five years studying and working part-time as tour guide in Japan, along with the efforts I put in thereafter, had won me acceptance in the industry.

The most precious thing is that the friendship with those colleagues who have fought alongside me during the past 20-odd years has remained as solid as ever, and we continue to support and help one another until this day.

After Bernard Woo, I came across several other shining lights at different street corners of my career journey. And these have partly contributed to my career success. Indeed, as we are struggling to build a career, a little help from the right persons will most definitely have a multiplier effect on our input.

We focused on B2B Japan tours during our early years, and ANA’s promotion helped restore public confidence in our Japan tours.

I always tell the newbies in the industry the importance of friendship. Your school mate today could be an excellent partner in future. As for my partner Kohsan, he used to be my classmate hailing from the same kampung. We’ll talk more about this another time.

Alice Lim used to be Sanni’s financial controller and ex-colleague. She later made up her mind to join us to advance our career aspirations together.

And since we were all set for it, we would just give it a go!

Nevertheless, we needed a license to start a travel agency. During those years applying for a licence through the normal procedures could be both costly and troublesome. (As a matter of fact, nothing much has improved after these years!)

Through the business relations she had acquired earlier, Alice managed to get a “travel agency license for inbound tours only” for RM15,000. The company was initially named Focal Leisure, but I decided to give it a new name: Apple Holidays. So, Alice and I, plus Kohsan who was still in Japan then, officially set up “Apple” operating out of KL and Japan.

Our job was organizing Japan tours for other agencies (B2B) under the “Sakura Holidays” brand. In other words, Apple Holidays came up with the complete Japan tour packages that were then released to travel agencies nationwide for retailing.

Actually such a modus operandi was similar to ANA Holidays’ business model, but this time Apple was the wholesaler while ANA was our air ticket supplier.

You should know that back in those years people who joined Japan tours were all priced customers of various agencies. But why were these agencies willing to entrust their most valued customers to me?

All I can explain is this: Given the promotional efforts of ANA Holidays over the previous few months, Malaysians had restored their faith in Japan travels. And I somewhat benefited from such a phenomenon as they saw me as a quality professional handler of Japan GA services. To be honest, I was practically the only guy selling Japan aggressively back then. Coupled with Bernard’s role as key introducer, we had been able to register enviable results in this particular segment.

Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, ANA Holidays had to suspend its B2B business owing to some internal personnel problems, allowing me to seize the opportunity to go into this sector myself.

“Sakura Holidays” offer full Japan tour packages to be retailed by local travel agencies.

Of course, my career path was not without hiccups at all. Like any salesperson, I also had my downtime and had been rejected on many occasions. As for those in the travel fraternity willing to accept Lee San, they were the ones who helped make my career dream a reality.

Another factor must have been the relations I had built up bit by bit through the years. While I was studying in Japan, I was working as a tour guide for tour groups from Malaysia during the summer vacation to help pay my tuition fees, and that was how I came to know owners, supervisors and tour leaders of Malaysian travel agencies.

Mr. Eddie Chow was one of them. Each time he took a large incentive group to Japan, I was always his guide. He would un-hesitantly authorize me to handle all the GA services for his groups during that all-important period I was starting my own career. Notably, even though Eddie had already retired by end-2019, he still joined the Apple team to become our Incentives advisor. Unfortunately the 2020 pandemic has bogged down our plans.

Up till this point, you might have observed one thing in me, that I would never forget those people who have helped me so much and how I came to meet them for the first time. And this remains always true and unchanging.

Another person to whom I’m very much indebted is Miss Shirley Tan whom I met at ANA Holidays. Shirley was then in charge of Reliance’s outbound department. If we were to handle her company’s Japan GA services, we would have to give her at least 45 days of credit.

During the initial stage, the company lacked operating capital and I couldn’t afford to come up with at least RM40,000 myself for each group’s GA expenses! Moreover, the groups kept coming! What was I supposed to do? If we could handle Reliance’s groups, it would mean a lot for Apple’s industrial reputation.

Seeing our concern, Shirley generously shortened the credit period from 45 days to only 15. Because of the Japan GA jobs she passed to me, I was able to chalk an impressive first year for Apple Holidays.

In 2010, Shirley was appointed general manager of Apple Holidays. Although we have not been working together for a very long time, that collaboration has been of remarkable significance to me.

The obstacle that stands in your way at each street corner could be an opportunity specially prepared for you!

More in the Isshōkenmei series

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)


Lee San
Apple Vacations


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