11:00am 10/10/2021
[Isshōkenmei] From strength to strength (10)
By:Lee San

1996, Year 1 of Apple Holidays. Our office was then on the second floor of Plaza Berjaya on Jalan Imbi, KL. We started with five people, increased to ten after three months, working hard inside the humble 800 square foot office.

As for me, I finally got to become boss, with the designation of 代表取缔役 in Japanese, or managing director in English.

Back then a friend who loved Kenshi Hirokane’s comic series Kosaku Shima (島耕作) would ask me: So, after some years you will become the company’s chairman, huh?

Indeed, I really thought of introducing the complete Japanese company operating system to my new outfit: simple physical exercise for all staff first thing in the morning, one briefing report each week, and learn one Japanese word each day. The thing is, my colleagues might talk behind me that this guy must be out of his mind?!

Posing with the overseas operation chief of Tokyo Airport Limousine in 1995/96.

I need to reiterate that Apple Holidays only had the “inbound and local tour” license. As such, I had to exercise additional caution each time I organized a tour to make sure I didn’t cross the red line. That said, there were some grey areas that I could still safely trespass.

So, besides taking ground arrangement jobs from other travel agencies (B2B), I also promoted local tours, in particular packages rich in themed contents.

As if that was not enough, to make sure I would make it to the forefront of the industry, I attended classes and took the government tour guide course. My new license number was 4751, including Japanese proficiency.

Actually, I indeed had the intention of running inbound tours for Japanese tourists to Malaysia.

Social media was unheard of back in 1996, and handphones and internet were rare. Back then most travel agencies in the country were largely confined to organizing their own short trips, getting some old friends from coffee shops and the market to board the bus to travel up and down the country looking for nice local food. As a matter of fact, such down-to-earth local tours are still popular to this day.

However, I also began to see the potentials of organizing recreational trips for young people, or the so-called “themed holidays”. Well, let me set the trend, okay?

A second rendezvous in KL in March 2019.

Apple Holidays was already organizing a series of themed holiday packages for its customers 24 years ago. Among the big-time favorites were Ipoh-Penang family tour, Kuantan-Cherating easy-going tour, Langkawi sun and beach tour, and Miri-Mulu Sarawak adventure tour.

Actually, those who joined any of the tours above would continue to travel abroad with Apple. Indeed, we grew together.

This also reminds me of the group events organized by Stepoint before I went to Japan, whereby a group of young friends came together organizing camping and hiking activities for other young people. Yes, we sowed the seed, and it has now grown into a shady tree.

I learned much later that those activities we organized in 1985 at Stepoint are actually called “themed holidays” elsewhere. In places like Taiwan and Japan, such themed holiday packages have been elevated to a profound and interactive level. Of course, I would love to copy them!

Talking about travel resources, no doubt Thailand is extremely diverse and exciting.

When I was 18, with a backpack, I hitch-hiked my way from my hometown, along the east coast of Kelantan into Yala province in southern Thailand and onward to Hat Yai. From Hat Yai, I took a local coach to Phuket and Phang Nga Bay. This made up my earliest “itinerary planning” and ignited a strong passion in me learning about the operation of a travel agency.

Now that I have founded Apple Holidays, sure enough I would extend my travel plans all the way into Thailand. Although I hadn’t visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai at that time, I had wanted very much to visit those places.

The thing is, how was I supposed to run my Thai holiday packages at a time budget airlines were not yet in the market?

1996, Lee San came up with specially themed holiday packages.

I truly believe that at each street corner along my career path I would come across the right people and things. The point is, I always believe that everything is a good thing.

One day, a colleague told me Mr Joe Zhou from Hong Kong wanted an appointment with me to talk about Thailand.

I was thinking what a coincidence it was!

Joe was actually from a Hong Kong travel agency stationed in Bangkok, responsible for the ground arrangement services for customers from Hong Kong. He had the Thai GA operation at his fingertips. Apparently he was the person I had been looking for.

We started with a KL to Bangkok train package that could be considered a pioneering initiative in train travel in Malaysia. Later, we purchased group air tickets to Thailand from another agency, and throw in GA for Bangkok-Pattaya and Chiangmai-Chiangrai bundled in our “Sawadee Holiday” packages that would then be marketed to smaller agencies in the central region (KL, Selangor) in a wholesale manner, like what we did for Japan tours. The result? We instantly became a household name in this field in the industry.

By early 1997, besides wholesale and GA services for Japan tours, we also did local themed packages as well as Thailand wholesale and GA in collaboration with Joe.

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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