By Lee San
May 5, 1997, Apple Vacations outbound travel department director Kent Chow started work with us. From this alone you should have realized that I did have big plans for outbound travel (B2C), huh! But, why was I so generous to let go of some of my shares to get some powerful man on my side?
Chow’s vast experience made up for my deficiency in leadership, and I strongly believed he could help strengthen our sale, and roping in this genius was an investment worthwhile. For example, some of the generals that went to the wars eventually became US presidents, as they could effortlessly lead the United States to the forefront of the world.
In conjunction with this new arrangement, we moved our office on the second floor of Plaza Berjaya to the 2,000 sq ft premises on the first floor of the same building, and started our direct customer sale service. Along the way, our core workforce expanded from five a year earlier to 15 now, three in the management.
Chow was an expert in European and American tours, and was well versed in all levels of the travel industry hierarchy. He fortified the comprehensive skill training for sales personnel and tour leaders.
We continued to focus on our Japan and Thailand tour dealership (B2B, wholesaler) while venturing into Japan ground arrangement services much needed in the industry, including local tours and accommodation. Meanwhile, we were also exploring avenues to expand into the direct customer service (B2C) sector.
As a matter of fact, I had already learned by then that branding was of paramount importance to a travel agency, if I were to take in direct customers. A good branding creates an irresistible advantage for a company.
“Apple Vacations. The Japan tour specialist”. But why a tour specialist, and why is Apple so familiar with Japan? Why must you travel with Apple to Japan, and why should Apple come to mind when you think of Japan? Branding is downright an enormous sense of responsibility. Once you fail to deliver, your branding is gone! That’s why branding is a protracted war that requires full coordination from the whole team. Everyone has to put in the effort–neat, orderly and straightforward. We walk our talk!
Closely pegged to branding is quality. In a nutshell, I must deliver what I have promised, plus value-added extras to qualify as an acceptable agency, so that my customers will feel my dedication and professionalism, and spontaneously join my groups. They will keep traveling with us, and enjoy each of the trips. They will ultimately realize that every trip they go with us is worth the money they pay, being pampered with excellent accommodation and wonderful food, and most importantly the entire experience is absolutely relaxing and not the least exhausting. At the end of the day, they become our repeaters, and that’s when they also double up as our most enthusiastic spokespersons and promoters. The thing is: they pay us, and help sell us!
To be honest, it is our credibility that has given them the confidence to promote our tours to their friends and relatives, colleagues and classmates. We cannot afford to fail them, not even once, for it entails not just their credibility but also our branding and industrial reputation.
It is not easy to sustain a brand’s reputation and credibility because a traveler’s liking is something totally personal and subjective. For instance, if in Japan the sashimi is too raw, too bland or white, we will get complained. I often believe we are running a service-oriented business, and must therefore keep improving and maximizing our service quality to cater to the needs of each and every customer in full sincerity. Although customers are not always right, if our service doesn’t meet the criteria of our customers, they deserve the right to be angry, and we have this obligation to seriously look into their complaints.
Each of these complaints must be treated as their most genuine feedback for us. They want us to improve so that no other customers will have the same bad experience in future. Anything we can do we’ll rectify instantly and then follow up and report to the complainants what we’ve done on their suggestions. Our responsiveness speaks for our utmost respect for our customers.
As the company’s leader, I have to set out the big picture and stress the importance of branding and follow-up actions. As such, we started to study and discuss the industrial positioning of Apple Vacations.
Firstly, we hired a young designer to create a new logo for Apple Vacations and design our uniform. We all agreed to pick the neutral purple color as our corporate color. Secondly, we reconfirmed “Apple Vacations . The Japan tour specialist” as our mainstay.
In view of this, our B2C retail sales department decided to strengthen our Japan tour offerings while upping the quality of our Hong Kong and Thailand packages.
In the meantime, Chow also started to design our Europe and America itineraries which he was very familiar with. He also started approaching Singapore Airlines for the purchase of group tickets plus a series of related tours. Chow was responsible for the travel part while I concentrated on company branding and quality packaging. We worked together in synergy to boost the company’s reputation. Everyone seemed to be progressing smoothly and well.
Of course. Apple Vacations was nonetheless still a new outfit in the market. Other than the “A” licence we already had, all the essential resources required of a travel agency were still very much limited, especially funds. We didn’t have bank financing nor enviable track record, but we all had a powerful passion for this business!
(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.)