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31/10/2021
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[Isshōkenmei] Surviving the financial crisis (13)

By Lee San

Apple Vacations A class travel license was born in May 1997, with all Applenians at various posts ready to roll out the business.

Barely two months later in July that year, the Asian financial crisis broke out without any hint of forewarning. Things didn’t look quite well at that time. Could that be the third disaster I was about to confront?

International speculators are never known to be kind. They only have one and single motive: to make quick bucks out of the market. So in 1997, they assaulted Asian currencies and sent their values nosediving, including our very own ringgit. As a consequence, some of the region’s banks and equity houses went bust or were liquidated by their governments, or were taken over. Sure enough big and small individual currency investors were also forced to abandon the market hastily and suffered immeasurable losses. And this definitely had a major impact on the appetite for travel among ordinary Malaysians.

Back then Apple Vacations had already drawn up some really nice but relatively costly themed itineraries for Japan. I was worried that when the entire team was up and going, our fixed expenses could be an enormous burden to the company.

Talking about the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand was the first target of the maniac speculators. The Thai baht tumbled by a whopping 17% on July 2, officially raising the curtain on the regional financial crisis. This was then followed by the Korean won, Indonesian rupiah, Singapore dollar, Philippine peso, the New Taiwan dollar, Japanese yen and our Malaysian ringgit.

Soon afterwards, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea had to seek bailout from the IMF. The speculators later turned to countries with relatively weak financial systems like Russia.

The tempest lasted until end-1999 albeit only a momentary respite, causing a major depression in much of Asia, including Japan. As a result, lives became tough for people all over Asia-Pacific, their shares reduced to waste papers, as defaults on housing mortgages skyrocketed.

In the meantime, political turmoil erupted in much of the region following the financial meltdown, with many governments toppled and replaced. Hong Kong was the only shining exception as it managed to defeat George Soros and other rogue speculators to emerge as the mere winner in this battle.

New kid in the block, Apple launched its value-for-money Thailand tour package in 1997 (L); in 1996, Lee San came up with specially themed holiday packages.

Then what about Apple Vacations? Well, we could do it small, small but beautiful, right? Although we only had 20-odd people, we could always go slowly, trying to adapt to the changed environment during the financial crisis, but there was still some heavy cost to bear! I nevertheless believed there could be something beautiful even in the midst of a prefect storm.

Indeed, just as most of the established travel agencies were adopting a “wait and see” attitude, Apple Vacations found the niche to survive within the narrow crack. Even during such a trying time, we adopted the “Apple Vacations. Setting the Trend” slogan in selling our tour packages. We temporarily put aside our themed packages and worked closely with GA agencies all around Asia, to offer our customers excellent regional tours at affordable rates.

With the slump of the Thai baht, sure enough everything in Thailand was cheap and nice. Together with the ground arrangement in Bangkok. Apple Vacations launched the 4D Phuket-Phangnga Bay package for only RM399, and 5D Bangkok-Pattaya for RM599. In 1997-98, we sold over 10,000 seats for our Thailand tours.

We even worked with New Life Post to take the Four Golden Princesses on our 5D Bangkok-Pattaya trip that came with a free mini concert by this popular girl group, all for RM788 on a chartered flight! That was our first chartered flight, indeed.

In addition to Thailand, we also launched new tours to countries with depreciating currencies. Among the bestsellers were 4D Hong Kong for RM788, 5D Beijing-Tianjin for RM1,188, 5D Perth for RM1,888 and 5D Japan for RM1,999.

Cashing on the initial success, we sealed a one-year deal with New Life Post to jointly set up the Apple-Life Fund community project, along with the meaningful “Apple Heart-warming Tours” whereby RM10-20 would be donated to the fund for each paid tour fee. The fund would be used to help patients in need of medical assistance. The most notable tours under this initiative included the 10-bus Melaka Heart-warming tour with Four Golden Princesses, and the historical Melaka tour with popular group BM Boys.

You might have found out by now that Apple Vacations has been an expert in organizing unique themed interactive tour packages for customers.

As a matter of fact, the Asian financial crisis has done Apple Vacations a big favor to help it evolve into a household name and trendsetting tour operator known for its exceptional service quality and unbeatable value for money.

However, things have not always been this smooth over the past 25 years (as of 2021), with bends and curves and one hurdle after another that needs to be crossed. Looking back, those obstacles could have been invaluable experiences, especially in view of the fact that the crisis which has come with each major disaster could also be a blessing in disguise.

To be honest, the crisis is beyond my expectation and it’s hard to prepare for it. All I can do is to keep reinforcing myself while trying to cross each of the barriers cautiously. With more of such experiences building up, I have learned to constantly equip myself with a stronger sense of “crisis awareness”.

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.)

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Lee San
Apple Vacations
Isshōkenmei

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