Watch out for this Ap­ple

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SOBA 2013 - By TEE LIN DEE lindee@thes­tar.com.my

F you love to travel, chances are you may have heard of Ap­ple Va­ca­tions & Con­ven­tions. If you have not used this travel agency, you may have had a friend who took up their ser­vices.

“I am con­fi­dent that 90% of the peo­ple who trav­elled with Ap­ple are happy,” says Ap­ple Group of Com­pa­nies manag­ing direc­tor Datuk Seri Lee Ee Hoe, fondly known as Lee-San.

Ap­ple Va­ca­tions is an out­stand­ing travel agency that to­day cov­ers the en­tire gamut of travel. It was founded by Ap­ple Group deputy manag­ing direc­tor Datuk Seri Koh Yock Heng and Lee-San.

The group has var­i­ous arms that cover air­lines, cargo, prop­erty in­vest­ment, ho­tels, ad­ver­tis­ing and the most re­cent one be­ing an ex­trav­a­gant light and sound show by an ac­claimed Chi­nese film­maker.

Hav­ing been in the travel agency for 25 years, Ap­ple Va­ca­tions was founded by the ef­fer­ves­cent Lee-San 17 years ago. Known par­tic­u­larly as a travel agency that spe­cialised in Ja­pan tours, tour mem­bers loved the qual­ity and car­ing itineraries pro­vided by Ap­ple.

At Ap­ple Va­ca­tions, there is no stress­ful and su­per­fi­cial tours; in­stead, they are far more mean­ing­ful and en­joy­able, the essence of a hol­i­day in fact.

“My tour guides are Ja­panese un­der­grad­u­ates who are fa­mil­iar with Malaysian cul­ture. That makes a huge dif­fer­ence in the qual­ity of our tours,” says Lee-San.

Lee-San him­self is an eco­nomics grad­u­ate from the Tokyo In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity where he started his love af­fair with Ja­pan when he stud­ied there in the 90s.

To­day, Ap­ple Va­ca­tions is the big­gest tourist sup­plier to Ja­pan in South-East Asia. This year, Lee-San re­ceived the Fifth Ja­pan Tourism Agency Com­mis­sioner’s Com­men­da­tion award from the Ja­pan Tourism Agency.

On re­ceiv­ing a sil­ver SOBA award in the Best Brand cat­e­gory, Lee-San is elated. “It is recog­ni­tion for all my staff who have given a lot to the com­pany. There is no suc­cess with­out a good team.”

What is the se­cret to Lee-San’s suc­cess? It cer­tainly can’t be the price fac­tor be­cause Ap­ple Va­ca­tions is priced higher, yet peo­ple buy pack­ages from them. In fact, he owns the bet­ter-heeled cat­e­gory of cus­tomers who are look­ing for com­fort, qual­ity and re­spect.

“If a cus­tomer buys a cheap pack­age, can he re­ally ex­pect the best qual­ity? When a cus­tomer buys from us, I as­sure them they are get­ting one of the best deals in town in terms of qual­ity. I can con­fi­dently say that our qual­ity is far bet­ter than many and my team works pas­sion­ately to give cus­tomers a truly en­joy­able hol­i­day.”

Lee-San wants peo­ple to en­joy their hol­i­days. He cites China‘s found­ing father Dr Sun Yat Sen and In­dia’s Ma­hatma Gandhi as peo­ple he looks up to.

“They were self­less peo­ple who did things for the greater good of oth­ers. In essence, I am like that; I do things for oth­ers.”

He also adds that good tours en­lighten cus­tomers to dis­cover the true mean­ing of a hol­i­day. It is his pas­sion in do­ing his best that re­ver­ber­ates with many.

When the Ja­pan earth­quake and tsunami hit in 2011, over 4,200 cus­tomers can­celled their trips to Ja­pan with Ap­ple Va­ca­tions. Many thought Lee-San was a goner.

“At the time, we had col­lected ap­prox­i­mately RM6,000 from each of them, amount­ing to RM25mil. Now if ev­ery­one had wanted a re­fund, there was no way we could af­ford to pay them back.

“But the op­po­site hap­pened. Only 20% asked for a full re­fund while the rest changed to a dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tion with us. Fifty per cent of them told me to just keep the money. They had full trust in me, and that was very touch­ing.”

Lee-San be­lieves in set­ting new stan­dards for the in­dus­try. The com­pany’s web­site is al­ways fresh and up­dated, and his prod­ucts re­main in­no­va­tive.

Three years ago, Ap­ple Va­ca­tions de­cided to fo­cus on the English-speak­ing mar­ket in the coun­try. They be­gan ad­ver­tis­ing in lo­cal English dailies and hired more English-speak­ing peo­ple. They have since been suc­cess­ful in tapping into this huge mar­ket.

“I have to say that though the Chi­ne­ses­peak­ing mar­ket is eas­ier to han­dle, the English-speak­ing mar­ket has more de­mands,” he laughs.

In par­tic­u­lar, he feels that travel in­dus­try is lack­ing in ed­u­ca­tion.

“A lack of pro­fes­sional ser­vice, prod­uct knowl­edge and pas­sion is ob­vi­ous. Busi­ness own­ers must re­alise that peo­ple are your as­sets. I need my tour man­agers to be pas­sion­ate about what they do. My ‘Ap­ple-ni­ans’ must be happy to give good ser­vice and, in turn, make cus­tomers happy.”

No sur­prises then as Lee-San spends RM300,000-RM500,000 a year on train­ing to keep his staff mo­ti­vated and united.

Lee-San is also a firm believer in recog­nis­ing and re­ward­ing tal­ent.

With over 200 staff mem­bers in his group, many of them who joined as tour guides have been pro­moted to tour man­agers and from su­per­vi­sors to man­agers.

“The Ap­ple Group has many arms and each arm is headed by an ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor who is es­sen­tially the head of that arm. I em­power that way and give a sense of own­er­ship.

“I do not be­lieve in pass­ing on my busi­ness to the next gen­er­a­tion. I have told my chil­dren as well as my staff. It is the staff who knows the cul­ture and is pas­sion­ate about the com­pany.

“Some of them have been with me for many years and I cer­tainly ap­pre­ci­ate that. For the com­pany to be ev­er­last­ing, I will hap­pily give my com­pany to my em­ploy­ees.”

“We are now work­ing to be­come a pub­li­clisted com­pany on Bursa Malaysia,” he says.

The awards was or­gan­ised by The Star with Ex­port-Im­port Bank of Malaysia Bhd as pre­sen­ter. It is sup­ported by Bursa Malaysia and au­dited by BDO.

The Royale Chu­lan Kuala Lumpur was the of­fi­cial ho­tel part­ner, with Red Tomato the of­fi­cial Chi­nese news­pa­per and 988FM and RedFM the of­fi­cial ra­dio sta­tions.

Ap­ple Va­ca­tions is an out­stand­ing travel agency that cov­ers the en­tire gamut of travel.

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