From holidays on sunny beaches to walking amid ancient ruins and,
its newest product, visiting ‘the last unchartered land on earth’ Antarctica,
Apple Vacations has moved with the times in offering customers amazing travels.
Innovation and customer service are pivotal to its success,
Group MD Dato Sri Koh Yock Heng tells RACHAEL PHILIP.
There are many definitions for the Japanese word omotenashi. A quick substitute for the word in the English Language is hospitality. Another explanation tells us that ‘omote’ means public face, the image you wish to present to outsiders, while ‘nashi’ means nothing. Put together it implies service that is honest and from the heart.“Omotenashi is about doing things invisibly with great attention to details,” offered Group MD of Apple Vacations and Conventions Dato Sri Koh Yock Heng, fondly known as Kohsan.
“For instance, you remove your shoes before entering a Japanese establishment but when you get back out, you notice that your shoes have been placed in the correct place and arranged neatly. Or take the presentation and packaging of Japanese food. You would be amazed at the amount of details that has gone into it,” he said.
Kohsan has a long-drawn love affair with all things Japanese. This affection for the country was perhaps fuelled during his university days in the early 1990s. Kohsan, together with hometown buddy Dato Sri Lee Ee Hoe aka Leesan, partner and Group Executive Chairman, studied at the Tokyo International University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics.
“Both of us speak fluent Japanese. We had the same dream to start a travel agency and launched our company in 1996. It started out doing mainly Japanese tours. Today we are the biggest Malaysian player in leisure travel to Japan,” said Kohsan.
Today the Apple Vacations, headquartered in KL and with branches in Tokyo, Singapore and Jakarta, offers a one-stop travel solution from ticketing to accommodation, insurance and travel consultation to almost anywhere in the world.
“Omotenashi is about doing things invisibly with great attention to details,”
– Dato’Sri Koh Yock Heng –
INNOVATION IN TRAVEL
“We started as a basic tour company but soon learned that people wanted a deeper experience – not just nice hotels to stay in and amazing sunsets,” said Kohsan.
The advent of information technology saw an increasingly educated and talented world. While the advancements in IT helped the industry develop and grow to where it is today, it has also seen customers’ travel requirements change drastically in the last 10 years.
We are offering service beyond customer expectation, with thematic and in-depth tour packages.”
L-R: Apple Group Executive Chairman – Dato’Sri Lee Ee Hoe JP
and Group Managing Director – Dato’Sri Koh Yock Heng.
“As such we had to innovate and to come up with new products. Just like all industries in the service line, we had to be customer centric, and find out what customers want, not what we want to sell to our customers. We had to research on their interests, popular tours, leisure activities and what makes a memorable experience during a trip. At the end of the day we want to give our customers a better travel experience.”
Apple Vacations branched out into small customised tours of special interests such as cycling, mountain climbing, religious and thematic tours such as architecture and rail travels. Besides this it was also imperative that the company opened up new travel destinations.
Some years back it launched a new travel package that takes guests on chartered direct flights into Chitose, Hokkaido, during the winter. To date it has taken over 2000 passengers on the trip and celebrating its 10th continues years of organization coming Dec.
The company’s Antartica tour is priced at roughly RM60,000 per person, and is gaining in popularity. Kohsan explained that people are willing to fork out that much because it is seen as a once in a lifetime trip.
The 17-day trip kicks off at Buenos Aires, Argentina. Travellers then make their way right to the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, Tierra del Fuego. From here begins the two-day ice-crushing cruise via Cape Horn to Antartica, where travellers can get up close with life and the ecosystem on the continent.
Another popular holiday takes travellers out to Lake Baikal, located in the mountainous Russian region of Siberia, north of the Mongolian border. It is considered as the deepest lake in the world and during winter it is completely frozen.
“You can drive your car or hovercraft right on it or do some fishing or barbeque. This is innovation. It is places that are not easy to reach but we make it happen. We make people’s dream come true. As tour consultants we make the impossible possible,” said Kohsan.
We make people’s dream come true. As tour consultants we make the impossible possible.
– Dato’Sri Koh Yock Heng –
With all these destinations at his disposal, one is naturally curious about Kohsan’s favourite destination. Kohsan said he has travelled to 50 countries, a modest figure compared to partner Leesan’s list of 123 countries. Kohsan’s favourite destination – no prizes for guessing – is Japan. Besides the culture and the people, he enjoys the four seasons and many more.
“I’ve not travelled that extensively but I like Japan very much. It offers good food, hot springs, nice people and, of course, omotenashi.
“Malaysian travellers need to change their mentality especially when it comes to food. We are so used to good food in Malaysia at very affordable prices but in countries like Finland, one plate of fried rice can come up to RM200. As a traveller you have to realise that your currency is small. In a foreign country you must adjust yourself accordingly to suit the local environment.
They must change their mindset in order to enjoy your holiday.”
LOYALTY and REWARD
Apple Vacations and Conventions launched its Apple Vacations App as a multitasking platform for its customers to receive first-hand information, such as the latest travel information, update on travel packages, promotions and the latest deals, at their fingertips.
The Apple One Club, meanwhile kicked off two years ago. The loyal programme allows customers to collect points which they can use to exchange for merchandise available at the Apple Vacations office. Here, one area of the office, looks like a gift shop with glass windows, where an assortment of more than 300 SKUs travel paraphernalia, such as bags, luggages and IT gadgets are stocked up. Apple Vacation customers also get discounts and special birthday treats.
Along the years Apple Vacations has garnered numerous awards, namely top agent from airlines, The Star Best Brand Business Awards, the Best Outbound Agent from The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, MATTA, Product and Business Service Excellence from Sin Chew Business Excellence Awards SCBEA, as well as regional awards. The most notable award must be the Imperial Decoration Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays bestowed by the Emperor of Japan in 2015.
This was in recognition of the company’s longstanding contributions in the development and promotion of tourism between Japan and Malaysia.
Talking about challenges of the business, he stressed that the focus are on customer centric and product differentiation.
The company’s market positioning is to offer better quality products for travelers. This category, for whom traveling is already a part of their lives, is looking for better experience tours , said Kohsan. As such catering to this category means that the company cannot lax on innovation. This has helped Apple Vacations advance as a pioneer in the market where new products are concerned.
While the developments in digitisation has helped travellers gain better insights into their holidays and destinations, it has also proved to be a challenge for the operators.
“When we first started, the business was offline. Holiday makers had to go to a travel agency to book a travel package. Now with digital equipments, the Internet and Youtube, the travel industry is facing tough competition with OTAs. OTA is very popular with customers’ engagement . It is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“We believe the younger generation, with their financial limitations, will seek out budget travels, but the demographics after that, who are more settled down, may prefer GIT.”
GIT, or group inclusive tour, as opposed to FIT, or free independent traveller, is best for people who want to travel hassle free, with pre-planned everyday activities. A tour consultant is indispensable here. They can added value to your holiday or travel experience.
Tour consultants at Apple Vacations undergo 160 hours of training, which includes internal training, tour leader training and customer service training.
They must be able to handle all the questions from customers, ranging from tour product knowledge and many more. They also have to think of the safety of customers, and a plethora of other tiny details.
“For instance, if you are travelling to Russia with your children you must bring their birth certificates to prove that they are your children. So it’s a very tedious and detailed industry.”
And here is where the omotenashi comes in. With travelling being a lifestyle today’s tour consultants must be professionals and holiday packages must be planned to perfection.
“People want more than sightseeing, but food, shopping and better traveling experience . They want to physically do something. Some people don’t know what they want. Here is where a well known agency like us can make the difference.
“How do we stand out? It is not in the pricing but in product value, content of tour, better hotel and food, arrangement, quality tour leaders and tour managers, and the tiny details that go into all of these. All this contributes to a better travel experience.”
Published in RETAILER Magazine Aug Issue