When one thinks about Jennifer Tsou, founder and owner of Apple Express, words such as “low-key,” “laid back,” or “restrained” do not come to mind. It’s as if lexicographers had Tsou in mind when they added “energetic” to the dictionary. That’s the feeling INBOUND got when we first talked with Tsou, during a two-hour train ride from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia following the conclusion of IPW 2017. We also talked occasionally at Connect Travel’s RTO Summits in different years. Apple Express is a receptive tour operator that specializes in the Asia incentive market, based in New Jersey, within commuting distance of Manhattan.
Intrigued by her energy, story-telling ability and her non-stop pursuit of international clients and customers for her one-person receptive business, we had a chance to talk with her on the Saturday just before IPW 2019 launched in Anaheim. Throughout our discussion, INBOUND had the feeling that Tsou is able to carry on several different conversations at once, bringing them altogether to make a point. But, as non-stop, friendly and engaging as she is, one should not mistake her for anything but a deadly serious business woman and entrepreneur who embodies what it means to be a receptive tour operator in an industry that demands innovation and adaptation—lest one perish. Following is a distillation of our conversation’s main points.
How Did You Get Started in This Industry? While Tsou pegs her start in the tour and travel sector at 2005, she indicates that she has to go back to the late 1970s when as a native of China, she moved to Hong Kong (where she became proficient in Cantonese, on top of her Mandarin background). Shortly after, she made the move to New York City with her family.
Her first job was for a specialty business that involved the marketing and distribution of informational videos throughout the USA and Canada. During this period a friend in the inbound tour business suggested to her that, because of her communication experience, she could come help welcome tour groups from China when they arrived at JFK International Airport. Her arrival there marked the beginning of her start in this industry, for shortly after, the same friend began asking for help in coordinating services such as buses, accommodations, attractions, and restaurants.
This was a wise move, for in 2005, the year that she moved over to the tour and travel industry for good, marked the beginning of the online video sharing service, YouTube. No one needed videocassettes any more.
“Learn Everything You Can”: While Tsou didn’t necessarily say it this way, it is effectively what she did to build her business. She realized early on that a one-person operation has to be able to answer every kind of question from a visitor, especially when a step-on tour guide becomes ill or doesn’t show up for a group for any reason. Her solution? She studied and passed the examination to be a certified New York City tour guide.
She also realized that her airport meet-and-greet sessions with visitors were her main face-to-face contact with nearly all of her groups. It didn’t take her long to recognize the travel fatigue of nearly 14-hour flights, plus additional time going through Customs. In response, she began bringing bottles of water to distribute to her groups as they arrived to meet her.
Tsou’s Rules: By the end of our conversation at IPW, Jennifer had passed along a number of bits of advice and practices that she has come to live by as a receptive tour operator. Here are some of them:
- Make sure your tour bus is properly insured and registered.
- Safety first: Don’t ask your drivers to put in long hours each day. This is not safe.
- Always connect with the group leader during the duration of the tour.
- Be attentive to incentive groups if they need something.
- I don’t talk about politics. I let my clients know that. My business is to provide an enjoyable travel experience to the United States.
Tsou’s Rules II— Seeing Trends: While JFK is still the Number 1 airport gateway for Asia coming to the East Coast, other cities such as Toronto, Philadelphia and Newark have begun to get more business.
- Wedding groups especially like the New York Botanical Gardens, a 250-acre green oasis in The Bronx—as a backdrop for wedding photographs.
- Asian shoppers still like famous brands to buy and take back home, especially when it comes to accessories.
- IPW and other trade shows are not particularly important for conducting business on the spot. Rather, she tries to meet clients and associates face-to-face and find out what’s new in order to keep her information up-to-date.
- Business to the United States is currently down a little, primarily because of tension between China and the U.S. over trade issues.
- The rejection rate for visa applications to visit the U.S. is high and affecting business, but the situation especially hurts operators who run group series and find themselves having to cancel trips because they don’t have enough passengers to fill a series bus. The Chinese tourism industry could do more to education prospective travelers as to what is involved in the visa application process.
- Tsou’s company specializes in incentive groups, bringing more than 50 a year to the U.S.
- Her business is a service, not a luxury. Meaning it isn’t free. When the international client receives her sample itineraries, then proceeds to online and book things direct, it hurts the company-client relations. If this happens, she cannot be there to help resolve any issues that may come up, as she isn’t involved in these particular transactions.
Yes, she plans on staying in the industry.
Why? “It’s a lot of fun … meeting lots of different cultures.”