The journey started in 1976 with a staff of five, and today AOS is a leading and reputable company.
In 1972 Anthony Wong, a young Kuala Lumpur teenager, guided fellow school students to the summit of Gunung Tahan without a guide or teacher. This was a time when few visitors even went to Taman Negara let alone ascended peaks with poorly defined trails. Thereafter, Anthony was recruited to guide Australian university students who had travelled to Malaysia with the assistance of Student Travel Australia (STU). Despite still at school, Anthony regularly guided the equally adventurous Australians all over the country during his school holiday breaks.
Anthony Wong progressed from being a part-time school student and occasional tour guide for foreign students to the formal establishment of Asian Overland Services in 1976. In 1978, business developed to the extent that a more professional service was required and this meant opening an office. Between 1978 and 1981, AOS operated its office from Room 202 of the Hotel Malaya, Chinatown; then one of KL’s few hotels of international standard. AOS went international in 1977 with the opening of a small office in Bali.
AOS was actively involved in establishing itself and fostering international partnerships. It conducted familiarisation trips, attended trade fairs, developed experiential activities like rafting and homestays, study tours and researched products to accommodate an eager market. AOS was already practicing ecotourism before it became fashionable and modernised its operations by installing a specialised tour operator software.
AOS is a regular attendee at travel trade shows around the world. For example, the ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) was first staged in 1981 and, as it was held in Malaysia, AOS was there as one of the pioneering participants.
AOS still attends this most important annual forum which is a cooperative effort to promote the region as one tourist destination where Asian hospitality and cultural diversity is at its best. World Travel Mart (WTM) was first staged in 1980 in Olympia London with 40 countries, 221 exhibitors and 9,000 people attending. It now attracts 182 countries and regions, 5,000 exhibitors and 50,000 people.
Tourism really started to blossom in the 1990s as more people began to travel. Travel agents like AOS played an important role in inbound travel in an era when many travellers still booked via traditional travel agents.
In 1992, TDC was replaced by the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board (MTPB) or Tourism Malaysia. Its main role was to promote tourism to Malaysia together with the private industry. Visit Malaysia Year’ commenced in 1990 and became the starting point for the expansion of the country’s tourism industry. It succeeded in attracting 7.5 million international tourists compared to 4.9 million in the previous year. Due to its success, the campaign was repeated in 1994 and 2007. In 1999, Malaysia successfully launched the ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ branding campaign that is still in place today.
AOS established itself as one of the leading inbound tour operators during the decade. In 1991, it acquired the Jungle Lodge in Gombak and set about conducting leadership, team building and outdoors activities for a growing niche tourism sector involved in incentive tours. There was also an emergence of conferences, meetings and exhibitions in the 1990s and AOS started assisting such groups. In East Malaysia, AOS became more involved in ecotourism and ‘adopted’ the Nanga Stamang Longhouse in the wilds of Sarawak, Borneo.
The trend was set from the early days – get out and tell the world about Malaysia. While communications are rapidly changing with the introduction of social media, face-to-face contact is still very important in the tourism industry. Many of AOS’ business partners have been with them for a long time. Meetings within meetings were possible at these big events as smaller groups with common interests could meet to discuss mutually beneficial partnerships. AOS continuted to attend tracel marts to highlight’s malaysia’s manty tourism attactions, destinations, event and services.
The world did not end with the ‘Millennium Bug’ as predicted and the new millennium saw the dawn of the technological era as the internet gained traction with more bookings done online. Low Cost Carriers started to make an impact on travel and Malaysia Airlines launched Firefly in 2007. In 2002, the KLIA Express Rail Link provided speedy train access to and from the airport. The success of the Visit Malaysia Year 2007 (to coincide with Malaysia’s 50th Independence anniversary) helped propel the tourism industry into the 21st century. New events like the Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival and Colors of Malaysia were staged.
Tourism Malaysia realised the importance of promotion through sports and signed promotional deals with Chelsea Football Club and later with Manchester United to coincide with Visit Malaysia Year 2007. Branding and persistence are important in tourism as all associated with AOS know. Similarly, Tourism Malaysia’s ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ campaign helped establish Malaysia’s global presence and was awarded the Best Long Term Marketing and Branding Campaign at the 2008 Asian Marketing Effectiveness Awards.
The conference business boomed during the decade and AOS helped organised significant conferences such as FIGO2006 with over 8,500 delegates and others that involved dignitaries such as the President of the United States. Realising the potential of international conferences, Malaysia invested in providing the required facilities. Among the projects undertaken were the construction of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and Putrajaya Convention Centre.
During the decade, AOS invested in training, new technology and fostering business alliances too. Malaysia’s largest conference to date was organised by AOS as the PCO. The International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) congress, FIGO 2006 achieved its target of over 8,000 participants. Kuala Lumpur played host to the international participants from November 5 to 10, 2016. The gynaecologists and obstetricians from 130 countries and territories attended the 18th triennial congress organised by the Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society of Malaysia (OGSM). The event from planning to convening took eight years and was funded by AOSCE.
An opportunity arose in 2005 for AOS to purchase an absolute beachfront property on Malaysia’s premier island destination, Langkawi. Frangipani Langkawi Resort & Spa fronts 400m of beachfront along Pantai Tengah where the tranquil waters ensure it is a great family beachfront destination.
The second decade of the 21st Century is one where travellers are more connected than ever before with smartphones, internet and social media dominating people’s lives. Now selecting a hotel is based upon wi-fi access and fast communications are everything in tourism with AOS as connected as any in the industry. Traditional travel has changed as many travellers obtain information and make bookings online. Tourism is expanding and more people are travelling with Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) having made an impact and many full-fare airlines, now hybrids.
In 2014, Malaysia recorded 26 million tourists generating RM65 billion in tourism income. According to the World Tourism Organisation, in 2016, Malaysia was the 3rd most visited country in Asia Pacific with the top ten arrivals from Singapore, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Brunei, India, South Korea, Philippines, Japan and the UK. AOS continues to be involved in ground handling for the cruise industry and the luxury Eastern and Oriental Express train. AOSCE handles major meetings and events in the country and staff regularly represent the company overseas. With all the changes of the past decades, predicting the future is difficult. However, AOS believes people will travel more often especially within the region. There appears to be a trend for experiential travel and activity-based holidays. Tourism will adopt more technology and flexibility will be important in this service-oriented industry.
With the expanding Asian cruise industry, AOS invested extensively in the cruise shore excursion handling industry and entered a partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises in 2013. As one of the founding members of the Asian Cruise Services Network (ACSN), AOS champions ACSN’s tagline to become “An Alliance of Trusted Expertise” in establishing alliances to promote regional cruise ship ground-handling services within one network. AOS aims to enhance its sustainability commitment in its products in tandem with its belief in sustainable development and environmental conservation to preserve biodiversity, nature, wildlife and their natural ecosystems.
Organising any event can be difficult but when it involves a leader such as the President of the United States of America, there are many more challenges than most meetings/events. AOSCE was the event manager for the launch of the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) in Cyberjaya in April 2014.
The 2020s arrived with promises of positive years ahead as AOS, armed with new technology, plans to capitalise on this increased capability and efficiency. AOS continues to expand its sales outreach by deepening its presence in Europe, Asia and South America. However, the advent of Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 brought about an unprecedented and challenging situation to navigate the tourism business. Nevertheless, AOS, with its experience of overcoming many challenging times like SARs and 9/11 in the past, is mobilised to navigate yet another challenge successfully.