Unchartered territory: the hunt begins to get Africa online

Looking for adventure? A big game safari, a luxury lodge or bush retreat in Kenya, Botswana or Zimbabwe, perhaps? Chances are you’ll have to book it through your local travel agent or operator. But things are changing. Pamela Whitby talks to an American firm with a foot in Africa.

Go to TripAdvisor, enter Masai Mara, Kenya, and sure enough you will get some great, inspiring recommendations. Clearly many Kenyan establishments have worked hard to get their sun-warmed, bush-rested customers to write glowing reviews.  The problem, however, is that most of these properties are not yet bookable online. So prospective customers reading a TripAdvisor review usually have the option to either email the hotel or be redirected to a third party website, usually featuring a range of competitors. 

Unsurprisingly then many African hoteliers are losing out on direct bookings via their own websites.  And they are starting to become frustrated because they know a simplified distribution chain results in a higher margin on their bottom line. 

Enter Sarah Fazendin, a self-confessed Africa evangelist and travel innovator, who launched Travel Marketing Worldwide in 2006 after a five-year stint working as the North American travel market manager for the Kenya Tourist Board.  Her new company, Globa.li, a curated market place or online travel agent, is aiming to address this problem. “The way that properties in Africa, and tours as well, have been distributed to the US market is pretty complex and archaic,” she says.

This is how it works: properties primarily sell to inbound tour operators in the US, they then sell to wholesalers, which sell mainly to agents, which finally sell to the consumer. But increasingly small to medium sized properties are looking to take their destiny into their own hands, says Fazendin, and to take control of their marketing. This is the “sweet spot” that Globa.li aims to tap, first in Africa then elsewhere.

Into the unknown?

Although the World Travel & Tourism Council reports that online travel in 2012 will reach $313 billion, little research has been done on the African market. One figure, from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is that Africa has just over 3% of world accommodation capacity (796,000 beds). But Fazendin expects the market size for African travel booked online to reach $1 billion in the coming months.  And indication of how it is moving is that in the past 12 - 18 months 50% of 65 Travel Marketing Worldwide clients have already introduced online bookings.

So what does Globa.li aim to differently because there are already companies in Africa that are aggregating inventory and pushing this out to global distribution systems; Safarinow.com and RoomsforAfrica.com are two examples. Globa.li claims to offer more specialty lodging inventory than others in the marketplace. “We don’t rely on the big OTAs for content - like Wanderfly and Trippy,” says Fazendin. “We're aggregating our own inventory which is a mix of pulling from existing services as well as offering hotels the ability to upload content onto our own system if they don't have one already in place.”

The aim is to take things that big further. “We are not simply going to aggregate and walk away,” she explains adding that small to mid-sized business need a little handholding and a lot of marketing - particularly in Africa.

“People often say that we are mad to try any technical innovation here but this is the market we know best,” she says. In addition, the product has been driven directly by the hotels that Travel Marketing Worldwide has worked with so it really is something they need.

Coming to market

If it works in Africa, chances are the transition to other markets will be easier.  First, however, comes Africa, where Globa.li will launch early next year with 500 bookable properties. But there are ambitious plans to reach 20,000 properties in other parts of the world (Latam, Asia and possibly North America in the adventure space) within 18 months.

The next step will be to launch the marketing services arm. This is expected to happen at the May 2013 Indaba, Africa’s biggest trade show. This fully customisable marketing services toolbox “will help these properties select from the many options to enable online bookings so they can increase their business via such online bookings,” Fazendin says. While playing her cards close to her chest, she says, the service will include guidance on which technology to choose, taking into account the size of the property and budget.  In addition, if someone wants to take their inventory, get it online and push it to a few of the big OTAs “we can help them with that”. And if they want to do more with social media strategy or help with individual profiles, that will be possible too.

Of course they are not doing it for nothing. “We really want these guys to sell more because then we’ll benefit too,” she says. After all, these are generally higher priced properties and so for Globa.li, which works on a commission basis, this is good news.

While this new marketplace’s product will be bookable by anybody, they are targeting the North American market because “that’s where we are,” she explains.

Next steps include a round of funding and the launch of a review feature that integrates into bookings. Watch this space. 

 

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