The former founder of WAYN speaks to EyeforTravel about prospects in Africa, why blockchain is more than buzz and re-establishing trust in marketing
Jerome Touze is no stranger to a challenge. As the founder of WAYN, the first membership based social network in the travel vertical, which lastminute.com acquired in 2016 for $1.2-million, with a separate undisclosed earn out for founders, he trod the thin line between success and failure. “Despite many victories, tonnes of mistakes were made,” says Touze, who exited lastminute.com earlier this year to join Travelstart, a Cape Town-based online travel agent. This experience, he argues, has given him the most important ingredient that he can bring to his new team - resilience!
Touze met Travelstart founder and CEO Stephan Ekbergh in Cape Town 2012, just a year after WAYN secured a tender with South Africa Tourism (SAT) to be its social platform of choice. The pair hit it off. “His journey as an entrepreneur had a lot of similar chords to mine and I knew that one day, we would end up doing something together,” Touze says.
Four years later and Touze has stepped into the role of chief marketing officer at Travelstart and is committed to being “the ultimate consumer champion”.
EyeforTravel caught up with him about emerging trends in the African online travel market.
EFT: How do you see the African landscape for online travel evolving?
JT: Unsurprisingly, we are seeing increasing growth on mobile devices, and not just in South Africa but also in other markets where we are looking to scale such as Nigeria and the MENA region. Much of 2018’s growth in Internet users in Africa has been driven by more affordable smartphones and mobile data plans and this increase in adoption will continue. There are many opportunities to better engage with our customers and provide them with a better experience on mobile. We are looking at progressive web apps as an example among many.
EFT: Tell us more about regional trends?
JT: Interestingly enough, we have recently conducted a comprehensive regional analysis crunching over 800,000 trips since the beginning of 2017. The findings were very interesting. For the first time, this year Harare tops the list of most popular international destinations for flights originating in South Africa. While the top spots were always held by London (2014 and 2017) and Windhoek (2015 and 2016), Harare’s breakout growth this year may be a result of the changing political climate in Zimbabwe. Of course, London remains an important tourism and business air route for South Africans and has seen increased capacity with both British Airways (BA) and Virgin Atlantic. In fact from October 2018, BA will launch direct flights between Durban and London marking it the first time three of South Africa’s largest airports are served with non-stop connections to Heathrow at the same time.
EFT: Tours & activities is ‘big game’ at the moment. How is that evolving in Africa where there is clearly huge potential?
JT: Activities and tours are certainly not new. But I think the topic is now back on the table as there is increasing consumer adoption. We see great potential but there are challenges too; for one, how to get activity suppliers to start using technology to make their inventory available for real-time online booking. Connecting African suppliers is a challenge we’re taking on with our close partners ActivityBridge and NightsBridge. Eventually, we’d like to integrate activities into our booking process, as these are generally booked ‘in-travel’ rather then ahead of time.
On the accommodation side, we are particularly active in West and East Africa with partners NightsBridge, and trying to secure supply of hotels, lodges and other independent accommodation options to integrate with flights. Mobile is even more crucial here than in other parts of the world — and not just for travellers. For many suppliers, it is their main means of connecting online; this includes booking technology as well as payments.
EFT: You talk about mobile as a big focus in Africa, but what about the hype around technologies like blockchain? How do you see this emerging?
JT: Blockchain technology has the potential to dramatically alter the way in which we look at data - the way it is stored and used. Most importantly, through blockchain, data is unalterable, safer, and transparent and, at the same time, allows transactions to be improved. People need to look beyond the craze of Bitcoin and rather look at the technology that underpins it.
To me, the areas of (i) identity management and (ii) fraud prevention are very interesting and relevant to the travel industry.
Through biometrics and blockchain, identities and travel documents can be recorded and stored permanently which takes away the need to produce these documents at various checkpoints during the travel journey. Take a look at what South African entrepreneur Vinny Lingham is doing with CIVIC – I’m following his developments in the field with close interest.
Fraud prevention is another area ripe for disruption. With the total cost of misleading bookings running into billions of dollars every year, blockchain could help with verification both for the guest and the property owner.
As more and more documents and identities get stored in ‘blocks’, manual checks will no longer be needed on those bookings that could be flagged as potentially fraudulent and losses could be reduced significantly.
As we speak, the market capitalisation of cryptocurrencies is at an estimated $270 billion. So, it is difficult to ignore this new phenomenon and we are actively looking for new innovative solutions to improve the services we offer to our customers.
EFT: What is on your immediate to-do list at Travelstart?
JT: As CMO I’m taking responsibility for all of Travelstart's core marketing channels and look to grow our business internationally, especially in Nigeria and MENA where we are seeing promising growth. To support our decisions, we need to understand the part of the marketing mix that is truly working so we can get rid of the ‘waste’ – any organisation, I am sure, tends to forget to focus on the 80/20 rule and this is something I am very eager to apply in my new role.
EFT: How do you see marketing evolving?
JT: Well, despite having to embrace new technologies that are constantly changing…and being in tune with how customers engage and research their trips across various media platforms, I believe marketing needs to go back to basics and to ‘re-establish trust’ with customers – especially after some of the various data manipulation scandals the world has witnessed recently and the breach of trust this has created.
My immediate focus is around gaining a better understanding of who our customers are, so the solutions we deploy and the way we market them, is in alignment with expectations. In fact, we are in the process of conducting our first real-life customer-focus group which I’m very excited about.
October 2018, Las Vegas