How African tech startups can help you travel smarter in 2019

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Alongside the likes of Travelstart and Jovago (now Jumia), Hotels.ng is a pioneer in the African travel tech space. Yet the sector is swiftly moving beyond simple booking platforms.

Now, Hotels.ng is a well-established player, and one that is expanding across Africa. At the time of its launch, however, it was almost revolutionary.

“A few years ago finding and making hotel reservations was an offline process. You would have to ask someone who already knew of a hotel, or drive around looking for hotel signs,” said the company’s chief executive officer (CEO) Mark Essien.

“These days, consumers have moved their searches to the internet. What we have done is provide the means for these hotels, many of which have no digital savvy staff, to thrive in a space that is increasingly embracing technology.”

Hotels.ng now has over 11,000 hotels across Nigeria listed on its platform, and Essien has seen the changes in the way people plan holidays and other trips.

“The impact is already apparent. About 45 per cent of travellers are planning their trips, from start to finish, over their mobile phones,” he said.

As discovery of hotels and travel destination has become easier, and the holiday-booking process goes increasingly online, tech startups are coming up with other solutions in the travel space.

Plan your own trip

A handful of startups are offering customers more control over the details of their trips, most notably Cape Town-based company Timbuktu. Formed in 2013 as Big5Boutique but rebranded in 2016, Timbuktu empowers travellers to design their own trips in Africa, giving them complete control in the planning process and saving them money along the way.

The startup, which was one of the 20 selected to take part in the World Bank’s XL Africa accelerator programme in 2017, gives customers access to a selection of curated routes across Africa, allowing them to choose from multiple themes that fit their travel preferences. It expanded to the United States (US) in October.

Co-founder and CEO Johnny Prince said uptake has been very impressive.

“We’re now seeing 2X year-on-year revenue growth. In 2018 we saw an increase in monthly users designing their own trips of over 200 per cent, a clear indication that we’re addressing a need for travellers,” he said.

Prince said tech is having a huge impact on how people travel in Africa, allowing them to access more remote places, more easily and in a more transparent way.

“It’s also empowering travellers to find the right experience for them, with access to greater choice than ever before as opposed to being limited by the offering of traditional travel agents,” he said.

“For lodges, technology is allowing some of the smaller operators to have a greater presence and giving them the opportunity of competing with the big players leading to a more interesting market landscape. Some of the best safaris across Africa are independent, owner run lodges and experiences that were previously restricted by the traditional sales channels.”

Due to the complex nature of African travel, for too long the continent has remained in the firm grip of traditional travel agents, said Prince. Yet this is now changing.

“As the tech infrastructure develops and more and more lodges add live availability and dynamic pricing, the greater the experience that platforms such as Timbuktu can have, connecting the dots for travellers,” he said.

Layaway to stay away

Another South African startup making travel easier, this time from a purely financial perspective, is FOMO Travel. An online lay-buy travel agency, the startup helps people save for their trips over time.

“The major problem that we identified was that keen travellers battle to afford the upfront cost of travel, and therefore feel that they can’t afford it when in actual fact, if they broke down the cost into smaller, bite size chunks that helped them systematically save for something worthwhile on the horizon, they could travel all year round,” said the startup’s CEO Andrew Katzwinkel.

“FOMO Travel is enhancing and growing the tourism industry by offering a system that helps people travel again and again without being forced into unwarranted debt. Coupled with our unique payment method and gamification model, we aim to grow the travel and tourism industry by giving keen travellers who previously were prohibited the opportunity to now travel within their budget and without breaking the bank.”

Marketing strategies

There are two different target markets for African travel tech startups – African travellers, and those from outside of the continent. Entrepreneurs in the space are agreed different approaches are needed for different potential customers.

Essien said with local audiences it is much easier for a marketing team to craft campaigns and predict how they will be received.

“When working with an international audience, a lot more thought has to be put into the message being passed across. Due to language, cultural and societal differences, it becomes necessary in order to avoid blunders that are potentially harmful to the brand,” he said.

Prince said every market is slightly different in terms of the types of trips that travellers are looking for, which startups in the space need to be aware of, while Katzwinkel agreed each country has different wants and needs.

“What works for a South African consumer may not work for an international consumer. It is important to first research the target segment and then execute on a campaign that will speak to those individuals directly. Each campaign should be focused and have intent behind why you are doing it and what you want out of it,” he said.

“Too often the marketing message is lost in translation and therefore you don’t see the required results. We have found that finding ways to empower your customer to become your marketer through referral marketing is the most the powerful marketing strategy out there.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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