Dreaming Big

It’s been a year of change for Dreams, the South Africa-based outbound tour operator, with a new owner and a host of new products to now offer its customers. Erica Barrett remains head of the operation, but now also heads up Songhai Travel. She joined editor Dylan Rogers for a coffee in Johannesburg to explain the new structure. Established 11 years ago by Sun International, Dreams was initially responsible for all the marketing and sales for the group’s Royal Livingstone and Zambezi Sun hotels in Zambia. Two years on and that portfolio grew to include all the other leisure properties in the Sun International fold. Fast-forward another nine years and Sun International re-focused to concentrate on its gaming operations, selling off the majority of its African hotel assets, along with Dreams, which was acquired by Songhai Capital in mid-2014. Songhai Capital is a Cape Town and Johannesburg-based investment company, and Barrett found herself heading up the group’s travel division. “Songhai Capital has different areas within the tourism sector,” she says. “They have Songhai Tourism and Events, whilst Songhai Travel generally looks after the corporate travel for Sun International. And then there’s Dreams. All the businesses run completely separately and autonomously from each other.” What clearly hasn’t changed, though, is the essence of Dreams. “We’re a tour operator in the old-fashioned style where our knowledge of each property needs to be better than anyone else’s, so that we can offer something to the retail travel agency, focusing on South African outbound travel,” says Barrett. Whilst Barrett admits that leaving Sun International was difficult, having been with the company for 10 years and grown the Dreams brand with it, the Songhai move has opened up new possibilities, including increased buying power. “It has also given us relationships that we never had before, which we couldn’t have,” she says. “Now we can talk to Protea Hotels, for example. We can also look at other properties and destinations worldwide with partners that already have a relationship with Songhai.” The Dreams business model is to negotiate the elements of a package in bulk, including airfares, transfers, activities and hotel rooms, and then package them for sale individually. The primary source of business is through the South African travel trade, and according to Barrett it’s a 50-50 business and leisure travel split. On the corporate event and incentive side of the business, the primary source is the professional conference organiser (PCO) and event management companies, allowing Dreams to manage group business ranging from 20 to 1,000 delegates. “Usually the client would work with a PCO, who would work with us to do the logistics, but yes, essentially we offer support right the way through,” says Barrett. This area of the industry is also going through some interesting times, with the dynamics evolving all the time. “What we’ve seen is that corporates are still travelling, doing conferences and incentives, but  they’re a lot more focused on the planning of it, the itinerary and what the agenda will be,” says Barrett. “There’s a lot more that goes into it from a work point of view, so they try to cram as much as possible into the agenda.” Then, of course, there’s the cost-cutting that is taking place across the industry, and unsurprisingly, Barrett points to the “value  for money” that corporate clients are looking for. “They also try to put everything into one,” she says. “So it’s a conference, a team build and a getaway. The length of stay has increased, but they include an all-encompassing kind of conference.” Another by-product of this current climate of cost-cutting has been the dilution of skills in Barrett’s industry, something she concedes is a concern, whilst also offering Dreams an opportunity to play an educational role. “Travel agents are becoming tour operators,” she says, “and are being put into the predicament where they’ve got to drive their spend from the procurement company in one area and they’re made to do work that they’re not used to doing. Booking a flight to London and booking a conference for 400 to Mauritius are very different skill sets. So, as much as we can help, we will.” In terms of new products, Dreams is now selling Namibia, recently launched an Eastern Mediterranean product – incorporating Greece, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Egypt – and has dived into the ski holiday business by launching Ski Dreams with three destinations: St Anton, Cervinia and Neustift No surprise then that Barrett and co are ‘dreaming’ big.