On the Road in Africa

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Perhaps it’s the uniformity of the product – after all, one Toyota Corolla is little different to another – or the perceived lack of travel glamour of sitting in traffic as opposed to jetting across the globe. But car rental is often seen as the boring step-sister in the world of corporate travel. Richard Holmes takes a closer at whether or not that should be the case.

It’s easy to get excited about double-decker A380s offering the last word in on-board luxury, or stylish boutique hotels that offer a welcome refuge at the end of a long day doing deals. But the car that simply shuttles you from airport to boardroom to hotel? It’s not quite as easy to get all that excited.

And yet the car rental industry quietly gets on in the background with making the corporate traveller’s life as simple, seamless and affordable as possible. Like many sectors of the travel industry, it’s a competitive space, where multiple brands compete for a value-driven market, often trying to sell the same product – that same predictable Toyota Corolla – in a different, more interesting and more affordable way.

For value is key for corporate travellers, and the rates charged by major rental brands are reflecting the competitive nature of the industry, where agencies need to constantly be on the lookout for changing client trends. However, as Africa’s economies show steady growth off the back of resource-based economies, the car rental industry is largely tracking other buoyant sectors of the travel industry.

“Corporate rentals into Africa are growing,” says Slade Thompson, Executive: Commercial & Regional Countries at Avis. “Customers generally like to book bigger vehicles such as 4x4s from a safety point of view, due to poor road conditions in many of the countries.”

“The corporate business in South Africa is very dynamic – our customers are informed and understand the car rental business,” says Fiona Angelico, Global – National Sales and Marketing Executive for Thrifty Car Rental. While Thrifty has branches at over 1,400 locations worldwide, within Africa its footprint is limited to South Africa and Namibia.

Although “business is buoyant,” says Clinton De Bruin, Sales Director of Tempest Car Hire, “the trend that we have noticed is that the corporate rental market is down-grading on the vehicle classes that they are booking, to rather make use of more affordable entry-level rentals.”

It’s a crucial point. With travel budgets slimming down and little space for buying decisions based on ego, gone are the days of booking gleaming silver sedans just for the sake of it. With entry-level hatchbacks and run-of-the-mill sedans offering much the same safety and comfort features – such as ABS, GPS and air-conditioning – there has been a definite move towards ‘value over va-va-voom’.

“Entry-level vehicles are the most popular choice,” agrees Ana Jones, Chief Executive officer of Car Hire Brokers, who says that although their business is leisure-focused, among their corporate clients “we have seen a slight decline in rentals, which could be due to companies doing more video conferencing and more companies arranging for their staff to be collected.”

That’s a sign of the belt-tightening times, and it’s become more important than ever to make that travel budget go further. Perhaps the best way to derive value from a finite travel budget is to understand your requirements before handing over your credit card. Is the vehicle suited to your needs? Is the rate and package geared for the travel you have in mind?

The first step is to select your rates in accordance with your kilometre usage, advises Angelico.

“A customer can opt not to take the unlimited mileage package, when they know that they will not exceed 100 kilometres per day, which will keep their costs in line with their actual usage and save money.”

Whether it’s a more affordable lower-category vehicle or a 4×4 for visiting distant satellite offices, corporate travellers travelling outside of South Africa should also “book well in advance to secure the car group required, as fleets are far smaller than in South Africa, and therefore vehicle numbers in each category are limited,” says Thompson.

“Booking travel well in advance might secure lower rates, and where possible, ensure that the booking or travel is done during a low out-of-peak season period,” says De Bruin from Tempest, which also offers free ‘Future Renters’ child seats as added-value.

“Corporate travellers can also engage in an account with their preferred supplier, in order to receive preferential corporate rates and extended payment terms,” he says. “By careful planning of the trip and avoiding accidents, the client’s spend on car rental should remain within the allocated budget.”

However, what those holding the purse strings need to remain cognisant of is that different priorities – and costs – apply when travelling in Africa. Likewise, the rental industry on the continent faces its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to purchasing new vehicles and ensuring that both they and the client return safely to the depot.

“The cost of purchasing vehicles in some of the countries is very high and traded in US dollars.  With the limited availability of foreign currency through banks, waiting times to buy fleet can be very long and the cost of vehicles very high,” says Thompson.

In sub-Saharan Africa, Avis operates in South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Madagascar, Mozambique, Botswana and Namibia, although the product offering varies according to destination.

“Some of the countries only offer chauffeur drive,” says Thompson. “Madagascar, due to poor road conditions, lack of signage and security of the customer and vehicle. Angola offers self-drive and chauffeur-drive, but self-drive would not be recommended to anyone not familiar with the country. Language barriers can also be a challenge.”

“The most prominent challenges the car rental industry is facing include ever-rising fuel prices, increased costs of purchasing new vehicles and car parts, and slimmed down company travel budgets,” adds De Bruin.

There is certainly no shortage of challenges facing the rental industry on the African continent, from government tolling to the conundrum around hybrid and electric cars, to how to keep corporate travellers on the road and – ideally – upgrading their vehicle choice.

However, a quick glance at the innovative new offerings from brands across the spectrum shows an industry quick on its feet to adapt to an ever-changing and ever-more-demanding market. All that’s needed is for you to turn the key.

Loyalty Programmes

Deriving maximum value is becoming ever-more important in managing corporate travel budgets, and one way in which business travellers can ensure their rands, naira or shillings stretch as far as possible is by leveraging the power of travel industry loyalty schemes.

Although the car rental sector is not as developed as the airline industry when it comes to multi-layered loyalty offerings, major car rental brands have become important ‘downstream’ partners of airline programmes.

Take Avis, for example. They have partnered with both South African Airways’ Voyager and the British Airways Executive Club, to allow you to earn and burn miles on car rental.

And in following a trend that’s becoming commonplace with airlines, there are no ‘black-out’ dates when using loyalty points to hire a vehicle – if there are cars in the garage they’re yours for the hiring. It pays, however, to scrutinise any additional fees that may be payable, from mandatory insurance premiums to local taxes.

While most rental groups tap into affiliated loyalty programmes, a handful of brands operate their own stand-alone loyalty schemes.

Europcar’s Privilege Club is one of the most advanced offerings, with a host of useful benefits for frequent travellers. Multiple rentals earn one free weekend rental per year, while discount vouchers are also offered against future rentals. Aside from the financial benefit, members can also enjoy an express pick-up service on arrival and guaranteed vehicle reservations. With Privilege Club, frequent customers progress through status levels up to Privilege Elite and Privilege Elite VIP, where members benefit from free additional drivers on the rental agreement, complimentary vehicle delivery and category upgrades.

Globally, the Hertz brand offers a similar points-based system, Hertz Gold Plus Rewards. But within Southern Africa the brand is more straightforward – for every 10 rentals, members receive a voucher for one free rental day, with upgraded vehicles offered after seven and 19 rentals. The programme is also partnered with SAA and Airlink.

For driving real value out of your travel budget, leveraging the lower costs and ancillary benefits of loyalty programmes is, quite simply, a no-brainer for frequent corporate travellers.

Saving time on the ground

It’s a rare business traveller who has plenty of time to stand around in queues, or fill out endless forms at the rental desk. You want to land, pick up your keys and get on the road.

Joining a rental agency’s loyalty programmes offers seamless pick-ups, but most of the major rental brands also offer streamlined renting via the signing of a once-off ‘master rental agreement’.

In a nutshell, by signing beneath all that pesky fine print once, you’re agreeing to all the terms and conditions for future rentals. Which means when you arrive at the rental desk to collect your pre-booked vehicle, you simply show your ID, take the keys and go.

Europcar’s ‘Ready Service’ promises you’ll have keys in hand in just 30 seconds, with dedicated ‘Ready’ kiosks available at key airport locations in South Africa, as well as at the Radisson Blu Hotel opposite the Gautrain’s Sandton station in Johannesburg.

Individual travellers can also register with Europcar as Frequent Renters, allowing you to register your details online and speed up the process for future online bookings. In a similar vein, customers with confirmed Europcar bookings can pre-register their details on www.ready-2-go.co.za, so that on arrival it’s a simple matter of providing your licence and credit card.

As one of the larger agencies in Africa, Avis also offers a host of timesaving features.

By signing up for ‘Preferred Service’, your master rental agreement covers all future rentals, cutting down on pesky paperwork. While that takes care of the legal stuff, the Avis Wizard Card ensures your personal details are carried forward for all of your Avis bookings. Sign up once and you won’t have to repeat the process for each and every booking.

They are small innovations, but can be helpful time-savers for corporate travellers on tight schedules. They might not save you money, but when you whisk past your competitors still languishing in the rental queue, it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

Driving made easy

Don’t fancy navigating the streets of downtown Luanda at night? Worried about what the chaotic traffic in Lagos has in store? Leave the stress for the boardroom and sign up for one of the ever-growing chauffeur services offered by major rental agencies.

Unlike hailing a taxi off the street, where the upkeep of the vehicle and the credentials of the driver are entirely unknown, chauffeur and transfer services from a trusted brand ensure that you’ll be travelling in a roadworthy vehicle with a driver both vetted and qualified to ferry you across town.

The 24-hour ‘Point 2 Point’ service from Avis is perhaps the best known of the chauffeur services, with all drivers qualified through an advanced driving programme. You can also expect to be met at the arrivals gate of the airport and ushered through to your vehicle. Costs are calculated according to the area of the city you’re being transferred to, and vehicles are available in Economy, Sedan and MPV categories.

Avis identified the need for an affordable transfer service in South Africa 12 years ago, says Avis Rent a Car Southern Africa Chief Executive Keith Rankin.

“In line with our promise that people are more important than cars, we believe we have come up with a transfer service that offers our customers the best of everything – affordability, convenience, safety and high quality service,” he says.

Although the ‘Point 2 Point’ service is only offered in major metropolitan areas, the brand also offers a ‘Chauffeur Drive’ product that allows you to hire a driver and vehicle for a pre-determined amount of time billed in hourly, half-daily or full-day options.

The Europcar Chauffeur Service offers a similar product, with a wide footprint across the continent. Travellers can choose between a straightforward transfer from airport to hotel, or a longer rental agreement for a car and driver.

Hertz Chauffeur Drive is focused on corporate travellers in major cities, and rates include a qualified driver, meet-and-greet service, passenger insurance cover (excluding personal property) and fuel. Overnight chauffeurs can also be booked for transfers to more distant locations, but clients will then need to factor in the cost of accommodation and meals for the driver.

Know your lingo

It’s tempting to simply scribble your signature beneath all that fine print on the rental agreement and be on your way, but – especially when things go wrong – it pays to know what you’re agreeing to…

Additional drivers
By and large, rental agencies rent the car to a single, named driver. If another person is going to be driving the car – even if just for a few minutes – they need to be listed on the rental agreement as an ‘additional driver’. There is usually a surcharge for this, but it’s worth the small fee, as your bundled insurance will be invalid if the car is damaged while an unlisted driver is behind the wheel.

Additional equipment
Although usually dependent on availability, rental agencies offer more than four wheels on the road: GPS units, child seats and even ski-racks are available for hire.

In certain countries you are also able to request non-smoking vehicles, often at no additional charge. It’s best to book any extras well in advance. Some agencies, particularly in the USA and Europe, can also supply cars adapted for the physically disabled.

Airport surcharge
To cover the additional costs and levies, there is usually an airport surcharge added to the bill when collecting a vehicle from an international airport. If your budget is tight and logistics allow, consider collecting the vehicle from an inner-city branch.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)
Right, pay attention here. The Collision Damage Waiver is essentially an insurance cover that quantifies your liability for any damage to the vehicle while it’s in your care. That could be due to theft, accident or a collision – even if it’s not your fault. Ask the agent whether the waiver excludes damage to windows and tyres, particularly if you plan to drive on gravel roads.

Most agencies offer upgraded ‘Super Waiver’ cover at additional cost, which will limit your liability in the event of damage or theft. For peace of mind, the slightly higher cost is often worthwhile.

Energy Recovery Fee (ERF)
Some rental companies charge hirers an Energy Recovery Fee. While little more than a hidden cost – think of the airline industry’s ‘fuel surcharge’ – it should be clearly itemised on your bill.

International Driving Licence
While your own country’s driver’s licence may well be accepted abroad, it often pays to obtain an international driver’s licence from the Automobile Association before you depart. In some countries, you won’t be able to rent a vehicle without one.

Mileage
Decide how much driving you’re planning on doing before you book your hire car. Cheaper contracts offer a limited number of ‘free’ kilometres per day, with additional kilometres charged for at a steep rate. If you plan on doing a lot of driving, pay a small premium for a rate that allows for unlimited kilometres.

Master Rental Agreement (MRA)
Quite simply, the contract you will sign with the car hire agency for renting the vehicle. It’s legally binding, so read it carefully.

Monthly Rate
For travellers on secondment or extended travels, monthly and long-term rentals work out considerably cheaper. Agencies usually require a minimum 28-day hire to qualify. Some long-term rental agreements include vehicle maintenance, breakdown cover and a vehicle exchange in the event of an accident.

Personal Accident Insurance (PAI)
Worth considering if you are travelling with colleagues, this optional insurance covers medical and other costs for the driver and passengers, in the event of injury or death during the rental period.

For whom the e-Tolls?

The controversial Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project in South Africa has seen local outrage over the extensive tolling system implemented by authorities to pay for the multi-million-rand construction works in Africa’s richest urban area.

Over 200 kilometres of freeways in and around Johannesburg and Pretoria fall under the sections of road now liable for toll payments, with open road tolling electronic gantries erected to collect toll fees electronically.

This has had a major impact on local rental agencies, the bulk of which have fitted their fleet with ‘e-tags’ that are unique to each vehicle. As you drive through each toll gantry, the e-tag beeps to indicate the toll has been debited to your account. The total bill from the tolls will then appear on your final invoice from the rental agency, 24-48 hours after the return of the vehicle.

Most agencies allow you to log onto their website and ­– using your reservation number – view the tolls incurred during your hire period. At present, most agencies are charging customers the standard government-mandated toll fees, but it remains to be seen whether they will add a surcharge in the future to cover the additional administrative costs.

Although many locals are refusing to pay the tolls in protest, by signing the rental agency’s master rental agreement you are agreeing to abide by the company’s (law-abiding) policy of paying the tolls.