Travelport is investing heavily in East Africa. Since the start of 2013, Travelport has unveiled new products – Merchandising Platform and Agentivity – and launched direct operations in Nairobi, whilst it’s also pledged to continue investing in online and mobile technologies. Dylan Rogers caught up with Regional Director Martin Herbert on a recent trip to Nairobi.
Q: Just how serious is Travelport about investing in East Africa?
A: You just have to look at the numbers. We’ve seen travel agency growth of 9.4% for Kenya and 9.7% for Tanzania since 2009, whilst in Ethiopia it’s over 20%. Those kinds of numbers you can’t ignore. What we’re also seeing is airlines putting content back into the Global Distribution System (GDS) in these markets and wanting to work with us. We spotted that trend years ago and started investing heavily, which culminated in setting up the office here in Nairobi.
Q: What trends have you picked up since establishing the presence here in East Africa?
A: Firstly, travel agencies are trying to find ways to sell more hotel and car bookings, and grow their business there. One of the challenges with Travelport, historically, has been understanding all the cryptic entries and the training required. So, tools like Smartpoint have been warmly embraced, because they really help with that. Something like Agentivity has helped agents look at how they run their businesses, whilst the tools we’ve provided have also helped grow revenue. Mobile is another massive trend. M-Pesa, the mobile money system, is huge and everyone has it. So, agents are trying to find ways to work online more. Internet stability is a big problem, so they need to be online through their mobile devices to do reports for their business, make bookings etc.
Q: Besides Internet instability, what other challenges do you face?
A: Fraud, which a lot of the Kenyan agents have experienced over the past few years. That’s something they’ve had to get to grips with, particularly, unfortunately, within their own businesses. So, Agentivity helps with them understanding exactly what is happening in their business, to within about 15 minutes – they know what’s booked, who’s done what, where and when etc. It’s allowed them to run much more accurate reporting, day to day, and put more processes and better controls in place.
Q: What’s been the response from the local travel community to Travelport setting up shop here?
A: Very positive. They want to see the investment that we’re bringing. We really have had a shift since 2009, in terms of the products we’ve introduced and how we’ve worked with the travel agency community, acting more as consultants to their businesses, instead of just offering products.
Q: Have you picked up any characteristics or trends specific to Africa, or East Africa, in terms of the relationship with the GDS?
A: In the hotel space, it’s frankly still a challenge. We’re working with various solutions to meet the challenge of offering credit to agencies and things like that. Through our various products, we’re looking at finding ways to integrate more and more hotel content across the region. It’s still a challenge for the smaller, independent properties, lodges etc, because they themselves often don’t have the technology and are often working off notepads! But, by working with other aggregators, we’re looking at other technologies to integrate them into the system.
Q: Airlines unbundling and looking at ancillary products – is that one of the more topical themes in international travel?
A: Very much so. It’s already there in Europe and the Americas, but it hasn’t quite landed here in East Africa, although Delta has launched a product. However, there are new airlines starting up and looking at those sorts of things. Look at fastjet in Tanzania – they will be pursuing that kind of model. The airlines themselves – Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines have discussed it with me – and whilst their plans aren’t that formulated yet, all these airlines are looking at it as a revenue opportunity.
Q: Having now spent a couple of years in Nairobi, what’s your assessment of the business travel market here?
A: It’s very robust and it’s growing, with a lot of investment into Kenya. The country, compared with some of its neighbours, has a very open investment policy and a very open airline policy, if you look at the number of airlines that have started up here. It’s a very easy place to do business, and it’s growing all the time. There’s a lot of business travel and there’s a lot of opportunity for business travel agencies and travel management companies.