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Sustainable Tourism Development In Africa: Interview With Thomas Müller, CEO, rainmaker

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Thomas Müller is an entrepreneur with more than 37 years of experience in IT and more than 16 years in digital marketing and technology in the global hospitality and tourism industry. In this exclusive interview, he shares his thoughts with Alaba Ayinuola of Business Africa Online on the state of sustainable tourism development in Africa, the role marketing and branding play in facilitating sustainable tourism, the impact of his company, rainmaker in Africa and more. Excerpts.

Alaba: Could you tell us about rainmaker digital and the gap it’s filling?

Thomas: rainmaker has been created as a social enterprise and as such is focused on the impact we can create for destinations, for their hospitality and tourism businesses and people. It is our passion to change the hospitality and tourism sector to keep more tourism spend in the destination through the democratization of technology which we make inclusively and pervasively available to all emerging, small, medium and independent hospitality and tourism businesses. With this, the destination and their hospitality and tourism businesses take back control of their visibility, digital presence, reputation, marketing communication, and distribution. 

Together with Tourism Authorities and Hospitality and Tourism Associations we create a public-private partnership, create local capacity and create a digital transformation initiative, aligned to the UNWTO digital transformation strategy and contributing to the Sustainability Goals.

Alaba: What attracted you to sustainable tourism development in Africa?

Thomas: I have got my “Africa-Virus” already in 1984 when I traveled to Kenya. When I was working with Thomas Cook in the early 2000’s I spend quite some time in Senegal. However, for 10 years I am now living in Namibia and am very active in the Southern African and Pan-African Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality industry. 

I have realized that in the last 5 years the world has dramatically change to the disadvantage of the destinations and their hospitality and tourism businesses and therefore for its people. One major result of tourism is to contribute to the sustainable development of the destination and its people. However, the way things have developed worried me. 

Traditional value chains are no longer sustainable as only 50% of the potential traveler makes use of a high street travel agent and therefore the traditional value chain of a travel agent – wholesale operator – DMC inbound tour operator. At the same time, hundreds of digital platforms have been created. With this a duopoly of the booking holdings and Expedia group has been established, two companies with about 40+ brands now dominating the market. 

At the same time, I saw the hospitality and tourism businesses suffer from the overwhelming complexity and the increasing cost of distribution while at the same tie losing total control of their visibility, reputation, and distribution, becoming ever more dependent. 

The fact that such a platform makes more money with a booking that the hospitality and tourism business in the destination worried me. I simply find this unethical as tourism in that way can’t contribute to a destination sustainable development as it should and could. I also call this market situation “Colonialism 3.0”.

 It has become my passion and vision to change this for the better of the destination, their hospitality and tourism businesses and people. That is when I started rainmaker as a social enterprise or zebra type company in 2016.

Alaba: What are your major achievements and impacts in Africa?

Thomas: We started in 2016 in Namibia and we grew on average by 100% each year only in Namibia. We only started rendering our services in South Africa in late 2018. 

We have achieved some 42 Million 360° virtual tour views for our Namibian customers; those have been gained from 11.7 million Google Searches, 23.1 million views. Looking at the conversion we gained some 321.000 website conversions, 612.000 directions conversions, and 74.000 phone call conversions. Finally, more than N$ 20 Million in direct booking revenue have been achieved for our Namibian customers. Some customers we only grew by 80% but others we grew by 700% of direct revenue. This is a significant achievement towards their profit and sustainability. 

Given that Namibia is a rather small destination with only some 250.000 to 300.000 leisure tourists, where we only have a market share of about 18% in the hospitality and tourism sector, this is a significant achievement and track record, given that for example the official website of the tourism board scores some 700.000 views per year.

It is because of this tangible impact, our 5 Stages of Success and our VISTA Destination Network have been awarded with the prestigious HSMAI (Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International) in New York in 2018, with the World Tourism Forum Lucern Destination Innovation Start-Up Award in 2018 and with the African Tourism Leadership Forum Award in 2019.

Alaba: How does your organisation measure its impact?

Thomas: The impact we achieve is measured by key performance parameters such as increase in occupancy, an improvement on average daily room rate, migration from online travel and DMC bookings towards direct bookings and the impact on ADR and profit as well as the improvement of the respective online reputation which as a significant impact on direct bookings. Furthermore, the number of searches, views, and conversions from Google based on the overall strategy.

Alaba: What are the practical tips to create links among ecotourism, conservation and community development?

Thomas: When it comes to terms and buzzwords such as ecotourism, sustainable tourism, green tourism, responsible tourism, etc. I am getting quite excited as this is a big topic nowadays in almost every source market to Africa. However, as you can see already on the wording, and the so-called “Greta Thunberg” effect has done a lot to sensitize travelers, it is rather only focused on the ecological site of sustainable and to an extent to the social side of sustainability. 

I am of the opinion that this is short thinking and not taking all aspects into account. To me, there is one major part missing. Economical sustainability. If that can’t be achieved in the first place, there is no basis, no funds and no resources available in a destination and from their hospitality and tourism businesses to properly invest in social and/or economic sustainability and with this helping communities, conservancies and therefore emerging businesses, entrepreneurs and the people in the region to prosper.

As long as 60% to 80% of the profits leaking outside of the destination to global giants, this is a problem we need to fix in order to actually achieve a real sustainable tourism development.

Alaba: Can you say that sustainable destinations have a competitive edge? Why?

Thomas: Yes, they do have a competitive edge as the world and the travelers globally are sensitized on climate change, sustainability, ecotourism, green tourism, etc. and are very careful when selecting their journey. However and as mentioned above, they are not aware that they actually harm a destination and it’s hospitality and tourism businesses when booking through online travel agents and such as their tourism spend doesn’t contribute to the destination, their hospitality, and tourism business and its people as it should and could.

We need to make the traveler aware of the impact it has, especially for developing countries and destinations, their businesses and people when booking directly instead of through platforms.

Alaba: What role does brand and marketing play in facilitating a more sustainable tourism in Africa?

Thomas: It plays a huge role in my perspective. But as mentioned the focus is only on one or two parts being the ecological and social segment of sustainability, often neglecting the at least equally important economical sustainability aspect. There is a growing market of conscious travelers who care. This issue needs to be addressed and the market needs to be made aware.

Alaba: What advice will you give African decision-makers (political and business) on tourism sustainability?

Thomas: Well, from my perspective, destinations need to enable to do businesses with potential travelers to meet their demands, wants and desires while at the same time address the sustainability issue as a holistic topic. 

At first, every hospitality and tourism business in a destination is it a Lodge, Guesthouse, B&B, Guest Farm, Hotel, Activity Provider, Activity Provider, Tour Guide, Car Rental provider, and local Tour Operators need to be digitally enabled. 

This is why we are working with Tourism Authorities, Tourism Associations and the UNWTO to democratize technology, make it pervasively and inclusively available in a public-private partnership and freemium applications. 

It provides a huge competitive advantage for all stakeholders in the destination and makes it seamless and easy for potential travelers to do dream, plan, book and pay for their journey in such an enabled destination.

Alaba: What are the trends to watch in Africa’s tourism ecosystem in 2020?

Thomas: While many countries and destinations such as Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, and others are on the right track and are very dynamic and progressive with all kinds of innovation, digitization and implementing the basis for the 4th industrial revolution, other countries are a bit behind and need to hurry up in order to gain back control of their visibility, digital presence, reputation, communication and distribution for sustainable tourism development. 

I know that there are many fancy technologies and some vendors talk about the Internet of Things (IoT) automated check-in/checkout and automated room key on the smartphone etc. However, I am of the belief that we first need to get the basics right and enable the destinations and their hospitality and tourism businesses before we even look at all the fancy and cool technology that might work in a Hotel in New York but not necessarily in an i.e. remote Safari Lodge in Africa. It is also the question if travelers even want this.

Alaba: Could you mention some of your favorite destinations in Africa?

Thomas: This is a very difficult question as every country has its beauty and attraction. You can’t really compare them with each other. This is why “Brand Africa” is an important initiative. We are not 54 countries competing against each other, but 54 countries offering the most diverse, interesting and educational experience in all aspects.

Also Read: Lillian Barnard: Tech Enthusiast And First Female Managing Director, Microsoft South Africa

B I O G R A P H Y

Thomas Müller is an entrepreneur with more than 37 years of experience in IT and more than 16 years in digital marketing and technology in the global hospitality and tourism industry. While working for companies such as IBM, (Mannesman Mobilfunk) Vodafone, TUI, Thomas Cook, amongst others, he was part of opening four Hotels, turning around Hotels and other tourism businesses and started rainmaker digital as a social enterprise TravelTech company in Namibia in 2016.

Thomas had the opportunity of working and living in eight countries around the globe and Southern Africa is his home for more than 10 years. It is his passion to democratize technology for African destinations and its hospitality and tourism businesses to keep more tourism spend in the destination for sustainable tourism development. For the extraordinary achievements of the 5 Stages of Success and the VISTA Destination Network, Thomas and rainmaker were honored with several awards in Europe, the USA, and Africa.

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CEO Corner

Christa Sanders Bobtoya: The Woman Advancing International Education in Africa

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Christa Sanders Bobtoya has been involved in the field of international education for the last two decades. She has lived in Accra, Ghana since 2004 and is currently the Director/Head of Webster University’s Ghana Campus, the only American university in the sub-region offering US-accredited graduate and undergraduate degrees. Sanders Bobtoya spent her first decade in Ghana as the Associate Director of New York University’s (NYU) 6th global site and the university’s first study abroad program on the African continent.  As the head of Webster Ghana, she works daily to fulfill the University’s mission of providing high-quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence. 

“I have always been passionate about education, international travel and intercultural experiences.  In my role of Director of Webster University Ghana Campus, I am able to fuse together all of my passions where I work daily to fulfill the University’s mission of providing high quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence,” says Sanders Bobtoya who is committed to promoting international educational opportunities to students worldwide and has worked and studied in Spain, Germany, Ethiopia, Ghana, Brazil and the United States. 

Sanders Bobtoya has traveled extensively across 5 continents, spanning 85 countries dedicating much of her career to the field of higher education and managing study abroad programs as well as international branch campuses of US institutions both in Europe and Africa. 

Previous experiences have included a role as a Program Officer for the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York where she managed a range of scholarship programs for both Latin American and African students through the Institute’s Scholarship and Training Programs (STP) division and as the Chief Counselor of Students for Syracuse University in Madrid, Spain where she also co-founded a support organization, Voices of Change, to help students of color cope with discrimination outside of the United States.  Additionally,  Sanders Bobtoya has provided cross-cultural counseling services in Berlin, Germany and developed short-term, faculty-led study abroad programs to both Eastern and Western Africa for Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, and has consulted a number of educational institutions focused on international educational initiatives such as Stanford University, Dartmouth College and the Council of International Education (CIEE), the world’s largest international educational exchange organizations.
 

Currently, in the role of Director/Head of Webster University’s Ghana Campus; the only American university in the sub-region offering US-accredited graduate and undergraduate degrees, Sanders Bobtoya works daily to fulfill the University’s mission of providing high quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence.

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“Under my leadership at Webster University Ghana, students are exposed to new ways of thinking and benefit from the cultural diversity and enriching academic environment that strengthens their critical-thinking skills. Since opening our doors in 2014, we have enrolled both undergraduate and graduate students from over 25 different countries, spanning four continents including many from Africa and its Diaspora who later join Webster’s elite network of over 157,000 alumni worldwide,” adds Christa Sanders-Bobtoya who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Spanish from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia where she graduated summa cum laude before completing her Ed.M and M.A. degrees in Counseling Psychology with a concentration in cross-cultural studies/multiculturalism from Columbia University in New York.

Learn More about Webster University Ghana at the Online Open House 

http://www.webster.edu.gh/

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CEO Corner

Hussein Fakhry, MD of Key Architectural Group Nominated for The 2020 Ghana Industry CEO Awards

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Hussein Fakhry, the Co-Founder, Managing Director and Lead Architect at KEY
Architectural Group has been identified as one of the most outstanding chief executives in
corporate Ghana by Ghana Industry CEO Awards.

Hussein’s astute leadership at Key Architectural Group led to the nomination of Top CEO in the
Construction (Building) category. KEY Architectural Group has offices in Accra, Ghana, Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Beirut, Lebanon.

The 2020 Ghana Industry CEOs Awards is an annual awards scheme aimed at identifying and
publicly recognizing the most outstanding Chief Executives in corporate Ghana across a wide
range of sectors.

Backed with a Master’s in Business Administration and over 24 years of experience in the Design and Construction Field, the architect by profession and passion has been behind landmark residential, commercial, touristic, and industrial projects in West Africa and Lebanon.

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Hussein Fakhry designs are inspired by nature, sustainability and contextual architecture.

To vote, kindly visit: Ghana Industry CEO Awards

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CEO Corner

aYo Holdings appoints Marius Botha as Group CEO

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Marius Botha

African micro-insurance fintech business aYo Holdings, a joint venture between telecommunication giant MTN and traditional insurer Momentum Metropolitan Holdings (MMH), has appointed Marius Botha as its new group chief executive officer (CEO).

Botha was formerly CEO of life insurer Stangen for nearly seven years, having previously held executive positions at African Bank and Munich Re.

aYo Holdings offers accidental hospital cover and life cover in Zambia, Uganda and Ghana with additional African countries launching in the very near future.

Botha holds an honours degree in actuarial science and an M.Phil in Futures Studies.

Issued: ByDesign Communication

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