Hloni Pitso is the Regional Manager (West Africa) of South African Tourism (SAT) and heads the first fully-fledged regional office of the organisation, which opened in Lagos earlier this year. He speaks with Demola Ojo on the marketing activities of SAT in Nigeria among other issues
Why is SAT’s first fully-fledged regional office based in Lagos?
Nigeria is a big market for us. If you look at the arrival numbers last year, it was about 85,000 arrivals to South Africa from Nigeria and this number has doubled from 2010. In 2010, we received about 45,000 visitors. So this is proof that there is huge growth opportunity here. And again in the past four years we’ve been growing at a double-digit growth rate and currently occupy only 10 per cent of the market share of total outbound travel of Nigerian travellers. So we see a huge opportunity for us to grow that market share and also increase arrivals into South Africa.
Also, this is going to serve as a regional office so we’ll be looking at Ghana and other West African countries. All these countries together will give us good numbers coming into South Africa.
What is the role and objective of this office?
The objective of the office is basically to market the destination. We need to sell the destination to Nigerian travellers. We need to ensure that we sell the destination correctly to the consumers, and we have to know what inspires Nigerians, to know what they look for when they travel.
So we firstly have to talk to the consumers and make sure they are aware of us, they are aware of the experiences we have to offer, and secondly we also want to ensure that we deal with the trade which is a very important channel. These are the guys that actually put together and sell the different packages. It is in our interest to make sure we train and equip them in order for them to be able to sell us successfully and also by ensuring they include the relevant experiences that appeal to the Nigerian consumers.
SAT just renewed a trade agreement with NANTA at the Akwaaba Africa Travel Market. What does this agreement entail in practical terms?
NANTA is the governing body of the travel agents in Nigeria. Travel agents are a critical factor of the tourism sector. This is the lifeline of tourism. These are the guys that provide our product offerings to consumers. Consumers listen to them and they advise consumers where to visit in the world. It gives us an opportunity to meet as many NANTA members as possible and gives us a platform to train as many members as possible.
But also in turn, NANTA sees this as an opportunity for their members because we provide various training platforms, to ensure that the standards of tourism improve. These are the opportunities we see between the two bodies.
Statistics show there’s a growing middle class in Nigeria. A lot of them are adventurous and looking beyond destinations that have traditionally been attractive to Nigerians. What has South Africa got to offer them?
If you look at our strategy in the past couple of years, it has actually changed whereby we now have different segments we are now focusing on. We still have your upper middle class to your high end, a segment we communicate to but also we’ve realised there is potential growth in the middle class; your young business executives, guys who earn a good income and are looking forward to travel the world. We are actually focusing our marketing efforts to ensure we communicate to them and let them know what experiences we have to offer.
If you look at Durban for example, there is a stretch of beaches where you have clean golden beaches, a stretch of hotels as well as restaurants and you’ve got a thriving nightlife.
Then if you go Cape Town in the Western Cape province, that offers you a variety of experiences from wine tasting in the wine lands to your sunset cruises.
And these are also affordable experiences. People think that they are not affordable. The minute you see a yacht you think it is something you cannot reach but there are various ways of going about it.
If you’re travelling with a group of friends you can together charter a yacht. But if you are travelling perhaps just yourself, or with your loved one or your family, there are also scheduled yacht cruises where you can actually buy a ticket and have the same experience. It might be slightly different because you are with other travellers, but those are the kind of experiences that you can get.
There are also motorcycle tours where you can get on a Harley Davidson and travel from Cape Town to the wine lands. There is also history and culture, for example, Robben Island. Those are the kind of interests some of these guys want to see.
And then you travel from Cape Town to Johannesburg, which as you know is the buzz of the country, that’s where life happens. Again you have shopping malls where you can go on shopping sprees, as you know the young guys look forward to that when they travel, to your nightlife, to your wining and dining so there is a variety of experiences that I cannot even begin to capture in one interview.
Where are the places you won’t leave out in say a 7-day tour?
Firstly, we’ve tried to categorise the different activities because different needs appeal to different consumers. If you’re in Johannesburg, you can take your family to the Gold Reef city where you got these amazing swings and you can spend the whole day there entertaining your children.
You find the same in Cape Town. It’s called Ratanga Junction. In Durban, you have the same services, the likes of uShaka marine world. So those are the types of family activities that one can focus on.
And then you’ve got a lot of holiday resorts. If you take Sun City for example, where you find almost everything under one roof, you also have family entertainment there.
Then there’s also adult entertainment; there are casinos, there’s golf, there’s wildlife where you can go on a safari. You either drive safari or you can go on a hot air balloon. Again those motorcycle tours, you can go from Johannesburg to Sun City, so there are different ways of getting various experiences.
Outside of the family activities there’s also your nightlife. I Know Nigerians love the nightlife, I’ve seen so in Lagos myself. In Cape Town you have Long Street with a string of restaurants as well as nightclubs in between and there is never a dull moment.
When you go back to Durban, there is Florida Road. Again on Florida road, there is a stream of restaurants as well as your nightlife.
Lastly, shopping is also a big thing for Nigerians and South Africa boasts some of the biggest malls in the Southern hemisphere. For example Sandton City in Johannesburg, Gateway in Durban, V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
Again when it comes to adventure- I’ve already mentioned some experiences, if you have the heart for it you can do your bungee jumping, there’s shark cage diving, there’s skydiving, there’s hot air balloon, there’s quite a lot.
Some of the other things we have not really been marketing out but seems to be getting popular is car racing. Some of the big racetracks are services to now groups of guys that want to go for advanced driving courses or that just want to race around the racetrack, essentially showing them the ropes.
How effective has the strategy of inviting trade partners and media on familiarisation trips to South Africa been?
We try and measure everything that we do. And familiarisation trips or hosting is one of the key marketing tools that we have, particularly when we’re hosting trade as well as media. That’s why I said before that we have two big things to do in Nigeria and it’s basically to make sure that consumers are aware of our destinations, the tourism product offerings that we have.
We make sure that we train and educate the trade on how to sell South Africa successfully and this obviously is of benefit to them because the easier we make it for them, it’s a profit story. So it has worked effectively.
When we are hosting media, they get to experience the country for themselves. We do not dictate or try to control what they write when they come back, it’s genuine feedback that they give to the public. It’s a good way, a reputable way of selling yourself, to have a fellow Nigerian who would travel to South Africa, then come back and able to share those stories.
And we track and look at the positivity that it brings and it’s a continuous process.
We do the same with the trade. When they get back to package the various experiences that they’ve had within South Africa, we see it coming out in the packages and then we track the packages that they sell and we then look at the results in terms of the arrivals, how they increase year on year. So it’s definitely an effective tool and we’ll keep using it.
Can you tell us a little about your work experience and how it has come to bear on your present position?
I started working as a travel consultant. I was working for HRG and I was a travel consultant putting together packages, booking accommodation, flights and so forth. And then from there, I moved across from the tour operator/travel agency space to aviation.
I joined Air Botswana where I started as customer and sales agent. I was mostly involved in operations, from your checking-in, to flight dispatching on the ramp, as well as load control of an aircraft. I did that for about four years then moved into the sales and marketing space which is where I found my passion.
I then remained with the airline for about three years, then moved on from the airline into the Protea Hotels I joined as a sales executive and a year later I was then promoted to regional sales manager for the Africa portfolio. I was based in South Africa but I was travelling to the various countries where Protea Hotel had properties like Nigeria, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and that was how I started travelling the continent.
If you take a combination of the experiences, travel agency, aviation as well as hospitality, it gives you a broader overview of the tourism industry as a sector and this has really come in handy because after joining South African Tourism, I was able to effectively manage the tasks that I was given having that overview.
Till date that still works for me because I understand the hotel industry, I understand aviation and I understand the travel agents. One of the key things we are here for is to work with the travel agents and I know exactly how they operate.
How do you relax in South Africa?
I love travelling and I suppose this is why I’m in this industry. Any opportunity I get, I pack my bag and hit the road with my family. I’ve explored a lot of the tourism offerings in South Africa which is another benefit of my portfolio. I love watching movies, I love reading a book or two when I get an opportunity. I’m in a formal biking club and I love riding around the country. Those are some of the activities I get up to when I get free time.
Any spots you like hanging out in Lagos?
I’ve only been around for a little over a month now. The office opened earlier but I had to go through the process of a work permit and residence permit which is why I’m only coming in now. But there are a few places where I enjoy going to. Right now I know there’s a new place in Lekki called Bay Lounge which is an outdoor place. It’s one of those places where they barbeque your fish and chips and it’s one of the favourite meals I like here because in Lagos you get fresh grilled fish and nothing beats the taste of that.
I also enjoy going to a few of the boat clubs. I’ve had the opportunity of being invited to a few where one can go to have a nice meal or just hang out
Anything in Lagos that reminds you of South Africa?
There are a lot of organisations from South Africa established in Lagos. If you take for example a restaurant like Rhapsody, it’s based in South Africa and is also one of the big hangout places in Lagos. So I enjoy going there as well. I do a lot of my grocery shopping at either at SPAR or Shoprite, so there are resemblances that obviously take me back home.
The music as well. You see the collaborations between our musicians and the music is slowly moving closer towards each other where they’re going to find unity and it becomes one. And the nightclubs here play a lot of South African music and similarly in the nightclubs in South Africa they play a lot of Nigerian music.
Eko Hotel Primed for Christmas
The hospitality space in Nigeria – Lagos especially – gets more competitive by the day as many international brands see Africa’s largest economy as a great place to invest in.
However standing tall among these international operators is the Eko Hotel & Suites, which prides itself on nesting international standards with African hospitality.
A case in point is the Eko Convention Centre, which has more or less made the expansive hotel a destination in its own right with a weekly dose of concerts and other events. The Convention Centre has helped Eko buck the trend in Lagos whereby hotels are fully booked during the week but suffer downtime weekends. This is due to Lagos being a business destination first before leisure.
The convention centre among other strategies has ensured that Eko, which has the highest number of rooms in Lagos, retains its attraction during the weekends. And to further boost sales during Christmas, the hotel recently announced exciting packages for the festive season starting tomorrow and running till early next year.
Room rates have been slashed and suites now go for rates classic room rates, lower in some cases. Some of the hotel’s seven restaurants and bars also have activities especially for Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year. The Kuramo Sports Café, the Lagoon Breeze restaurant and the prestigious Sky Restaurant are a few venues that will host live music, culinary tours including stuffed Christmas turkey, a gala dinner and more.
The ploy is to further entrench Eko Hotels & Suites as an entertainment and lifestyle hub, beyond just selling rooms. Considering past successes, this might just be worth looking forward to.