Victoria Onwubiko is the Chief Marketing Officer at the largest online travel booking company in Nigeria, Wakanow.
In an exclusive chat with PageOne’s executives, she revealed how Wakanow has been able to evolve, create partnerships to deliver superior travel deals to Nigerians and yet thrive in an extremely challenging economy.
How will you evaluate the Nigerian online travel booking industry based on where it is coming from?
When Nigerians grab onto something new, we tend to make the most of it even more than other countries where the original idea had emanated from. With the level of internet penetration that we are seeing today, there is little doubt that Nigerians will continue to shift toward the use of online media for a good deal of their transactions.
We have however identified that fact that as at today, there are some Nigerians who are still keen on face to face interactions and that’s why we had to put up the travel centres to address these needs. There are also those who book online but prefer to pay at the bank or come to our travel centres to make payments for reservations. People want to see someone to pay to in order to confirm or a witness, so they can say: “yes o, I have paid to you; you are holding my money, give me the service.”
In essence, the point here is that there are some Nigerians who are still worried about making payment online, and with the unfortunate incidents of fraudulent activities here and there, we are very likely to continue to have this same problem until the regulators are able to tighten the noose on online fraud. So as a business, we must recognize these issues and provide the customers with what they are comfortable with while encouraging them to accept the new technology.
Where we are today as a country is really not where we should be in terms of the online transactions, we will say that people have picked up significantly in the sense that more people are coming online but there is still a lot of room for growth. I think it’s a gradual process.
Are there demographic peculiarities? Is there a particular age group of people that complete their online booking more than others?
For those who do online booking, majority still prefer to pay offline. Like most other technologically driven platforms, the younger generation are the more adventurous and they are early adopters; so yes, more of the completion of the online transactions are in their 30’s to early 30’s. Just about 4% of our customers use their cards to complete transactions, so I don’t think there is much difference in terms of demographic.
What has been your biggest lesson since you started online travel booking?
From the eye of the founders, I would sum it up this way: if you see an opportunity, just take it. When the company started, the owners set out to do what nobody was doing, and there was as usual a lot of nay sayers – people explaining why the business model would not work. This was about 6 years ago. But these young men identified that Nigeria was taking a leap in the digital space and it was the right time to strike. They also saw the benefits of being the first movers into the online space in that industry.
And how did Wakanow start? The founder was coming in from abroad and he couldn’t find anywhere to make a travel booking. When he asked around, he was referred to some local travel agencies with all their signature glitches and cloudy approach to travel booking. But he refused to patronize these guys, and instead, went to book through an airline. So there was the realization that putting together a transparent, seamless travel booking platform would solve most of the problems. So, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, and went ahead to create Nigeria’s first travel booking portal.
If anything, the key lesson is that it is one thing to see an opportunity, it’s another thing to be brave enough to take it. And more important is being dogged and resilient enough to make it work. For almost 2 years, the company survived on bootstrapping but took a major upward shift with the right funding from the right sources. The rest is history.
Obviously, Wakanow is not the only company in this business in Nigeria. How have you been able to handle the competition?
Well, we recognise that all the players have their strategy and we are sticking with ours which is to continue to raise the bar in using technology to offer convenience, to give good customer service and to deepen our partnerships with strategic stakeholders. Every business has its own strategy, and just because the competition is fierce doesn’t mean we should jump into what everyone is doing. We have our strategy well thought out, and we follow through with ruthless execution. We have developed deep partnerships within our own space in terms of the airlines, hotels and tour operators across markets. Some of these partnerships include our robust relationship with the Kenyan Tourism Board which has been mutually beneficial to both parties in terms of value.
And we also enjoyed great partnership with the Dubai Tourism Board. These relationships will actually help us to deliver the best value to our customers. So our strategy remains the same: To get the most of these partnership across markets.
We also offer value to these partners, especially through some of the marketing campaigns we run for them. They don’t necessarily pay for these campaigns. We actually spend our own money to push them because we know it is a symbiotic relationship between us. We understand that the more we push them, the more value we get for our customers.
Can you put a figure on the number of bookings you have recorded in 5 years?
So far, we have made over 700,000 travel bookings, and counting.
How did you develop new products despite tough competition? What are the ingredients to being innovative?
It’s customer insight! You need to know what the customers want, and basically knowing what works. For instance, we have our Travel SIM card. We know that when people are travelling, they want to be able to make calls or use data. And we thought to ourselves, why don’t we give our customers value by finding a way that they can make these calls and even do so at a cheaper rate?
Now when you travel we have a SIM that allows you make calls as low as USD0.14 cents. You actually pay as if you are a local. In over 70 countries, the SIM allows you receive calls for free. So we are doing it specifically for travelers because we know it is a value we can offer to our customers.
Our SIM cards work best in Europe and the Americas and we have good reviews from customers who have used them there. It’s a little more difficult in Africa where there is monopoly on Telecom services but we are working very hard with the stakeholders to overcome that hurdle.
There are a lot of niche-players coming into the business. Looking forward to where you are going, will you still remain big in terms of your offerings? Or you will narrow your offering?
We’ve grown big and are proud to have gotten where we are! The thing is just to continue to be next step ahead of everyone else. So we are now expanding across Africa and to the rest of the world. We have a platform called DestinationsAfrica, a one-stop travel booking platform that allows travel lovers across the world seamless access to the rich and untapped travel destinations across Africa, riding on the crest of our strategic partnerships with leading players in the African tourism space.
We want to be able to tap into people who are coming in to Africa. It has always been for people going out of Africa so now we want to do more for people coming in. Our thinking is that we are Africans and we understand the African market better, and we should be able to play in that market as we continue to grow bigger.
And in terms of niche, as you begin to get very big, I don’t think you can remove the niche players, because they will be the one poking you in the stomach. Some people are focused on doing group travel, there are those who do just tours and cruises better, and so on. Our approach is to provide an integrated platform that allows travelers enjoy the best of that expertise on a single platform. For us, this works because we have the partnership, we have the reach, the scope and the depth. So we will continue to grow our portfolio in response to the needs of the market.
What is the biggest challenge in the online travel booking right now?
I think it has to do with the fact that there is still a huge number of persons who have not fully tapped into the online space as it should. And this has implications for our operations. For instance, we still have to pay for staff to pick calls when a customer can actually initiate and complete a transaction online. Someone can call to ask how much it is for Kenya when all the information is available online. So we are looking forward to a situation where we have more people going online so that the long lines will be less. Another challenge would also be around the poor infrastructural development to really grow Tourism in Africa. We are championing the cause to change these with a lot of stakeholder engagements.
How important is data to the development and innovation in your business?
It is so important because travel is something that people take time to do. You can actually be booking now and you are not traveling until maybe January. You need to be able to use data to see consumer patterns and be able to be at the shoulder of the customer when decision is being made, and be there when it’s eventually made.
There is also the fact that with data, you will be able to filter through trends and know what customers are thinking. The interesting thing is that there is so much data on the internet that you can actually gather and mine to be able to understand the changing face of today’s customers.
More than ever before, data is the new normal. It allows you key into what we call micro-moments; those moments when preferences are shaped and decisions are made. For instance, you wake up one morning and you think to yourself, it will be really nice to travel somewhere, and you go online and search: “where can I go this Christmas?” It will be at that moment you decide that you actually want to go to Dubai this Christmas. And then you say to yourself: “Dubai will be nice, what can I do in Dubai? Where will I stay?”
I need to be able to think in the way the customer thinks in terms of travel and develop products that I can use to target the customer. So I would need to build contents around Christmas holiday that guide the customer when making a decision in that line. So we have to be at those moments, and develop products that meet the needs of the customer. That’s how you beat competition and all of it is enabled by big data.
So in terms of your 5-10 year plan, do you see yourself having an airline in the future?
No, that’s not in the plan right now, none that I am privy to anyway. Running an airline is a big venture. I think one of our main objectives is basically trying to get the world to experience Africans through travel. And there are the Africans abroad who have never been to the African continent. The idea is to simply use our platform to say: “look, we can offer you something that you can come do whether it is for business or leisure. We can actually provide that platform for whatever you want to come and do in Africa.”
So in terms of our thinking right now, it’s basically how we can give Africa a different story and to be able to change the African narrative as is commonly said. We are basically trying to get the world to experience the same excitement on offer when you travel abroad. We ask the stakeholders, why can’t we have what people are going out of Africa to find? Why can’t we create those experiences here?
In the last one year, you would agree that things are not economically the same compared to what it used to be. In terms of the current economic situation, would you say Wakanow is adapting?
Everybody gets to adapt in a way. And the truth of the matter is that people still travel despite the lull in the economy. We thought about it and came up with a new product called Pay Small Small to address the challenge. It’s been very helpful to our customers because there are so many people who can’t afford to pay for their vacation all at once. This sort of people prefer to pay in installments. And we have seen our Pay Small Small number rise because it offers a convenient and flexible payment plan. We have also seen people travelling more within the local regions like Kenya, Ghana, etc than going abroad.
When comparing prices online, Wakanow is usually the first, how were you able to achieve this feat?
First, I would say technology. We have been able to build a very seamless technology that complements our robust offerings from over 45,000 hotels globally and airline partners. This helps us to easily meet and even exceed the expectations of the travelling public, taking into account their varied tastes and budget. Our objective has always been to ensure that every traveler gets great deals that meet their specific needs at any time. So the Wakanow portal is a seamless aggregator of various classes and specifications of travel products and packages for various customers.
Again, we are able to offer the best fares to customers because of our strong relationship with various partners ranging from airlines to hotels, tour operators etc.. This way, we are able to offer more value to travelers than our competitors.
How important is technology to your business? Are you developing local content to have local capacity as well?
Technology has been key to our business from the moment Wakanow started. The technology has always been sourced from outside Nigeria because we needed to have the best. There is no pride in that really but that is just the fact. We looked for the best developers in the world and those are whom were engaged right from the beginning
It is not something we could get a local developer to build based on the kind of architecture we wanted.
Yes, we also are leveraging on local capacity and talents to drive our processes. Even though the bulk of development takes place outside the country, we recognise the value of our local talents and we engage a lot of them. We provide platforms for them to grow as well.
So how is Wakanow helping the customers to ensure that they enjoy their vacation despite the harsh economy?
We basically try to get the best deals for our customers, and at the best price too. We continue to strengthen our relationship with partners to ensure we consistently give our customers the lowest price they can get. We equally have a whole lot of complimentary offers that make the travelling experience truly exciting for our customers. We offer discount vouchers to customers as well as transfer services that make the transition from the airport to the hotel pretty seamless.
What else? We offer our travelers to Dubai free access to our VIP lounge. We get you free SIM cards with about 10 dollars in it and it’s quite a lot. People can actually use our Prepaid Card to pay for hotels or shop and pay for their choice items anywhere in the world. We are currently running a campaign that says you can now pay for your international hotels in Naira. So there is so much we are currently doing to make vacation more enjoyable for our customers.