When technological advances threaten a sector, some people see only challenges. Others, like Themba Mthombeni, see opportunities. The founder of Duma Travel, Mthombeni got into the travel agency business when everyone else was getting out. In 2002, the rise of Internet bookings meant travel agents were becoming redundant as increasing numbers of travellers booked their own airline tickets, transfers and accommodation online.
Seeing a gap
“Travel agents had become nothing more than booking clerks and it was clear they needed to offer additional value to their clients if they wanted to survive. I realised that few travel companies were offering strategic services, and I immediately saw a gap to start an agency that leveraged this opportunity,” he says. That was when he left a comfortable job as HR director of De Beers to start Duma Travel. From his own corporate experience and time spent in business consulting, Mthombeni knew that travel is often the second highest corporate expense item after human resources costs. “Previously travel wasn’t seen as a strategic issue, but as travel costs have soared, so the need has arisen for companies to have travel policies in place and to implement cost reduction strategies. Duma Travel was formed specifically for this purpose – we’re a travel partner to corporate organisations and we provide them with the tools to manage travel needs at a strategic level,” he explains.
Redefining an industry
The company offers a range of services including travel audits, assistance in crafting travel policies, research into best practices and how to change traveller behaviour, and change management strategies to ensure policies are implemented properly and rigorously.
“When a company spends tens to hundreds of millions of rands on travel, they want to know where their money is going, and how to reduce the amount they pay out. We help them do that,” Mthombeni says. In redefining the role of a travel agent, Duma Travel has attracted some big name clients who recognise the value it has to offer. They include Old Mutual, PetroSA, the City of Cape Town, and the departments of Home Affairs and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Getting to growth
But it hasn’t always been easy. Looking back on the road he has walked to get Duma Travel to where it is today, Mthombeni says, “Initially, it was a big adjustment to move from a job that had status and comfort, to being a very lonely single operator in a small office.”
He’d invested his own savings in the company, and while he had capital to live off in the early stages, he deliberately downgraded his lifestyle. “I sold my BMW and bought myself an Uno – it’s a small thing but it helped from a psychological point of view. It made me hungry to make a success of things,” he says. “It also made me appreciate small triumphs. I still remember getting excited about my first booking which was for two local airline tickets.” Today the company employs 70 people and has six offices around the country.
It’s success of which Mthombeni is justifiably proud but it hasn’t dulled his appetite or ambition. “My five-year vision is to be in the top five travel management companies in the country, which implies sales of around R1,5 billion,” he says. He plans to get there by acquiring small businesses in the geographical areas where the company wants to grow its footprint, and this year he will be launching travel incentive extensions to the Duma Travel brand. “We also have plans to launch a corporate conference management division – both of these extensions overlap with our existing core business but will allow us to diversify our offering,” he adds. “Ultimately we want to be a one-stop shop for corporate travel. I have every confidence that we will achieve our goals.” Having once found himself off the beaten track, Mthombeni is now well positioned to open new frontiers in his sector.
Player Themba Mthombeni
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