Rhino Africa Safaris: David Ryan

Rhino Africa Safaris: David Ryan

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Since founding Rhino Africa Safaris in 2004, David Ryan has consistently re-evaluated his business by critically analysing his unique selling proposition (USP).

“I’ve always believed that as a business you need to innovate rather than imitate, and the only way to do that is constantly asking what sets you apart from your competitors. If you can’t answer that simple question, you’re probably a ‘me too’ business and your customers would just as easily do business with your competitors as they would with you.”

Rhino Africa Safaris is anything but a ‘me too’ business. An online travel agency that launched post the dot.com bomb, when confidence in web-based companies was low and consumers were wary of online payments, Ryan has built the business from a turnover of R40 000 a month to R25 million because of his specific USPs.

The journey has not been without its hiccups though. “One of the biggest battles we’ve faced is stepping away from the traditional travel model,” he explains. “Our online model places customers directly in contact with providers, like our partner lodges and transport operators, which cuts out supplier mechanisms. The larger travel companies in South Africa were against this method, and we took a lot of heat.

“The traditional business model of a travel agent is that customers and providers don’t interact. The travel agent secures good rates based on ‘bulk’ bookings, and customers do not have to go through the hassle of comparing prices and offerings.

We were essentially changing this model, and our much larger competitors were not happy about it. They put pressure on our suppliers to cut us out and not give us good rates. I spent a lot of time negotiating with our partners to allow us to use our model, despite the pressure they were under to cut us off.”

One size doesn’t fit all

An accountant by trade, when Ryan left his job at Afrox and first began developing his business model for his own company, a number of factors influenced his planning. “I had always found the ‘one size fits all’ travel approach of fixed packages frustrating,” he says.

“I was an avid traveller and found that more often than not the packages I chose didn’t really suit my expectations, or I was visiting an area at the wrong time of the year – things that the travel agents I dealt with couldn’t assist me with.

“I would go on a scuba diving holiday, only to learn that I was in that area at the wrong time of year, and three months later would have enjoyed awesome dives. Many great holiday destinations are seasonal, particularly in Africa. If you visit Victoria Falls in March you’ll witness a roaring waterfall, but in October it’s a bone dry wall. Foreign visitors rely on travel agents to give them this information, but more often than not they can only choose from a set package.”

Ryan envisaged a niche travel agency made up of consultants who had visited every partner lodge and game reserve, and experienced all the activities on offer. He wanted to create a tailor-made offering based specifically on each client’s needs.

“Each itinerary is shaped around the client’s specific profile, where they want to go, what they want to experience, and what kind of trip they are taking. A family holiday is very different from a business trip, for example. Because we put clients directly in touch with providers, they also receive great rates.”

Ryan launched Rhino Africa Tours from his kitchen table in early 2005 with one consultant. “My idea was to start with tours to Madagascar. I knew the island well, and so my plan was to tailor-make packages based on my experiences of the island.

This has been the same model we have used for the past seven years. We’ve relied on organic growth only, and as the company has grown and we’ve been able to hire another consultant, so a destination has been added to our portfolio.”

Today the company employs 42 consultants and 38 support staff.

Each new consultant is sent to experience their area of speciality. They stay in the partner lodges that Ryan has identified, experience the area and partake in the activities on offer.

As a result, they are able to offer advice based on experience. Rhino Africa Tours now offers 40 destinations across Southern and East Africa.

Giving back

Another passion of Ryan’s was conservation and giving back to the community, and he decided to make this a part of his differentiator. “Every provider we do business with has a programme that is either giving back to the community, or runs a conservation project.”

In this way, Rhino Africa clients know that by supporting Ryan and his business, they are supporting worthwhile causes throughout Southern Africa. “We’ve focused on choosing partners who share the same ethos and values that we do,” says Ryan. “It makes the partnerships fulfilling over and above just doing business.”

Projects Rhino Africa and its partners support include the Wildlife ACT Fund, which monitors endangered species, Grootbos’ green futures project, which teaches the local community farming techniques, and its own Challenge4aCause charity cycling event, which this year raised R300 000 for The Rhino Trust, The Good Work Foundation and the Wildlife ACT Fund.

Massive online growth

The business’s biggest competitive advantage and its third USP is the Internet. “Back in 2004, when I was planning the business model, launching an online company was a risk,” admits Ryan. “But I also believed there was a big opportunity.

Google hadn’t yet capitalised on its model, and I expected that it would do so soon. I took a bond of R400 000 out on my house, which I had paid for while travelling abroad for Afrox, and I started building an online platform that I believed would have three distinct advantages.

It would allow me to offer affordable tailor-made travel packages, it would access the international market because it was online, and I was devising my entire marketing strategy around the fact that the Internet would soon experience enormous growth, and Google would introduce advertising – which it did through AdWords and its pay-per-click model.”

Ryan’s first customers were friends and family – but he soon began to make inroads into the overseas market. “The pay-per-click model really worked for us, and the beauty of the experience we offer is that our word-of-mouth referrals were excellent. We also generated a lot of repeat business.”

Rhino Africa Tours has enjoyed steady growth of at least 100% a year since launch. 95% of its clients are international, and it has opened French and German offices that only employ mother-tongue consultants, with Italian and Spanish divisions soon to open.

Lessons learnt

David Ryan shares how he has stayed ahead of the curve, always innovating instead of imitating:

  • Always keep an eye on the latest trends. Who is talking about what? You can’t fulfil travel desires if you don’t know what’s hot. Evaluate your USPs every six months and adjust your strategy accordingly.
  • Evaluate opportunities carefully.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup didn’t help grow the business at all because of FIFA’s strict licensing policies. If Ryan had invested too much into this one event he would have made a mistake. Instead, he planned for a big 2011 based on South Africa’s exposure to the world market.

  • Always think about the big picture.

Ryan views every satisfied customer as an ambassador for South Africa. He isn’t only trying to get a bigger piece of the tourism pie – he wants the whole pie
to grow.

  • Figure out your strongest advantage and invest in it. Ryan has consistently invested in web development. He understands that this is key to the business’s success and ensures he stays ahead of the game.

Vital stats

Player: David Ryan

Company: Rhino Africa Safaris

Launched: 2005

Contact: rhinoafrica.com

Nadine Todd
Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.