Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In 1972, married couple Maureen and Tony Wheeler spent six months travelling overland through Europe and Asia, a trip from which they produced a 94-page travel guide titled Across Asia on the Cheap.

The stapled booklet drew on other
travellers’ experiences and offered tips on everything from places to stay and eat,
to the wisdom of taking one’s last puff of marijuana before arriving at the Iranian border, and institutions offering a good price for blood to broke backpackers seeking a quick financial hit.

The booklets sold out, and the Lonely Planet guidebook series was off and running. In 2010, after selling more than 100m guidebooks, the Wheelers sold their company to BBC Worldwide for more than £100m.

The rise of Lonely Planet — and competitors such as Rough Guides — tracked the expansion of the tourism market as the cost of long-distance travel became ever more affordable. For the adventurous type who didn’t have the money for a travel agent-generated itinerary — or particularly want it — the dog-eared guidebook provided a reassuring companion.

Yet in 2013, the BBC moved Lonely Planet on for a considerable loss, accepting an offer of just £51.5m from American billionaire Brad Kelley. While the dramatic decline was in part due to the global recession and the disappointing performance of the company’s fledgling digital arm, the main disruptor was clear: technology.

The budget traveller no longer had reason to carry a weighty tome when the information could be accessed through the smartphone in their pocket.

Over the past five years, with social media coming to the fore, the smartphone revolution has cranked through several phases as millennials took over.

"Social media has had a huge impact on how young people travel — they get their inspiration for destinations and experiences from Pinterest and Instagram, and they get recommendations of where to go and what to do from their wider network on Facebook and Twitter," says travel writer Sarah Duff.

"Social services like Airbnb provide accommodation, rather than hotels, and people use TripAdvisor and Yelp to find accommodation and restaurants. So they’re looking at peer reviews rather than guidebook reviews to make their choices."

For more than three decades, the badge of honour for backpackers’ hostels and budget eateries from Durban to Delhi was the sticker on the door saying: "As featured in Lonely Planet." Now it is a five-star user rating on TripAdvisor or many thousands of "Likes" on Facebook.

This is a boon for the consumer, because smart businesses have recognised an opportunity: rather than needing to impress the guidebook author when they came for a stay every couple of years, now every customer is a potential reviewer.

"In terms of marketing, the savvy establishments
have tapped into digital trends
by doing things like offering discounts to people if they check in on Facebook, or giving free nights to people with more than a certain amount of followers on Instagram," says Duff.

"They’ll also run things like hashtag competitions, getting people to post a picture of themselves in the hotel or restaurant with a hashtag for prizes."

For successful SA examples, travel blogger and journalist Ishay Govender-Ypma cites a Cape Town Tourism campaign in 2013 that put up posters around the city encouraging people to take a selfie with Table Mountain and post it on their Facebook page. The campaign won numerous awards.

Of course, the digital world is ever shifting as the various social media go in and out of fashion.

"A few years ago local restaurants used the popularity of Twitter when it was actually used as a tool for creating a community — for example, La Mouette held ‘Twitterati’ parties to ‘reward’ loyal Twitter customers," says Govender-Ypma. "Things have died down on Twitter in the past two years and the dynamics of the medium have changed. Now I’d look out for who’s using Snapchat locally to engage with guests and potential customers. Video engagement has been extremely effective in the past few years.

"For example, I booked a trip to Iceland earlier this year, in part motivated by the stream of compelling winter wonderland Vine videos created by Iceland Travel, an Icelandic travel agency. And I actually booked their service for one part of the trip, a week’s journey, because locals I know warned against hiring a car and driving in the height of winter with no driving experience in that kind of harsh weather. It was expensive but worth it."

The integration of travel agencies into this digital world has been a natural step. But while many are simply using social media to grab attention, there are also innovative companies using technology to build specialised itineraries.

One such company is Rhino Africa, which focuses on putting together bespoke safari packages but also offers destinations such as the Garden Route, Namibia and the Eastern Cape. Launched in January 2005 by David Ryan with the help of two consultants, it has grown to 170 permanent staff and had 70% compounded growth year-on-year for the first decade it was in business. It now creates personalised itineraries for over 15,000 guests annually.

"We launched at the time that the Internet was coming to the fore — the airlines were starting to cut out agent commissions and were forcing people online to book, Google was just starting to enter performance-based marketing — so it seemed like a good time to set up online," says Ryan.

"The core behind the business was how could we build something that would be disruptive to the travel model at that time. We positioned ourselves as being the OUTsurance of travel in an African context, linking guests directly to products without having to go to two or three wholesalers, and therefore being able to offer them a better price point. Our value-add was being African destination experts."

We positioned ourselves as being the OUTsurance of travel in an African context
David Ryan

Rhino Africa has been named Africa’s leading safari operator by the World Travel Awards for the past four years. A big part of that success has been keeping ahead of a curve that is always moving.

"If you look at 2004 to 2010, I think the disruption was becoming an Internet conduit to connect guests to service providers and create an itinerary," Ryan says. "I think a lot of people have caught up on that, and I think the next disruption we’re working on is how do you let technology advancements aid that growth. We’re now a travel business that does technology or a technology business that does travel." The company has also led the way with its social media presence, and has tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

In July it launched a series of slick videos that were intended to inspire travellers to visit featured destinations and inform them on the best way to go about it. Crucially, they were branded.

"The trend has been for travel companies to spend a lot of money on marketing destinations or products — marketing Londolozi, for example — rather than spending time marketing their own brand," says Ryan.

Another SA service using technology effectively is Tastemakers, a chic app that links travellers with the sort of establishments and services that locals frequent but foreigners might miss.

The offering for Cape Town includes sunset trips to Signal Hill (transport, sparkling wine and a meal for two included), as well as cooking classes, nightclubs and bike tours.

The app can also set up full-day itineraries, and facilitates experiences in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Marrakech, Lagos, Kigali, Dakar and Accra that fall outside the stereotypical African offerings.

With Silicon Valley’s tech companies knocking on the door — the new Apple Maps will allow taxi or hotel bookings to be done inside the app, while Airbnb is expected to expand its offering beyond accommodation — some sort of unique value-add is all the more important for SA travel businesses in an increasingly technological world.

What it means: Social media has had a huge impact on how young people travel.

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