Meet Philip Akesson, the country manager for Travelstart Nigeria. He set up the overall business strategy for the online travel company, change the management structure and oversees the successful implementation to ensure the growth of the business in Nigeria. In this interview, the Stockholm School of Economics graduate, who has spent close to a decade building online businesses in Europe and Africa from the ground up speaks to Tech Point about competition, why online is the future of the Nigerian travel industry and other related issues.
1. Congratulations on leading Travelstart Nigeria. How has it been since assuming the position?
I joined Travelstart three years ago - just when the currency started depreciating. Despite the challenging period, the whole industry found itself in, Travelstart has been on a great journey since then. Our team has grown both in headcount and capabilities, and we’ve established a great company culture. We’re a very different company today from where we were three years ago. I’m proud to say that Travelstart has already established itself as one of the country’s largest travel agencies and given the great potential of the growing Nigerian travel market - the future looks promising!
2. What is the value that online travel business brings in Nigeria? At what percentage is it growing or declining?
The short answer is yes, the online travel market is definitely growing. Similar to how Nigerians are increasingly adopting online channels in other parts of their lives, we see the same trend in how they plan, book and pay for travel. With lower fares, ease of finding the best-suited flight options and a greatly simplified and stress-free experience, in general, being the main drivers from offline to online booking.
Assigning a percentage to the growth is tricky, mainly due to the fact that online players in Nigeria typically operate hybrid models with added distribution through offline channels and through networks of sub-agents. So although we can easily quantify certain broader industry trends, it’s more difficult to isolate how much of that growth is driven by ‘online’ alone. We see an increasing number of competitors and investments in the online sector as validation of our own view that online is the future of Nigerian travel and of its current growth trajectory.
3. Do you think the online travel business is still impacted by the recession?
I think we are still impacted by it to some extent. The depreciation of the Naira made it more expensive for Nigerians to travel but it’s looking better. The local travel industry as a whole is much healthier today compared to what it was in 2016 and 2017, and the airlines demonstrate optimism both by increasing frequency on their existing routes and by adding new cities to their route networks. As an example, Turkish Airlines recently added Port Harcourt to their network. The increased seat capacity means that the airlines have to compete harder to fill them, which typically results in lower fares for travelers.
4. New travel companies keep springing up every day, how does that affect your business? Is this trend as a result of the need to meet the growing demand for travel?
Travelstart has been in operation for 20 years globally and 7 years in the Nigerian market. Online is the next frontier of Nigerian travel so we see it as a natural, healthy, step and a welcome development in the right direction with new entrants. By sharing our technology through our affiliate program, the sub-agent network, Travelstart is actively promoting this growth by offering both existing and aspiring travel agencies a number of tools that can help them conduct their business more effectively and without the expensive up-front investments normally required. Our affiliate program is free to join and is a product that both online and offline travel agencies utilize. It is something we at Travelstart are very excited about as it means that we can actively contribute to building a stronger travel ecosystem in Nigeria which all stakeholders will benefit from.
5. Can you share some travel insights about your customers in terms of cabin class preferences, popular destinations and activities to do while travelling?
From a cabin class perspective, most tickets we sell are economy class tickets. It’s natural as it’s still early days for ‘online’ and the early adopters of online travel are typically those who first realize how much money we can help them save by making it a lot easier for them to find the most suitable flight for their budget and individual travel preferences.
Our top destinations are in New York, London, Dubai, and Johannesburg. A lot of our customers combine business with leisure (‘bleisure’) but if we were to name only one favorite activity, it would have to be shopping. The simple visa application – combined with its unparalleled shopping – makes Dubai the city of choice for Nigerian travelers.
We have also seen a rise in staycations i.e. people traveling within Nigeria for their vacations. At Travelstart we are paying close attention to this trend and have steadily increased the number of local carriers we sell on our website. We are continuously working to provide our customers with the widest selection of local and international flights possible.
6. Has the Nigerian middle-class increased traveling?
Yes absolutely, now that the economy has stabilized. The Nigerian middle class are always finding new ways to spend their recreational time without breaking the bank. I would say the middle class are also the most likely group to take advantage of bleisure travel opportunities; that is a business and leisure travel hybrid. Most travelers are purpose-driven people, who usually travel for a specific reason, and when they have the opportunity to go abroad they definitely get their money’s worth. When traveling for business, they will carve out time to make a holiday out of it - Nigerians are very savvy travelers.
7. What edge does Travelstart have over other travel companies in Nigeria?
Simplicity. At Travelstart we actively choose to do fewer things but do them well. When you narrow your focus to what’s truly important, and you resist falling for the temptation of getting distracted by what the competition is doing, you typically end up with a much better product and healthier business as a whole.
At Travelstart, we have chosen to focus on offering our customers a drastically simplified online shopping experience, low prices, a wide selection of flights and a great customer service experience. That’s it. To achieve this we invest heartily in our relationships with airline partners, spend significant resources on technology and offer our staff extensive training programs and an inspiring work environment.
We would never enter new verticals (e.g. visa services or tour packages) unless we’d be 100% sure that our customers would have a seamless customer experience. Until then we’re happy to leave it in the hands of industry peers. Our discipline and habit of always setting the bar higher sets us apart from the competition and has helped us establish a reputation of being a stable and trustworthy agency both among our customers and industry partners. In addition, our team is backed by 20 years of experience building online travel businesses in diverse international markets and this is a great asset that gives us a clear edge too.
8. Are there any new innovations that you are bringing to the table?
The concept of online travel in Nigeria is still new and would be seen by many as ‘innovative’ in itself. But innovation is also not necessarily about being the first in the world at doing something. We prefer to look at innovation from the perspective of identifying the areas that matters the most in each of our markets and strive to become the gold standard in each of them.
Travelstart’s main aim is to offer our customers a cheap and simplified booking process and great customer experience. As such, most of our innovations take place behind the scenes and could include anything from finding new ways of using technology to improve internal processes, creative ways of adding value to our airline partners so we can offer our customers lower prices, ways of reaching new customer groups, eliminating friction points in the customer experience, etc. So even if not always seen on the surface, there’s a lot of innovation and continuous effort going on behind the scenes.
More visible and typical ‘innovations’ include certain products we offer where you’re able to get one free date change, select your seat and meal at the time of making your booking, automatic online check-in, $1,000 compensation if your bag gets delayed, etc.
9. How do you see Nigeria as a country and what are the opportunities for tourism in Nigeria?
Nigeria has incredible potential! Some of my all-time favorite travel memories are from when I traveled locally. A few breathtaking days at Obudu Ranch, watching dambe boxing in Abuja and durbars in both Kano and Kaduna are among my most memorable. Nigeria is blessed with a rich culture and heritage, a beautiful coastline, lush mountainous regions, a favorable climate and warm welcoming people - elements that will help establish Nigeria as a great travel destination. I see great potential for Nigeria to achieve this and we at Travelstart look forward to playing our role in making it happen!