Tourism with a twist
Admin clerk ‘brakes’ with backroom to accelerate into the real world
BEING HIVED OFF in a backroom office in a sales department can have its benefits. For starters, you’re exposed to numbers that in themselves can make sure-fire success stories. Kagiso Dumasi’s success story is, in a sense, a narrative straight out of a spreadsheet in the sales department of the plum Melrose Arch Hotel, north of Johannesburg. Dumasi was 29 in 2006 when she stumbled upon an opportunity that would define her career as an entrepreneur in tourism.
Almost daily, throngs of high net worth individuals coursed through the dainty environs of Melrose Arch, either for business or a typically tourist experience. And almost every day for close on 18 months Dumasi would make booking arrangements for everything from transport for guests to securing event management venues for the hotel’s business clients. Those clients she did occasionally get to physically interact with would constantly voice their frustration about getting around the city due to transport hassles.
Then it occurred to her: why work in an administrative job when she could make a mint from a lucrative career as an entrepreneur in the tourism sector? So she approached her manager, Douglas Allen, and asked whether he’d be willing to offer her clients to kick-start a tourism start-up. Allen – who Dumasi describes as a “mentor” – obliged. But with a caveat: her service had to be extraordinary enough for the venture to thrive in SA’s competitive tourism industry. “He told me my business would have to have a twist – something different to the usual services provided by transport and tourism companies the hotel had relationships with.”
No sooner had Dumasi quit her job, than the idea of a concierge involving a specialised range of services (including transport) emerged. Dumasi teamed with Sola Owoloja – an aspirant entrepreneur in the chauffeur business – to form West chauffeurs. “The idea ( which soon became reality) was to offer a combination of a specialised concierge and transport service that was pretty much an extension of a client’s lifestyle,” she says.
Allen would counsel Dumasi about potential clients and their profiles. She’d then distil their specific preferences from those profiles and design a tourist package to suit their lifestyles. “For example, one would want to go to a nightclub (or even a strip club) after a function. Our drivers – who aren’t only impeccably dressed but also well versed in a range of issues that tourists find handy – would be briefed that they’d be required to work overtime.”
It was an ambitious plan that would involve a slog, initially using her personal resources to get started. Her first stumbling block was sourcing luxury vehicles to shuttle her clients around in. “High value clients are savvy about their mode of transport. If they want a Mercedes-Benz it’s not your ordinary vehicle. They want luxury – say, an S500,” she says.
When Dumasi contacted Avis, it turned her down because she was still new in the industry. “Avis said it couldn’t take the risk of leasing a vehicle to someone without a track record. I was told my business case wasn’t compelling enough to prompt the company to lease vehicles to me.”
So Dumasi turned to local tour operators in a bid to sub- contract their luxury vehicles for her clients at far lower costs than rental companies. That meant she was able to deploy cash she would otherwise have spent on rental leases on other extra services as a value add to her clients. Ironically, the very services she’s been able to offer from lower rental costs became her competitive advantage over those rivals she leases vehicles from.
Ten months into the business, West chauffeurs has experienced a remarkable growth run. The company has since added the Development Bank of Southern Africa, Jo’burg Tourism, brokers/sponsors Barnard Jacobs Mellet and insurer Liberty Life (among others) to its impressive portfolio of clients. That the company has grown revenue from R2 200/month to almost R200 000/month is impressive. West now has six luxury vehicles and employs six drivers and tour operators full time.
With demand for its services rising and the pressure of overhead costs as onerous as ever in a tough economic climate, Dumasi has developed a simple but clever strategy to expand her client base without adding to her overheads: she hires additional vehicles and drivers on an ad hoc basis to meet additional demand. Once her margins start growing commensurately, she’ll invest in new vehicles and personnel.
“It makes business sense to employ more part-time drivers because you get to pay them on an assignment basis. The core fleet of vehicles I own and the drivers I employ meet my cost structure – that is, my revenue versus expenditure.”
Dumasi’s other clients include mining giant Anglo American, Eskom and SA Tourism in SA, with Nigeria ranking as the biggest source of clients in the continent. And she’s sourcing clients in Eastern European countries who are increasingly warming to SA as a tourist destination.
For now SA remains her primary growth market. But over the medium term she plans to become a global player.