South African startup AccommoDirect has challenged heavyweights such as Airbnb and Booking.com through the use of clever tech – CEO Rupert Bryant explains all in an exclusive interview!
Travel has become a unique commodity in the 21st century, where for the first time the formerly painful process of picking a destination and actually getting there has been made far easier through the emergence of online platforms. Where Airbnb and Booking.com might be the buzzword at play, a smaller South African startup – AccommoDirect – has been using the intersection of technology and the human factor to its benefit to tackle these two giants.
We caught up with AccommoDirect CEO Rupert Bryant to ask just how a unique, local approach that leverages technology and a hands-on element can serve to challenge the presence of established players. Bryant is formerly the co-founder of WebAfrica, and is now putting his all into re-shaping South Africa’s online booking market.
How did you come to be CEO of AccommoDirect?
I left school when I was fourteen to follow my dreams, and I started a web hosting and web development business which did very well – I then merged and started WebAfrica with Matthew Tagg, and that grew to be South Africa’s largest independent ISP. In 2013, I then sold my shares and left WebAfrica and launched Accommodation Direct.
The idea was to offer a great travel service for the local industry, because – at the time, and it still is – the industry is very fractured and I felt there was a lot of opportunity to try and compete with where a lot of the market share was going which was to the international guys like Airbnb and Booking.com. We launched AccommoDirect in 2014.
What was one of the earliest challenges in getting started?
Re-establishing our brand and getting ourselves out there; it’s not easy to ‘break in’ when you’re new and unestablished. I think getting that initial momentum was very challenging.
How did you go about building brand recognition against competition of the likes of Airbnb?
It definitely was difficult; however, being South African and tailoring our business around the South African user gave us a big advantage – and that was actually a key revelation we’ve had over the last year.
Initially, when we launched we tried to compete directly with Airbnb and Booking.com – as in we tried to automate the entire thing from start to finish – as I’m a techie at heart and that was my natural inclination. However, at WebAfrica we remained very focussed on customer service – and that’s when it kind of clicked and I thought ‘hang on, we need to leverage our South African advantage more.’
What we actually started to do was personalise the service a lot more, and move away from the fully automated, kind of ‘cold’ service that one gets when they use Airbnb or Booking.com – and the results were kind of like ‘instant contact’. It’s been fantastic since we made that change, and we doubled sales in about 6 months and have been going from strength to strength since.
Another great win is that we’re bringing jobs back to South Africans – we employ forty people full time now, which is tremendous for the local economy as well. We’re not showing any signs of slowing down, and that’s key because it allows us to keep growing, employ more people, and bring more jobs back to the country.
What were some of the reactions you’ve had to bringing ‘people’ back into the process of making a booking?
The difference has been night and day. We can still do automated bookings on our site where people don’t get involved in the process of personalising and helping tailor the ideal accommodation.
We actually measure when our agents do get involved and help personalise and when they don’t, and the average customer satisfaction rating is 9/10 with our booking agents, and it’s about 7.5/10 with a fully automated service.
Has it been difficult to balance ‘people’ in the business against the technical aspects and facility of making a booking?
It’s a constant balance – and managing a big team when aiming for performance and high growth is challenging. I think we’ve got a good philosophy at AccommoDirect – which I feel we also had at WebAfrica – where we believe in empowering our employees, so they are given a lot of freedom and trust.
The ‘technology’ side needs to be constantly evaluated and involves a lot of give and take – I’ll sit down with the team once a week and ask them for feedback on how they’re finding the system and what we can do to improve it – and it’s great to see the results from that.
What unique technology have you used compared to what Airbnb might employ?
We’ve developed all our technology ourselves, and we’ve focussed on building our experience around the customer – so, we monitor everything from start to finish and we employ a lot of A and B testing throughout to quantify the satisfaction of our guest.
There’s a lot of value in an app, but also a lot of scale required as well – we’d love to do that, but our website is fully responsive to mobile and we do take a mobile first approach.
Mobile is growing fantastically, and we get more visitors to mobile than on our desktop. The one thing we’ve done to adapt ourselves to the South African market is make it incredibly easy to call us, which is another huge advantage. That can be a big problem with some of our international competitors, where it can be difficult to actually get someone on the phone, and also then very difficult to engage with the accommodation provider.
We have an interesting blend of visitors, and we’ve seen a lot of growth in Android devices, where a lot of budget phones are coming on the radar.
Have you ever had to make any radical changes to your approach?
All the time – the whole booking process is actually quite complicated, and most people might think a person might just come to a site and make a booking.
The average person actually looks at about seven different websites at minimum, and visits up to fifteen pages before actually making a booking, and that usually involves phone calls to our consultants.
Again, that’s where the advantage kicks in because our consultants can actually answer a lot of their questions – where exactly does the line between technology and our consultants finish? It’s quite hard to say – but we do like to offer our employees as much flexibility as possible, because then they can adopt their approach around a user.
What has AccommoDirect’s growth been like in recent months, especially in major cities such as Cape Town or Johannesburg?
We’re obviously very small next to something like Airbnb – they’ve had more than three or four billion dollars in funding – but in terms of relative growth we’ve managed to double our sales in the past six months and we’re growing at a pace of 10 to 15% each month; even in off-season it’s still flying.
Are there any noticeable trends in how a user might leverage AccomoDirect differently to something like Airbnb when choosing and making a booking?
I think we have a very different user base – Airbnb is definitely more for the single or young couple – whereas AccommoDirect is geared more towards young families, as on most of our listings we offer the entire unit where Airbnb you might share a room in a flat with someone else.
What is AccommoDirect’s ultimate goal? Will the service be the hip, alternative choice, or do you aim to grow it to the point where it’s top of mind in recall?
At the moment, we’re continuing what we’re doing every month and growing very nicely – and I would like to grow to become the number one accommodation portal in South Africa. It would be fantastic to get some of the market share from international giants and bring it back locally, and create more jobs for the local economy.
I think with our current setup we’re good to go to at least three times the scale, and we’re at a place where we can give our consultants flexibility and change our approach. It will be an interesting challenge in a year’s time.
What do you feel you’ve gained from spearheading this business as CEO?
I think I’ve learned how to focus more on the customer, as that’s how we’ve achieved our growth – and to deliver a personalised and memorable experience.
We’re not just a booking platform; the guests who use our platform are creating a special memory that their family will likely cherish for the rest of their lives, and we help them make the most out of that and achieve that goal.
Have your say!
What are your thoughts? How do you feel local startups can leverage their ‘South African’ factor to take on international giants as AccommoDirect is? Be sure to let us know your opinion in the comments below!