Tourism is one of Ethiopia’s important sectors bringing much needed foreign exchange and a chance to introduce Ethiopian culture to the world. Feven Tefera, the co-founder of Room Roaming, converses with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on starting such a company to see Ethiopia’s tourism prosper, on some of the challenges the local hospitality sector faces, on why branding is important and on how to see the sector grow to its potential.
How did the company start?
We started our company, Room Roaming, because of the problems we have witnessed in our local tourism sector where there is no indigenous budget-Hotel franchise that has better understanding of the local market and that solely strives to provide tech-based quality, affordable and uniform services. Most of our middle range hotels that have 2 and 3 stars are too expensive for local guests and don’t render up to par services to international travelers. In a research we conducted prior to our launch, we have seen how our hotels are struggling to get occupancy due to bad reviews written on the booking sites commonly used such as booking.com or tripadvisor.com.
On top of that, Ethiopia is not taking its share in the global hospitality economy. Moreover, most of us are travelers and we have seen the experiences of other nations; that is how they market and place standards on local hospitality and we wanted to emulate it within Ethiopia. As you know tourism is an important component in helping Ethiopia bring needed foreign exchange but more importantly, in promoting the nation culturally. While much talk has taken place on tourism, we just have not realized the potential Ethiopia has.
Tourists do not come to Ethiopia looking for the experience of New York or Paris, but hoping to experience the unique culture of Ethiopia. We created the company putting that to heart. For instance, to put this in perspective, we partnered up with Miracle Hotel in Addis Ababa and we have so far trained its staff and management in pursuing a uniform standard of excellence that will make it standout and be tourist friendly. This will continue at our second hotel which we recently signed with, Kersay Hotel. While Ethiopia has built many hotels in the past, what we are missing is a unique way to market them as other nations have and put in place a standard of service. We are excited.
Again, we are a local company built with local talent but international in perspective. We are not just in business for the sake of making money, but because we care about our nation and how others view us.
What were some of the challenges of starting such a company within Ethiopia that normally emulates international brands rather than finding a local one?
Most hotels in the capital are created out of passion and we know that. But the time has come to take them to the next level. If our country wants to compete in the global tourism industry, we have to be able to offer convenient, reliable and above all quality customer service.
Furthermore, we do not want hotels to fail because they have not managed to promote themselves adequately, where the ones that have done so are bringing business. Through our company, we will try to do both and much more; we will build a groundbreaking advertising mechanism for local hotels without losing our cultural essence.
Kenya, for instance, went through many difficulties not too long ago in accommodating the needs of tourists and tourism. All of a sudden, at some point, the Kenyan society realized the importance of tourism – local and international – and built a mechanism that has made tourism bring much needed resources to the nation. Ethiopia is no different. What you see in Kenya, Ethiopia has. Kenya realized that if it is to welcome tourism to its shores, showing photos of animals is not just enough, but demonstrating it in such a practical way is paramount as it competes with the world. We have taken note of that and here we are.
What challenges have you and your team faced so far?
Of course, the biggest challenge is to convince the virtue of such a concept that is still new in Ethiopia. Most hotels are convinced that breaking even is a success, much like financial freedom. That might be true as many hotels are still struggling on that front. However, many do not see the value of marketing and branding themselves as an investment with a financial return.
Our challenge has been helping them see beyond the status quo and have them embrace new ways of doing business which is introducing a brand that franchises local budget-hotels and maximizes their profit margin. Those that have partnered with us are beginning to reap some success. For instance, many hotels in Ethiopia have a high turnover of employees and are struggling to retain their best employees. We try to be a bridge to that. We train their employees, converse with them, understand their issues and collaborate with them to give solutions, in mind that a happy employee translates to a happy customer in the end.
What benefit would tourists receive for such an organized model?
We have built an integrated website as well as we now have social media accounts and a short code, 7488, where local clients can call at any time to use our services. Our dedicated call center representatives will provide necessary information about our member hotels and assist guests in their booking and further inquiries. Basically, guests don’t have to access the internet and roam around looking for hotels nearby; they can just dial 7488, book our rooms and they will receive COVID-conscious experiences at our member hotels.
In addition, with a quick look at the stories of local hotels, one can find lots of queries that remain unanswered. When hotels join our group, this will not happen. We consider them as family, we will give solutions, whether complaints or compliments, as fast as possible. We understand an exchange with customers is the nature of the business and an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of customers. Most hotels fail, not because of service, but because they do not market and place the needs of their customers at the top of their priorities.
What is the long-term vision?
Beginning in Addis Ababa, the long-term vision is to expand to East Africa and Africa as a whole. In addition, our company offers the chance to see Addis Ababa, one of the most important diplomatic capital cities of the world, without the need to partner with an international brand. Such brands can be created at home. Most of the international brands that are coming to Ethiopia started small and within their own nations before they moved to other nations. It has always been a question to us as to why we, Ethiopians, can’t be tourists in our own country.
Our nation is endowed with natural resources, must-visit sceneries and cultures and we have a local population with spending power and we have to be able to serve them without them heading to Dubai for quality service, increase local tourists and also meet the standards and unique needs of international tourists. That is what we want to see and our legacy to be.
However, we do not have a script on how we will expand our services. We will evolve, learn as we move forward. No company can ever be successful by just following its script and following fully the experiences of others and emulating it at home. We want to bring unique service to Ethiopia and more importantly, a strong brand that is known for its eminent and reliable conveniences.