Online hotel booking takes shape in Kenya

Estelle Verdier Watine, Jovago.com East Africa managing director says the company has been convincing tourists that traveling into and within Africa is not as expensive as it is thought.[PHOTO: LILLIANE KIARE/STANDARD]
NAIROBI, KENYA: When Estelle Verdier, a French national, arrived in Nairobi for the first time in 2006 accompanied by her brother, they got stranded. They arrived at the hotel they had booked on phone only to be turned away because it was full.

They looked for other accommodation in downtown Nairobi, but were so afraid to leave the hotel for two days since they did not know how to move around. She was angry and disturbed at the same time. Something needed to be done to address this gap. And she was going to be the one to do it.

Last July, Africa Internet Holding, a joint venture between Berlin headquartered Internet incubator Rocket Internet, MTN and telecoms operator Millicom International Cellular, wanted some tech savvy person to help launch their online hotel booking site.

She expressed interest and was chosen. She immediately got to work on the website and recruited the first partner hotels. Today, Verdier boasts of over 1,000 hotel partners in Kenya and Africa and a workforce of 30 permanent staff at the company’s offices in Westlands.

The phenomenal growth of Jovago within just one year of operation indicates the potential in online marketing in Kenya and Africa. So big is the growth that Jovago has registered a 50 per cent rise in the number of bookings through the site between June and July, with the same growth expected in the month of August.

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In Africa, most of the bookings come from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Nigeria. Outside Africa, most of the visitors are from France, United Kingdom, Germany, the United States and Canada.

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The bookings have, however, been slowed down by rising insecurity though not on a large scale. For the last two months, most tourists have transferred their bookings from Lamu and the North Coast to destinations such as Diani.

The situation has further been made worse by the renewed threat of the deadly Ebola virus that has seen calls for Kenya to stop flight operations to West Africa. “It’s growing but it would have grown much faster than this,” says Verdier in an interview. “There are so many page views but few bookings.”

In an industry dominated by many operators, including briefcase operators, Jovago has positioned itself differently. From the onset, the booking process has been made easy. The Jobavu site has also made sure that every segment of the market has been catered for, including college students and well-oiled businessmen.

“We have to make it super easy for people to book hotels,” she adds.

The site prides itself in that the rates and promises posted the site are what are actually available on the partner hotels. This is a key selling point given that most tour agents do not deliver what they promise to their clients.

“Our rates are the true rates,” she expounds.

“What you see is what you get on the hotels.”

This assurance is based on the fact that Jovago has a sales team on the ground visiting the various partner hotels often.

The site also draws a big competitive advantage from the fact that it has local rates for local residents, unlike most online booking sites which only offer international booking rates.

“On Jovago, you will find all the options,” she adds.

The company has been trying to convince as many tourists as possible that traveling into and within Africa is not as expensive as is thought by many. Verdier explains that potential travelers can consider other options such as camping, bed and breakfast and guesthouses among others.

Among the challenges faced by operators in this line of business is the fact that an online booking site is dependent on hotel managers who sometimes are not tech savvy, and so take long to conclude a booking. But there is hope, says the young manager.

“It is opening up the mind of hotel owners,” she explains.

Verdier, a 28 year old graduate in political science, business management and economics has undoubtedly made her mark in the ranks of young women executives, who have mastered the sensitive balance in juggling young families and steering the company to the top.

She gained vast experience in the telecommunication industry while serving as the product manager with Orange Kenya and previously as a junior analyst in the international business development unit of Orange at its headquarters in Paris.

Her skills in communication development and social analysis also saw her join the United Nations Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO) communication unit in Nairobi in the year 2007, before a short stint with yet another Non-Governmental Organisation, Solidarités, also based in Nairobi.

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Estelle Verdier online booking