Saaleh Said Shimasy is a seasoned travel agent who has been arranging and planning travel packages for people for 25 years. His company, Shimasy Travel Company Limited has grown into one of the region’s leading Hajj and Umra agency, chartering a 280 capacity jet to ferry pilgrims to the holy sites of Makka and Madina for their annual pilgrimage.
To the uninformed, Hajj is the main pilgrimage that Muslims are required to perform at least once in their lifetime. Umra is also a pilgrimage but one of less significance.
The Shimo la Tewa alumni took up a position with Saudi Airlines after clearing his A-levels where he served for 15 years before settling back into the country to launch his own travel agency.
He says part of his motivation to begin his company was the need to demystify air travel to the local population as well as encourage citizens of his country of birth to travel the world. The intricate process of pilgrimage to the Holy Cities of Makka and Madina in Saudi Arabia was another reason for Shimasy to get into this business. He wanted to simplify the process.
What lessons does he have after 25 years in business?
1. Have clear cut objectives
Have your ‘why’ starting out. Working for Saudi Airlines, I identified a niche in the market for Hajj packages where pilgrims to Makka would be offered an improved experience. Millions travel from all over the world and converge in one place to conduct Hajj rituals over a 10-day period. Among other things, they have to go round the Kaaba (black stone) and observe a vigil at the plain of Arafat and are also expected to observe other rituals in different other areas of the Hajj area. All these require orientation and guidance, especially for the new pilgrims. I observed that pilgrims from other countries had an easier time than Kenyans. So I studied their processes and fashioned the company. I established my business to facilitate travel to the holy land. There was a gap. That is my why. The business has over time grown to include other aspects of a travel agency to every destination of the world.
2. Always improve
You have to grow or you die. Find what works for your business and employ it. Study all successful companies and you will see that they innovate.
We started out with our speciality which was the Hajj Package but as soon as we launched, our business expanded to include entire travel packages for individuals as well as corporate groups. Over time we moved from just simplifying travel by offering consultation and advice to clients to offering the entire package of booking flights, cruises, rental cars as well as accommodation.
3. Have that one special offering you are known for
Besides all that we do, we ensure our signature service is second to none. Hajj and Umra give us an edge as a special travel agency. And to keep it that way, we are always at the top of our game when it comes to that. Besides organising for visas and tickets of the pilgrims, we charter planes to airlift our clients to the holy land where we take care of them for 21 days. That is giving them ample time to acclimatise, familiarise and get accustomed to the 10-day lifetime ritual they will be performing. Our jet usually has a 280-person capacity. We send guides among the group as marshals to accompany and instruct pilgrims on Hajj requirements to ensure they enjoy the ultimate experience. This pillar of Islam(Hajj) is one where individuals save their entire lives to fulfil making it imperative that a travel agent handling the group does not cut corners. What Is the one special service or product your business is known for?
4. Get the right staff and train them well
Good staff will take a business far. Bad staff can kill it too. For my business, staff with a degree in travel and tourism-related courses make for the ideal employees. But anyhow, staff hired must be trained to suit your particular needs. An agency like ours which specialises in the Indian Sub-Continent, Middle and the Far- East will, of course, require staff who are familiar with our area of operation and what clients who travel to those areas require. We therefore train and prepare them to handle our particular clients with all their special specifications.
5. Set and meet targets
I adorn my office with trophies and certificates we have had the privilege of receiving from different airlines over the years to always remind staff that we are a target-oriented outfit. Each certificate we get is framed and hung along the wall for that purpose. If let's say Kenya Airways have given us a target of Sh 10 million, I mobilise my staff so that collectively we hit our target and when finally we get a trophy for it at the end of the year, we all celebrate knowing that it was the team that achieved that particular success. In a way, it also serves to motivate staff as well.
6. Maintaining the right attitude and extolling the virtues of contentment
A certain airline CEO who regularly travels to Mombasa visits regularly and whenever he enquires how we are doing, my answer is always Alhamdulillah (Thank God) to imply everything is great. He once asked me why I always say that everything is OK when other travel agents are decrying the difficult times. I look at it this way; as a team, we put in our best and are satisfied with our effort. Therefore, we maintain an objective outlook as a policy. Whining every time is retrogressive and shouldn’t be encouraged especially in a client-based organisation. Attitude matters a lot.
7. Maintain your mental, physical and spiritual health
By common standards, I am an old man, but I still maintain a six-day work schedule and may not be slowing down anytime soon. My routine involves waking up at four in the morning, reciting the Quran and heading to the mosque at a quarter to five. Afterwards, I swim several laps, take breakfast then get to the office by 8am.
The fact that I include physical exercise in my routine ensures that I keep fit. The Quran and prayers besides according me peace with my maker, are my main source of tranquillity throughout the day. That way I can withstand the hustles and bustles associated with my line of work.
8. Build your brand on the foundation of ethics
No business, especially in the service industry can succeed unless it is conducted within strong moral principles. We may not advertise much but when we do what we said we would, word gets around and we win clients who will always be proud to associate with Shimasy.
Integrity, and of course the grace of Allah is what has helped raise this business to the success it is enjoying today. When I resigned from my job in Saudi, the network of associates who helped me begin the business stood by me because they trusted me. I remember it took me a year before I got my International Air Travel Association (IATA) certification but we kept busy all that time as clients could get served even as we awaited our certification.
9. Know your pain points and be proactive
This being a capital intensive business requires a lot of patience especially in dealing with clients. We deal with individuals, government agencies as well as national departments some of whom face challenges and may sometimes fail to pay in time. Then we have clients who require lots of follow up to pay what they owe, and this has to be done with patience and tact or you will end up losing clients in the process of collecting debts.