“I guess our biggest achievement was hitting the 7 digit revenue figure last year, although COVID will now have turned that on it’s head!”
At PaxFlow, the makers of your tour & activity management software, we’re focused on helping travel professionals automate many processes within their backend office.
However, we go beyond the use of technology as a means to help tourism professionals succeed. We’re big believers in education as a tool to help you grow your travel business. Therefore, from time to time we bring in tourism experts from around the world to help educate you, our blog readers, about various ways you can grow your tourism company.
Today, PaxFlow had the opportunity to speak with Ruth Franklin, from Secret Paradise, about how she grew her tour company into a 7 figure business.
We have an exciting interview planned for you today, so without further ado, let’s jump in!
💬 Hello and thanks for joining us today to talk about your involvement in the tourism space. You work at the intersection where nature and conversation meet tourism. Can you kick off the interview by telling us what drew you towards this particular intersection? Why the focus on nature?
I discovered the Maldives almost 20 years ago, visiting as a scuba diver in search of mantas and whale sharks. I was fortunate and found a reasonably priced resort that allowed me to stay and indulge in my hobby but then came along development and my well-loved resort went luxury and beyond my price range. So I moved to diving from a boat and this also in later years enabled me to gain an understanding of local island life.
I always consider myself lucky to have found a group of Maldivian friends who would invite me to their family homes for dinner, to break fast during Ramadan and to share afternoon hedika and betel nuts! My love and appreciation of this country, its people, its culture and traditions was almost immediate and resulted in me visiting the archipelago on over 30 occasions in the years since.
In 2012 through a chance meeting over coffee on the beach the opportunity to relocate arose. I had at that point worked for UK retailer British Home Stores for over 25 years and felt it was time for a change and so with the support of a local business man, we formed Secret Paradise. Now he wanted to focus on resorts so it was probably a bit of a surprise when I turned up with my suitcase, a few of my worldly belongings and most importantly my dive gear to tell him that actually the way forward was local island tourism!
Responsible Tourism plays a very large part in what we do. We are mindful of ensuring we promote local tourism in line with Maldivian culture and beliefs and through education of both guests and locals we aim to protect the environment and limit wherever possible any negative impact to local life.
Our guests travel the Maldives with one of our local guides who between them have years of local knowledge and expertise to share. They are passionate in sharing their country’s culture, history and tradition, as well as their own personal experiences.
Our tours are designed so that guests not only experience the natural beauty and participate in activities commonly associated with the Maldives but that they have the opportunity to learn about it’s people and culture first hand.
💬 Can you tell us a little bit about your early days within the tourism industry? How difficult was it for you to get started and what were some of your most challenging early obstacles? How did you overcome them?
The Maldives is a country where the pace of life is far slower and the culture is not to do something today that can be done tomorrow or next week. I initially found it challenging to adjust from the cut and thrust of a western business operation to one where it was quite usual to be chasing for information, holding business meetings over a coffee late at night and not being able to get answers to questions immediately!
Not one to give up I worked to adapt to this cultural change but without losing my natural instincts to plan, organise and deliver in a timely fashion. I coached those working with me in the art of prompt clear communication, teamwork and efficiency.
Not all potential business partners could meet the expectations initially set out and in order to maintain the integrity of Secret Paradise a few hard decisions and conversations had to be made. The feedback we receive from our local partners is that with Secret Paradise they know where they stand, information is clear and structured, payment for their services is on time and the relationship is both supportive and professional.
Whilst Maldivians are naturally friendly and hospitable most are not natural born leaders and punctuality is not a strong trait. The resort industry is based on a culture where the service provider is there to ensure the guest enjoys a holiday of relaxation, doing what they wish when they wish, with the guest taking the lead.
For Secret Paradise we had to coach our guides in the concept of leading a group of guests that were following a set itinerary whilst still ensuring all guest needs were met but not to the detriment of the group. The assistance of our International adventure partners has aided this through on the job coaching when representatives joined a tour as well as through online training.
Probably our biggest challenge as well as our greatest achievement has been growing brand awareness. We were promoting a brand that specialised in a tourism product that no-one knew existed. Through various channels including online, social media, print publications, fairs, press releases, editorials, word of mouth, awareness continues to grow however, you only have to speak to a number of people to know that we have only just scraped the surface.
Secret Paradise has maintained good relationships with both MMPRC and the Ministry of Tourism. We are an active member of MMPRC and support has never not been there. We have been able to share the Maldives stand at trade fairs alongside the ‘big boys’ and our marketing material has been distributed at fairs we have not attended.
💬 What have been some of your biggest success milestones along the way? Remember the more specific you can be here, the better.
Tourism has seen an increase in demand for experiential travel opportunities. Meeting and travelling with local people and seeing the Maldives through their eyes allows guests to connect with locals and enhance their trip. No one should know the Maldives better than a Maldivian and hence why with the exception of myself the Secret Paradise team is 100% local which is not common in the Maldives and something I am very proud of.
We were long listed for the 2015 World Responsible Tourism Awards and have been awarded the TripAdvisor certificate of Excellence 5 years in succession, we are the number one provider of day tours in the capital.
I guess our biggest achievement was hitting the 7 digit revenue figure last year, although COVID will now have turned that on it’s head!
💬 Since you began your career in tourism, how have you seen the industry change over time? What are some of the biggest shifts you’ve seen? What do you think these shifts are a result of?
Over recent years the terms responsible tourism, sustainable tourism and ecotourism have become common vocabulary within the travel industry.
Travelers increasingly want to take steps to cut their holidays’ environmental impact.
According to the 2019 Booking.com survey, 86% of global travelers would be willing to engage with activities that counteract the environmental impact of their trip – whether that be helping with beach cleaning projects or consciously booking more eco-friendly stays.
71% of travelers think that travel companies should offer consumers more sustainable travel choices. 73% of travelers intended to stay in an eco-accommodation in 2019, up from 68% in 2018 and 65% in 2017. Around 77% of all consumers state that they trust companies that produce or offer ethnically correct products.
The transition then from mass tourism to sustainable tourism is I would suggest not simply a temporary fad but an unavoidable step to combine our responsibility as operators towards the environment, the needs of our guests and the economic interests of our destination and local communities.
Budget travel has created huge demand for more planes in the sky, more ships crossing the seas and more vehicles traveling the length and breadth of countries. The increase in travel has had a huge impact on the environment and pollution. Many people have taken to the streets protesting for our governments to intervene and help us save the planet. But the changes were simply not enough to make the impact needed to make a long-lasting difference.
But during the Covid-19 lock down, something quite amazing happened – the earth started to heal. The environment started to replenish, animals that hadn’t been seen for years in certain areas came out of hiding, smog filled cities could now be seen from satellites in space, the largest ever ozone hole was reported to have healed itself – this can’t be a coincidence can it?
💬 I’m sure experience design plays a big role in what you do as a nature tour operator. Tell us a little bit more about how you go about designing “experience”? What are some of the most challenging parts of this process?
There are two key environmental topics in the Maldives, rubbish and the preservation of marine life that guests will most often raise with us. Therefore we have tried wherever possible to touch on these in all our tours. This may be through educational presentations made by the guide, engaging guests with NGOs or briefings.
The Maldives struggles to eliminate all the rubbish produced by over 1 million tourists per year and whilst educating locals in waste management is all part of a larger project, we encourage our guests to support this in a number of ways.
Lead by example and don’t drop rubbish, reuse or refuse plastic bags in shops and we encourage it as a point of conversation between our guides and the local community with guests. Since the introduction of guest houses there has been a noticeable difference in how locals view rubbish. Areas frequented by tourists are becoming litter free but we still have some way to go to widen this mind-set to include the whole island.
A treasure trove of marine life” is perhaps the best way to describe the Maldives and this ecosystem is fragile. Many people, locals and tourists alike do not realise that even a single touch can kill coral or infect marine life. Secret Paradise is a member of Project Aware and we support Green Fins encouraging safe and responsible snorkelling practices.
💬 Let’s talk a little bit more about sales and growth now. When you were first getting started, how did you go about finding your first customers? How has that process evolved over time?
Providing both multi-day tours and single day tours. Most operators do one or the other. By having two pillars we had a more stable cash-flow and used private day tours to keep her guides busy.
The day tours meant we ranked on TripAdvisor and this in turn assisted SEO.
We chose a website provider that had a background in tours and activities. Attending trade shows at the beginning of our journey to build awareness although do far less of this now and network frequently through LinkedIn as this allows us to focus on the businesses that share our values and ethos.
Looked at alternative Distribution Channels and made a list of websites that were relevant to us then reached out to them through email or Linkedin.
Social media. Facebook has been a major component of our marketing, with thousands of likes and nearly 50 positive reviews on our Facebook page. Developed business to include DMC services representing a number of worldwide travel brands.
Creating an understanding through our blog, articles in the media, advice given online, that we are experts in this field has most definitely led to business generation both B2B and B2C. Encouragingly we now often have businesses contact us based on our reputation and the style of product we provide.
💬 Tell us a little bit more about how big of a role the internet plays in your success? What are your three biggest online organic growth channels?
Pre Covid-19 People are traveling further and more often to places they never could have imagined being able to afford to visit 20-30 years ago. With online bookings taking precedence over the traditional travel agent, the demand for reviews, images, videos and a strong online presence has taken over.
But the most damaging part of this for the tourism industry has been the price war. Whether it is a daily deal website or a price comparison website people have become accustomed to search for the cheapest deals rather than the best quality and experience.
This has not only affected companies but the experience of the traveler. The low budget traveler expects the same standards and service as the high spend traveler, yet the budget is not there to support this, thus many travelers report poor travel/service experiences. What they actually mean is; “The company was unable to cater for the standards I was expecting based on the price I paid”.
The challenge with the price comparison websites and the online war is that companies are forced to reduce their prices far below a sustainable rate for the business to thrive and survive. This then causes a domino effect because if the profit is not strong, staff can not be paid as well as they should be and often the quality of what they are providing can slip. There is a high turnover of staff in the hospitality industry and if the staff are paid less, the suppliers are expected to compete with rock bottom prices and it causes all associated industries to be affected financially which of course has a huge impact on the global economy.
Companies that were running on low budgets and taking short cuts may be those that unfortunately are not able to weather this storm. Travelers will be seeking more than ever, companies who take health and hygiene seriously with an emphasis on standards and quality. They will be more vigilant than ever before and only the strong contenders will be able to cater for this demand.
For the short term we will see domestic travel strengthen and any long-haul travel will be very carefully considered with the choice of travel providers scrutinised before bookings are made.
💬 What are some of the biggest mistakes you see new tour operators make when they first enter the market? How can new tour operators avoid these mistakes in the first place?
Never stop researching. Understand your destination and the changes and patterns of tourism. Understand worldwide travel and tourism trends. Don’t be afraid to make annual changes to tours based on this information and on the feedback of your clients.
Thank you greatly for taking the time to chat with PaxFlow’s blog readers today Ruth. We really appreciate it. To our blog audience, if you’d like to learn more about Ruth Franklin and the work she does, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her website here.