Nomad Adventures – Tour de Force

Nomad Adventures started out offering cheap and cheerful camping overland trips in trucks to young backpackers but has developed a diverse and innovative tourism offering.

Nomad Adventures started out as a tour operator in the late 90s, exclusively built around taking people on camping tours in Africa. However, over the last 20 years, Africa and the tourist sector have both changed a great deal, and Nomad Adventures has had to change with them.

“Over the years we’ve evolved into tackling all sorts of different projects. Over the years we’ve been involved in car rental, yachts, commercial tent manufacturing because we make all of our own stuff, but we started with very cheap trips for youngsters with an average age 20,” explains Alex Rutherford, Nomad’s CEO. “The company’s evolved and grown a lot since then, and it’s had its ups and downs. The past five or six years have been about focusing on the core product, and at present, we run between 12 and 15,000 clients a year, 1,000 tours a year, with a fleet of 50 vehicles, 120 guides, and 60 office staff. We’ve got a hotel in Cape Town, a really nice art deco building, and one in Johannesburg, and effectively what we do at the moment is run two, three and four start offerings everywhere between here and Uganda.”

The average age of Nomad Adventures’ customers today is 48, although in many ways they are still serving the same generation that came out on camping trips when Nomad was just getting started.

“We’re very good at consistency and word of mouth is a massive factor in our marketing. We have a high repeat referral business. We’ve got one customer who’s spent 15 tours with us, basically grown up with us,” Rutherford says, although he admits, “We get people who come back with their kids and that makes me feel ancient!”

New Horizons

The company has recently expanded into coaches. Rutherford explains, “That’s quite a dramatic change for us, and from next year we’ll be running small vehicle land cruises up to east Africa that will probably require a base of some sort.”

While the range is expanding, the core values that the company operates on haven’t changed.

“The cornerstone of the company is we give you the best deal you can get. We can do it because we run volume so we can get good pricing,” Rutherford says. “In Namibia, for example, we’re the largest booker of government resort properties so we can pass on good savings to the client. In the beginning, we differentiated ourselves by buying only new vehicles and having very good equipment.”

When Nomad began it offered a more sophisticated experience than many of its competitors, who primarily offered self-catered trips to English customers. Over the years those competitors have taken on board a lot of Nomad’s techniques and strategies, so that even now their impact on the market is undeniable.

“Now the margins between the companies are smaller but we still bring our new, unique products,” Rutherford says. “Our trucks are unique, but we’re now riding mainly on innovation, changing our product offering structurally. Innovation, consistency and reputation.”

That innovation doesn’t happen by accident, Nomad has developed robust processes to find new and exciting ways of doing things in terms of technology, and the tour offering the company provides.

“On the vehicle side, we do standard Research and Development, taking samples, making things, testing things, design work. We do the standard innovation like any manufacturer would do,” Rutherford explains. “On the touring product side, we use a combination of things. We have guys on the road learning about new places all the time. The web makes life a lot easier because it makes the research a lot easier. When we started, we had guys going through a phone book! We do field trips, I did a two-month field trip in East Africa, looking at new locations, new routes, and that was the prelude to the launch of a new tour offering we have soon. Then there’s some gambling. You try something and it might work or might not.”

It’s a process that has led the company to introduce a number of new kinds of tour.

“We’re seeing smaller groups, shorter and more specialised tours. There are cycling, golfing, and diving tours,” Rutherford says. “Diving, in particular, has grown massively. It’s been changing in that people want to do more than dive, fortunately, Africa’s great for that because we have the best shark diving in the world. We’ve been combining the diving with the safari side of the business.”

Evolving Perceptions

While Africa’s tourism sector is evolving rapidly, sadly some things haven’t changed as quickly as we would like. One of these things is the inaccurate perception many people outside of Africa, particularly in Europe and the States, have of the continent.

“A huge proportion of the world views Africa as a country, so anything anywhere in Africa affects us,” Rutherford says. “It’s ridiculous the impact things like an Ebola outbreak can have on us when we’re further from the outbreak than Europe is! Then there’s the fact that sensitivity to problems in Africa is extremely high. A minor incident shuts down tourism. One tourist dies anywhere in Africa and the whole thing shuts down. It’s the sort of thing that happens in America or Europe just as frequently without comment, but in Africa, we feel it longer and harder.”

There are no easy solutions to this problem, only the hard work of educating people.

“There’s a fair amount of time spent trying to break it down for people, get them a sense of size and scale because they don’t have a clue how big Africa actually is, how many regional differences there are,” Rutherford points out. “With the people that know Africa ironically that mentality is still there. In those cases, we have our guys on the ground with footprints everywhere moving around talking to locals, so we provide a very good feedback loop to agents about what’s going on to allay fears. If there’s an incident or issue we know what’s going on very quickly to ensure people understand that if something happens in Kampala it has nothing to do with Namibia.”

Rutherford’s optimistic about the way perceptions have changed and will continue to change.

“One day it’ll change and it’s already better than it used to be. When I started people still had this perception of Africa as the ‘dark continent’, so access to information is improving but it’s a long way behind a lot of places.”

A New Age

The changing landscape of the tourism sector offers all kinds of exciting opportunities, but there are also costs, as Rutherford tells us, “The future of the sector is a question I’ve been fighting with because the market’s changed dramatically in a short space of time. I see sadly that camping is on the way out, I don’t even know if we’ll be running camping in five years’ time, which is a shame as that’s what we’re built on. Sitting around a fire, watching the stars, playing cards with your guests, that’s what we’re founded on and what drives me but people are moving away from it at a rapid rate, even young people.”

The new generation of holidaymakers simply isn’t big fans of the outdoors.

“They want rooms and air conditioning, and not that illusion that you’re out in the wild,” says Rutherford. “Camping was for people who loved camping or who couldn’t afford more. Ironically it seems people have more money and can afford accommodation, so people are choosing it not knowing they’ll miss out on the best experiences.”

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