BUSINESS TOURISM

Why creating innovative new concepts in the hotel industry is becoming such an important trend

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Be it a hotel in a converted power station wrapped around existing machinery, luxury accommodation in treehouses in a rain forest, a converted jailhouse, a contemporary ice hotel or a floating hotel in the Indian Ocean, the concept of unconventional accommodation of a more creative and innovative nature is nothing new.

These out of the box hotel concepts have been popping up across the globe from time to time for many years. To reiterate: it’s nothing new.

What is new, however, is the fact that we are seeing the face of innovation in the hotel industry more often than ever before — and unusual hotel concepts are now becoming quite a popular trend for various reasons, prompting businesses offering accommodation to be a lot more innovative in order to gain, maintain and retain a competitive edge.

Impressing with innovative accommodation concepts at the recent 2019 Africa’s Travel Indaba in Durban, was the Thebe Group’s introduction of two new creative projects. The first was the launch of a static luxury train hotel to be stationed atop the historical Shalati Bridge in the Kruger National Park, and the second, the introduction of the Chiefs Mobile Luxury Tented Camps (a spectacular pop-up hotel concept).

Explore caught up with Thebe Tourism Group CEO, Jerry Mabena, to find out just how important innovation is in the tourism space, and in particular in the hotel industry.

Mabena says it is of utter importance for South Africa to embark on more innovative products than in the past, as from an international point of view, for most international travellers, South Africa is a long-haul destination.

“Effectively we are competing with some of the more affordable European destinations and very affordable Far East. So price becomes a secondary issue. Somewhere along the line we need to create iconic destinations or unusual venues which we can use to give potential visitors a reason to travel for 12 or 13 hours to have an amazing experience,” he says.

Looking at the South African market, Mabena says local travellers also have so much to choose from, and given the current economic climate, locals are seeking the more interesting places to experience within the country. “Innovative thinking can lead to new and exciting sites and destinations, and that will lead to local travellers choosing to stay on local shores, opposed to travelling abroad — be it on holiday or on business trips,” he says.

According to Mabena, the younger people in the industry can play a key role in driving the thinking processes, as young people are not risk averse and jaded and are keen to try new things. “We just need to create room for them to come into these spaces”.

Mabena believes that companies that will not embrace innovation and are not identifying new experiences, will stagnate as they will not corner the current markets and will be left behind.

But embarking on such new concepts does have its own unique challenges and companies interested in starting such elaborate pioneering projects need to familiarise themselves with the challenges associated with innovation before they dive in. Funding is a big issue and Mabena says that South African financial institutions are not designed to support these types of projects at the moment, therefore investors need look at alternative non-traditional funding methods.

When looking at creating new concepts, Mabena confesses to have a very strong bias towards projects that will also give opportunities for local or rural communities in terms of job creation and skills development.

“We are committed to developing iconic and unique tourism products, which enhances the lives of communities. In the case of the Kruger Shalati Bridge, there was an opportunity to develop a unique and superior African travel experience that not only complements the Kruger National Park, but also creates job opportunities and SMME development opportunities, all the while bringing a unique part of Kruger’s history to life.”

His advice to other companies interested in taking the innovative approach in tourism, is to seek opportunities in unusual and unique destinations that might not normally be accessible to travellers — and not to look back.

“Sometimes when you look back you see all the negativity. And that will have an impact on innovation and creativity and will not solve challenges that you might come up against in the future.”

In Mabena’s experience, new ideas and innovation appears very good from the outside, but he says it’s a hard grind. “It’s sleepless nights. It’s messy. It’s not easy. But you have to keep on believing in it. When the chips are down then all you have is your belief.”

Lindsay King

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