Dutch dotcom entrepreneur Wouter Vergeer, founder and co-owner of online marketplace SafariBookings, fell in love with Africa when he visited Tanzania in 2003. “It made me feel like a guest in a world ruled by animals,” he says. “It was a humbling moment that sparked my passion for the continent.”
At the time of booking his first trip, Wouter found that he was unable to compare and book safaris online. “It took forever to locate and compare offers from different safari companies,” he recalls. “In 2003 it was already common to compare and book flights or hotels online, so I was wondering why there wasn’t such a platform for safari tours – because there was clearly a need for one.”
But, tied up with other business, he put this idea on the backburner. Wouter, still only in his 30s, had started out in business at the tender age of 19, building websites for other people. When Google first burst onto the scene, he was one of the first to recognise the impact it would have; an insight that saw the size of his business rocket, numbering around 12 companies at its height.
He returned to Tanzania in 2008. “And again, I ran into the same problem,” he says.
A year later, having sold all his businesses, this time Wouter was free to do something about it.
“In the US they have a business term for this – ‘scratching your own itch’,” he says. “The idea for a platform to compare safari offers was still very much alive and, after some research, I still couldn’t find signs of anybody else working on this. That was when I decided to hire some of the best members from my previous team, and we started work on creating SafariBookings.”
But, it wasn’t all plain sailing. “I had earned my stripes as an Internet veteran but I was a safari rookie,” he says.
This prompted Wouter, known for being a ‘realistic idealist’ among his friends, to take a different approach. “I had travelled a lot over the years, so I knew what a traveller would want from such a website. However, my lack of knowledge regarding Africa and safaris was a problem. To solve this I created the SafariBookings Expert Panel and managed to get many seasoned experts, such as guidebook authors, to fill that gap.”
The website launched in 2013. “It took us two-and-a- half years and a vast part of my personal capital,” says Wouter. Since then it has become, he says, “the largest marketplace for African safaris and a partner of strategic importance for many safari companies”.
More than 1000 tour operators now actively use SafariBookings and “most of them get about 50% to 80% of their total business through us”.
It’s a portal that benefits operators and safarigoers alike. “Before SafariBookings, it was virtually impossible for small- and mid-sized tour operators to market their trips to a global audience. They simply didn’t have the marketing knowledge or budget. We enable them to do just that,” Wouter adds. “This has been well received by travellers too, because these smaller, often family-run, operators offer great service and highly competitive rates.”
But it’s not just about providing a service and making a living, Africa is very much in Wouter’s heart and it determines the company’s philosophy.
He explains: “The more I travel and learn in life, the more difficult I find it to have a clear opinion about many things. Right, wrong and truth are all relative concepts, after all. What I do see, though, is that conservation in Africa needs help, and we want to contribute.
“Africa is a continent with many contradictions and great differences in countries, cultures, ethnic groupings, histories and levels of development. It is also clear to me that pushing Western ideas and solutions onto Africa is an arrogant and misguided endeavour.
“I believe that policymakers often ignore the complexities of such a diverse continent to the detriment of local communities. I think it gets back to respecting local cultures and communities and making sure they are included in any decision-making that impacts their future. It sounds good, but I would love to see its practical application a lot more frequently.
“So, my philosophy about Africa is just as much about what we should not think and should not do. And that is perhaps even more valuable. With regard to people visiting Africa, I think approaching the continent with a clear mind and an open heart is a good place to start.”
As for technology, and specifically the Internet, this has changed the travel industry completely. “People don’t need travel agents to book flights or hotels anymore. Transfers can often also be booked online. Having said that, the safari industry is one of the few sectors where this impact has been less.
“It is more knowledge driven than other travel sectors. You need to know a country well before you’re able to design a tour that makes sense. You want to visit the right destinations at the right time and have a clear plan about how to get around. As a result, knowledgeable local and overseas travel agents still offer a lot of added value.
“While the safari industry is behind in terms of technology – for example, in most cases, tour operators still have to call or email accommodations to check availability – a lot has changed for it, too.
“The biggest change is that the Internet has made everything more transparent. Reviews openly distinguish the good safari companies from the bad. And many tour operators have embraced reviews [as a way to enhance their business]. Most of them now openly communicate their rates, and this makes it easier for travellers to judge if they are paying a fair price.”
SafariBookings is the world’s largest online resource for planning a safari. You can easily compare specialised safaris offered by more than 2000 tour operators or use its expert content on Africa and independent reviews to decide where and when to travel. www.safaribookings.com