Laura Griffith-Jones speaks to Chris Mears, the new Chief Operating Officer of the African Travel & Tourism Association (Atta), and hears about his plans in the role
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Surrey and was educated at boarding school, which taught me to stand on my own two feet. I was lucky enough, at school, to take part in a month-long expedition to Kenya. I decided that I needed to explore more of the continent, and from that, a lifelong passion has grown.
Why and how did you get into the tourism industry?
I took a gap year and travelled on an overland truck from London to Harare and then onwards to Cape Town. On my return, I reached out to people from my travels and started working at a specialist adventure tour operator — and haven’t looked back. Initially, my career was very much in retail. This made it possible for me to visit the continent regularly and start building contacts, many of which have developed into lifelong friendships. On one trip to Cape Town, I met Ian Yates, MD of Acacia Adventure Holidays, and a week later I was back in London about to start a 13-year stint with them, first in London and then in Cape Town.
What have you learnt from working for a tour operator and then at Heathrow Airport as Group Sales Development Manager?
For me, fostering strong relationships with the people you are working with is key, be that suppliers or agents, management or staff. This all builds trust and enhances communication. Also, have a strategy, work to it but expect it to evolve and be flexible enough to embrace the change. Things don’t always go to plan but as long as you can stay in control when they don’t, that’s okay.
What prompted you to apply for the role as COO of Atta?
Having worked for 13 years for Acacia, a member of Atta, I was familiar with the organisation. Now I have the opportunity to engage with people across the length and breadth of the continent, along with all the non-African based specialists, and to help them develop their businesses.
What are your ambitions?
We are lucky to have a strong membership base but I would like to see this grow. To do this, they need to get more out of their subscription.
What challenges do you face?
Our partner companies are varied; and while everyone is working towards the common goal of increasing tourism to Africa, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Moreover, we need to keep abreast of change: products, distribution channels and political climates are all changing. We need to have the plan in place but be ready to adapt.
Where do you think African tourism will be in 10 years?
The African tourism industry is still young and dynamic compared to more mainstream destinations. As such, it’s not shy to push the boundaries and try new things. Businesses are adapting rapidly to consumers’ demands. The continent will become more accessible, too, with more airlines opening up on more routes.
What needs to be done to improve tourism in Africa?
First, consumer awareness: people’s perception of the continent can often be far from the reality. We need to encourage all travellers to share their adventures and become advocates for African tourism. Secondly, we must invest in education on the ground. We need to inspire the next generation of guides, managers and sales people to ensure that they can provide ever-improving experiences to travellers.
What will be the impact of Brexit on African tourism?
I believe it will have an impact on British consumer behaviour in the short-term. With the pound losing value, people might travel for a shorter duration or seek better-value destinations where costs are not based in dollars. Over and above this, the fluctuating exchange rates put further pressure on tour operators’ already narrow profit margins.
Where is your favourite place?
It has to be shared between Cape Town and the Serengeti Plains. Cape Town was home for 10 years; the cosmopolitan nature of the city makes it a very enjoyable place to live, be it enjoying the many restaurants, hiking with my dogs on the slopes of Table Mountain or exploring the surrounding countryside. And the Serengeti holds a special place in my heart — the rolling grasslands teeming with wildlife in their natural habitat.
What was your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Trekking to see the mountain gorillas in then Zaire, now DRC, in 1996. I was travelling overland from London to Harare at the time. We were fortunate enough to hike only for about 10 minutes before we found the family and followed them back through our camp. Spending time with these majestic animals was awe-inspiring.
What’s next on your bucket list?
Climbing Kilimanjaro. I keep talking about it and I really need to get out there and do it!