As befits its name, Nomad Tours never stands still. We caught up with company founder Alex Rutherford once again, to get the latest on this ever-evolving tour company’s most recent developments. We got more than we expected: what Alex shared with us this year described a change not only for his clients, but potentially, for the entire African group tour trade, with Nomad blazing the trail.
Nomad Tours never seems to take time off. The tour company provides a variety of travel packages around Southern and Eastern Africa that allow visitors to explore the continent’s beauty, both natural, historical and modern, in a variety of ways that cater to everyone. Its vast range of available tours and travel styles, and the company’s well-trained and friendly guide and support staff, have long marked it out from its competitors and, as always, it is still at work growing and improving what it offers. We spoke with Alex Rutherford, company founder and CEO, about the various changes his company is celebrating this year, from acquired assets to new services, and something far more revolutionary.
As implied by their name, Nomad Tours are about being on the move: “Most tour companies are destination companies. It’s as clichéd as it comes, but we’re about the journey, not the destination. We cover the destinations, but the experience is also in the travel.” Whether you opt to camp or to stay in accommodation along the way, Nomad Tours puts an emphasis on making the experience of traveling through Africa as rewarding as possible, from its high-quality tour vehicles to the routes they take and the attitude they foster. “It’s meeting people, moving – that road trip vibe. Several people have even met each other and come back to us years later with kids!”
That said, even the hardiest of campers want to end up somewhere comfortable to recuperate at the end of their trek, and Nomad Tours has always seen to this need by beginning and ending its tours at a high-quality hotel in a tourism-rich area. Like its stops along the way, sometimes these hotels are run by other companies, but recently, Nomad has invested in a new property of its own.
The company currently owns a property in Johannesburg, one of its operational hubs, and has now acquired one in its other main hub, Cape Town. Like Goldilocks, Nomad searched Cape Town for a location that wasn’t too big, but wasn’t too small. Predictably, there is a great deal of accommodation available in the capital, so Nomad was also searching for something with a little difference. It finally found that in a four-star hotel with an original Art Deco design, combining clean minimalism with some iconic, decorative features. On top of this, the hotel is located right in the middle of Cape Town; all in all, it was a perfect find, so in Alex’s words, Nomad “jumped on it”.
Nomad has many initiatives that set it apart from its competitors, from its customised tour vehicles that it builds in-house to its flexible and wide-ranging list of activities and locations. One tour style that the company has been developing for some years is the “Big Five and Dive”, which combines diving and safari for the ultimate experience of Africa’s wildlife. Whilst this is a concept that the company has marketed for a number of years, it has taken some time to catch on, as it is not a way of experiencing Africa that serious divers are used to. However, recently, it has taken off: “Traditionally, divers only really do two things: they either stay at a resort and dive, or they stay on a boat and dive from there. So, Big Five and dive was a strange concept for a lot of them. We struggled for a few years to get it moving properly, and then last year, the momentum just suddenly started, and it’s exploded. Over the six months from November to March, we’re going to probably run around 40 tours of 15-20 people each, which is quite an improvement from maybe ten tours a year.”
The Big Five and Dive tours allow tourists to see the famous ‘Big Five’ of African wildlife (lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants and Cape buffalo) as well as engaging in advanced underwater exploration. This isn’t for entry-level divers – these tours go to specialised locations, which is why they have needed to wait for the serious diving market to come around to them. As well as offering more to the divers themselves, this tour style also offers more to those who travel with them: “Often, the diver’s partner isn’t a diver themselves, so they’re left stranded whilst the other person is having a great time. These tours have been built so the partner has activities of their own – safari and excursions – while the others are diving.” Diving season (November to March) is Nomad’s ‘off’ season, meaning that they have the staff and resources available to cater to these tours, and will greatly boost their profits from this portion of the year if interest continues to grow.
Traditionally, Nomad Tours offers the ability to explore Southern and Eastern Africa through either camping or accommodated treks, offering their custom-designed tour vehicles and overseeing everything themselves. This level of guidance and control came from Alex’s desire to share his love of Africa with the world in a safe, secure and smoothly-run way – a dream that was inspired when he saw the state of the industry a little over a decade ago. “In 1996, I did a trans-Africa tour from London to Cape Town, where I met some of the UK companies, and back then, it was very Wild West. I looked at what was going on with some of these tours and it was not good. So, I thought, ‘There’s a gap in this market for someone to do this properly.’”
This responsibility has become a defining aspect of Nomad Tours, covering everything from highly-trained guides to carefully constructed vehicles and close relationships with the locations and venues that tourists are taken to experience. Now that this culture of safety is in place, however, Alex has found that increasing numbers of tourists want to set out on their own – especially as Africa becomes a better-known entity. Responding to this need, Nomad now offers the service of assisting in the planning and booking of a self-driven tour for couples and small groups who want to go it alone. However, like their supervised tours, these are run carefully and with security measures in place: “Having a guide with them is an option. We’ve got about 100 tour guides, so we’ve got plenty available for those trips. A big part of it, either way, is that we’re of course on standby. They have a number they can call if there’s any drama, because we know the people who know how to solve problems.”
“I’ve shied away from this style of tour in the past because, to be honest, it’s over-traded. There’s a lot of middle men, the markup is high, and the value is questionable sometimes. However, the demand has been on the increase.” In order to “cover the back door”, as Alex put it, Nomad conceded that it was better to offer this option, and to do it well, than to compete with it. Its strong bonds with the locations that visitors can book, and with support services in the area, mean that visitors can trust in where they are choosing to travel, and that a safety net exists for them, if needed. In the past, Nomad may have defined itself by its physical presence, fleet and resources, but what it really trades in is local knowledge. “We’re specialists in Southern and East Africa, and the question has always been ‘How do you want to see that?’ We’re just extending that conversation.”
One area that Alex has no desire to expand into, however, is vehicle hire. Expanding into this side of the business would be a completely different animal, requiring huge investment in assets and locations, and entirely new logistical considerations. Instead, the company subcontracts and helps holiday makers to hire vehicles from reliable local providers.
However, Nomad’s starting point and greatest source of pride has always been its group tours, and it is in this area that Alex has made his greatest development. Pricing for tours such as these has long operated in a curious way. When this type of travel began some 30 years ago, it was difficult to send money abroad, and so payment for tour packages would break down into two halves: one half would be paid to the travel agent in a holiday maker’s own country, and the other half would be paid in Africa. This ‘local payment’ would not always happen in one go, however: more often, it would actually be made in multiple payments, to the guides, venues and caterers themselves whilst travelling. This is not an optimum way to travel when on an organised tour, where one might expect everything to be paid for and taken care of already. “It’s still a messy situation, and it’s confusing to a customer. It’s misleading, in that you look at a price and it’s not the price. You find people running out of money, or needing to switch to their credit card, and they’re not happy about it.”
As technology has advanced, the difficulty in sending money abroad has been resolved, and yet the system that evolved 30 years ago has remained. This outdated and stressful system is no longer necessary, and Alex wanted to see it resolved. However, long-established practices are hard to re-write: “The commission structure was very high on the base price – much higher than anything else in tourism. So, that legacy has dragged along into the modern era with most companies.”
To combat this, Nomad decided to offer an all-inclusive tour, where clients truly could pay for everything up-front, with no hidden or surprise costs. The commission structure made this aim difficult, as did the organisation and agreement needed between Nomad and the various companies it works with. “We’ve gone in incremental steps, with a lot of hard negotiating with suppliers, because it’s guaranteed business. A lot of modern companies don’t force this local payment – people can choose not to include it.” In an all-inclusive deal, local suppliers do not risk missing out on these payments, and so signing up to the plan made financial sense. However, there were a few surprising factors that threatened to make Alex’s plans fall short of his vision:
“My goal was to be all inclusive – that’s first prize. To say that you’re ‘more inclusive’ than someone else isn’t as strong as ‘all inclusive’. In this industry, no-one else offers all-inclusive – it’s not an option. So, we broke down what we needed to make that final split, and it didn’t boil down to a lot. It came down to, believe it or not, meals, certain add-on activities, and water.” By removing activities that may not appeal to everyone and calculating the cost of meals, Nomad was able to pull everything together. The only hurdle left was water.
“It sounds ridiculous, but it’s quite a factor.” Nomad provides water, but clients often choose to buy bottled water instead, which is an added expense for them, and an environmental issue that Alex has tried in the past to avoid. “We make sure that the water they have access to is safe, but people want to have a sealed bottle. You can imagine 20 people, on 50 vehicles – that’s 1000 people – buying plastic bottles every day…it’s horrendous.”
Alex wanted to cut down on this plastic waste, but found that providing free, clean water wasn’t enough: people needed to see evidence that what they were drinking was safe. “Most people agree with the principle – they just want an answer that satisfies their other concerns. So, we’re going to give it to them. We’ve designed and built onboard water purification from a sealed source. So, they’ll be able to see that their water is actually purified onboard, with them, in the travelling area. That should stop the plastic story.”
Absorbing the local payment into the package price does mean that Nomad’s tours have, at a glance, gone up in cost, though in reality this streamlining will not only save their clients stress, but funds. Still, there is the risk that some bookings will be lost, if on the surface, Nomad seems to be priced higher than its competitors.
“I’m hoping the pluses will outweigh the minuses. We’ll lose some bookings, obviously, but I’m hoping we’ll gain bookings as well. We’ll stand out from the crowd, which is what we’ve always tried to do.”
Nomad has always strived to provide the best customer experience possible, and this is what has marked it out from its competition year after year. With this change, clients will have a smoother experience than ever before, and that is sure to attract not only new clients, but will keep bringing previous clients back. Nomad already enjoys a high level of repeat business, which speaks of its competence and quality more clearly than anything we can say:
“We get a lot of repeat business – a huge amount. I’ve got a lady on tour who’s on her eleventh tour with us. There’s a lot to see in Africa, and we do cover a lot of ground, so you can quite comfortably come and do three, four, five different tours and see completely new things on each tour every day. And, Africa has a bug about it. When people come here, they come back. It’s not a one-off destination.”
Africa is not a one-off, and neither is Nomad. Alex may credit the draw to return to Africa to the continent itself, and whilst he’d be right, it is Nomad who allow people to safely and enjoyably experience these sights time and again. The company’s genuine love for its continent and its clients, and its constant efforts to stay fresh and up to date, all keep Nomad Tours set apart from the crowd. Alex joked that he’s finally slowing down in how many changes he has to tell us about, but from what we can see, he’s as busy as ever, working to provide clients with the best tours the company can provide, whilst striving to perform at an ever-greater standard.