Alex Sudheim31 Aug 2023 15 min
In this ongoing series of articles, we profile some of South Africa’s most modern and progressive businesses and reflect upon their secrets to success. The companies we feature are drawn from a diverse range of industries across the country. But they all have one thing in common: the implementation of technology in innovative and original ways to generate smarter strategies and optimised outcomes.
For the well-heeled adventure-seekers of the world, Rhino Africa is a household name. Even though the company is just shy of its twentieth birthday, it has already been voted Africa’s Leading Safari Company for a record eight times in the prestigious World Travel Awards. Here it was also anointed Africa’s Leading Luxury Tour Operator in 2020 and World’s Leading Safari Company in 2021. It also bagged a coveted Tripadvisor Certificate of Excellence for consistently receiving outstanding traveller reviews.
These kinds of kudos aren’t earned by accident. Such stratospheric levels of recognition are the end result of relentless dedication, commitment and passion for doing what one loves. Which, in Rhino Africa’s case, is showcasing Africa’s breathtaking beauty to the world at large. For this profile of our illustrious customer, we spoke to Brad Mitchell, Head of Performance Marketing at Rhino Africa, to obtain a deeper understanding of how this Cape Town company has come to rule the African safari roost.
Of course there is no known magic formula for instant success. If it was as easy as making a cup of Ricoffy we’d all be sipping Mai Tais on our private islands. Nevertheless, it is possible to distil from Rhino Africa’s remarkable arc from start-up to superstar into seven broad, overlapping themes.
It goes without saying that a clearly defined and scrupulously designed vision is an essential ingredient for just about any undertaking driven to reap the richest rewards. The more detailed, granular and articulate this vision, the better. Setting goals, objectives and targets whilst developing the strategies and tactics most likely to achieve this vision is obligatory. Remaining steadfastly focused on said vision is the sine qua non of success.
For Rhino Africa, this vision, from its founding in 2004 to the present day, is to leverage the power of the internet to revolutionise the luxury African safari market. Many a vision is catalysed by a powerful insight. In Rhino Africa’s case, according to Brad, “nobody was taking advantage of the internet in the travel realm.” David Ryan, the company’s founder and CEO, recognised the massive untapped potential here and wasted no time in seizing the opportunity by the scruff of its neck. Ryan’s inner entrepreneur realised he was in the right place at the right time and might just have the right product – luxury African safaris custom-designed online – to carve out a whole new niche in the market.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and it’s clear as day that Rhino Africa has baked a magnificent malvapoeding. “We’ve gone from four people around a dining room table to the largest safari company in Africa with 115 full-time colleagues,” says Brad. “In the past 19 years we’ve developed into one of the leading forces in the travel industry with a singular focus on the luxury African travel market.”
Although a specialist in land-based adventures, Rhino Africa operates much like that aquatic apex predator, the shark, in that it continuously propels itself forward. As Brad puts it: “One of the big things with us is how important innovation – and the timing of the innovation – is. Rhino Africa has the ‘better never stops’ attitude imprinted in its DNA. Yes, we celebrate our wins and reflect upon our successes but this very quickly leads to the questions: ‘What’s next?’; ‘What can we do more?’ and ‘How are we improving?’ When the wheels don’t stop turning, you don’t stop moving.”
“Growth, innovation and development all come naturally when you have that kind of mindset,” says Brad. “Being committed to moving forward no matter what, taking learnings from everything you do – that’s fundamental. How are you constantly innovating? How are you always moving the needle? It’s often not just about being better, but being better at being different. That, together with knowing what you’re good at and really developing that, is what fuels the forward momentum. We’ve certainly had our ups and downs – the ebolas and the covids – but through all of this, the one thing that has remained a constant for us is that we have always valued innovation and evolution.”
Innovation of the technological kind is non-negotiable for most modern companies committed to being at the forefront of their industries. Rhino Africa has certainly been ahead of the pack in harnessing the power of the internet as a cornerstone of its business model. However, being highly attuned to the needs of their audience in order to deliver world-class customer service has also seen them make the most of communications technology such as VoIP, specifically the Freedom platform from Voys.
“We’re based in Cape Town but have clients from every corner of the planet,” says Brad. “That brings its own challenges, but using the system from Voys allows us to communicate and connect with people in our uniquely personal way. Individual consultants specialise in certain niches of our business and, knowing that when our office phone rings, the call can be set to automatically route to the consultant’s cellphone via the 4G app – wherever on the planet they may be – that’s power. It’s magical. It creates a perfectly seamless experience for both customer and colleague,” he continues. “It means no-one is ever unreachable. In our line of business, that’s a tremendous advantage.”
“Our ultimate goal is that of being able to serve our customer, so being able to pick up the phone and get hold of them – or have them get hold of us – is everything,” says Brad. “It changes the game when wherever you are is your office. Being able to work at full capacity whether you’re in the bush or in the office is invaluable. In the modern world and in our industry, when you need to be always reachable yet are always on the move, Freedom is the solution that hits the bullseye as far as I’m concerned,” he maintains.
“Rhino Africa certainly pioneered the use of the internet within the African travel space. Be it the design of our website; the production of content; the creation of new product offerings or simply how we operate, we are always looking to push the boundaries to take us to the next level,” reflects Brad. “The company was founded on the leap of faith required to wholeheartedly embrace digital at a time when no-one else in the local travel industry was doing so. A keen appreciation of how the future shapes the present, as well as early adoption of the technologies and methodologies that enable this, is key to the philosophy we embrace,” he says.
Rhino Africa’s own origin story is a great example of how being dialled in to the new is crucial to continued success. “Rhino Africa launched at the exact point in time when our source market overseas started to become comfortable with purchasing and transacting online,” says Brad. “This wasn’t quite the case yet in South Africa which is possibly why other SA companies didn’t pounce upon the opportunity as swiftly as we did. When you’re operating in international markets, you have to be up to speed or you’ll be left behind,” he says.
“Thereafter, building our audience came quite naturally and organically, although of course it took a fair amount of time and no small degree of effort to establish our name and cement our brand recognition. Given the premium we place upon always being at the forefront of the new, we are continually looking to optimise our offering to offer our customers the best possible experience,” concludes Brad.
Over the years, Rhino Africa has pioneered a whole new way of showcasing the multifaceted beauty of Africa to the rest of the world. The company has dramatically grown its footprint, its remarkable repertoire of products and its reputation within the industry. Behind the scenes it has also established strategic relationships which have provided access to key markets.
According to Brad, Rhino Africa owes its impressive growth to a combination of the organic word-of-mouth that inevitably follows when you bring an exciting new product to market and the rock-solid business and marketing strategies underpinning said product. “You don’t bring 200 000 guests to Africa in 19 years without people hearing about you,” he observes.
“The tourism industry is a small one,” he continues. “People talk, people hear and people see. And when you’re doing things as boldly and as innovatively as we have always done – and always will do – you become known as that company. We have also successfully positioned ourselves as an authority on African travel which is a reputation we’ve worked hard to earn and is a serious competitive advantage in our favour.”
Much like the old dictum “write what you know”, a common-sense component of business success is operating in a market or industry that you are intimately familiar with. In this respect, Rhino Africa also offers a lesson in how, when and where to get the ball rolling in such a way as to drastically improve one’s likelihood of success.
“David started Rhino Africa with substantial experience in the travel game,” says Brad of Rhino Africa founder and CEO David Ryan. “He had also built up a formidable network of relationships in the industry. Combine this with his crystal-clear, long-term vision for the company and we were able to hit the ground running.”
“David’s innate drive and ambition has a lot to do with it, but the lesson here is to know your industry, know your business, know your product and have the focus, mission and vision in place to deliver on your blueprint. In other words, the exact opposite of the ‘hit ‘n hope’ approach,” he says.
Business strategies, iconic products and clearly defined goals are all well and good, but having a charismatic leader possessed of the courage of his convictions is often an overlooked ingredient in many a successful organisation. Described as “a brave and pioneering entrepreneur with a true passion for Africa – especially Africa’s wildlife – and more than a hint of the Dr Dolittle about him,” David himself has travelled extensively through the continent. In fact, most of the images on the Rhino Africa website hail from his extensive personal image library. Perhaps the simplest and most fitting description of the man behind the brand is the first line of his bio on Rhino Africa’s website: “David makes things happen!”
Occupying a strongly differentiated market position that adds tangible value to its target audience is vital to any company in a highly competitive field. Ancillary to this is possession of a profound understanding of your customers in order to ascertain their wishes, desires and pain points so as to be able to provide them with a product or service that closely aligns with their goals.
Rhino Africa is no slouch in distinguishing itself from the competition via a variety of means. For one thing, the remarkable range of tailor-made safaris is a deeply varied and eclectic one, reflecting the company’s ability to anticipate and cater for the most discerning traveller’s most exacting demands. Everything from Babymoon Safaris to Gorilla Trekking to The Great Migration and everything in between is an option at Rhino Africa’s sprawling safari smorgasbord. Every consultant is a bona fide expert in their particular niche and is capable of putting together the most idiosyncratic African travel experience imaginable.
Furthermore, Rhino Africa might be peerless in its ability to deliver ultra-luxury African travel experiences, but it is no less passionate about its commitment to giving back to the African continent, its animals, its people and its environment. This it does via an inspired range of sustainable tourism initiatives that ensure the long-term future of African tourism. The company is also deeply dedicated to meaningful CSR in the form of their Doing Good division which is dedicated to supporting and growing community and conservation initiatives on the continent through a diverse range of partnerships with travellers, suppliers and employees.
Building a successful business is analogous to building a beautiful house. Much time, effort, patience and persistence is required to express one’s vision in the form of a complete, complex and minutely detailed blueprint. And only then does the literal heavy lifting start as foundations are dug, cement is poured and bricks begin to be laid. It most certainly isn’t for the faint of heart: it’s a long, hard road with deep reservoirs of tenacity and perseverance required to complete the journey from initial idea to finished product.
And what a product it is. I found myself lingering away many a long, wistful hour on the Rhino Africa website, drifting vicariously off on several of the different luxury safaris of the most meticulously planned and deeply researched kind. Although I have not personally gone eyeball-to-eyeball with a wild lion or been in a plane swooping across the Serengeti to witness the largest mammal migration on earth, it is abundantly clear that when it comes to experiencing the beauty and the beasts of Africa, Rhino Africa is in a league of its own.
Those who have had the singular pleasure of having partaken of such an adventure are clearly smitten, providing ample evidence that the company has perfected the art of connecting their product with their customer. As a result of their African escape, a couple from Colorado in the USA enthused: “We’ve both been bitten by the African travel bug and realise just how much more there is to see and experience!” A family from the UK said: “We had the best holiday of our lives. I am in love with South Africa and cannot wait to come back for another holiday, or even permanent relocation. What a beautiful country!”
There is no shortage of such glowing endorsements straight from the rhino’s mouth. The company enjoys an astonishing average score of 4.9 on high-profile international reviews aggregator Trustpilot based on a remarkable 4,630 reviews. When this kind of praise routinely comes your way from customers parting with considerable amounts of cash for your products and services, it’s as clear as the sunlight on the savanna that what you have built is an incomparable success by any measure.
Not only is the ear of Rhino Africa finely tuned to its audience when it comes to providing the kind of product that aligns with their desires, but the company’s ability to communicate with their customers in optimal fashion also serves to set them apart from the herd.
“Whilst the internet is of course a wonderful thing and allows us to accomplish so much with much greater efficiency and speed,” says Brad, “the human touch in the context of something as important as what we do is also absolutely crucial.” As several studies have shown, despite the rise of AI and automated communications, in many instances the phone call is still king.
“It allows us to genuinely connect with our clients – and each other within the company – and there’s no substitute for that. For a customer to be able to pick up the phone and articulate exactly what it is that they want out of their travel experience or simply discuss the nitty-gritty of an itinerary – these are subtleties and nuances that you can only detect and determine when speaking directly to a client over the phone. What excites them about Africa? Is it culture? Nature? Are they concerned about malaria? It’s these kinds of interactions that form a visceral company-client bond and, in my experience, are optimally conducted in human-to-human fashion.”
“There certainly are those who have embraced the concept of doing everything themselves independently online,” says Brad. “The younger, more modern generation generally despises picking up a phone. However, our customers are predominantly from the ultra-luxury market which tends to comprise members of a slightly older generation. Here there is a large premium placed upon speaking directly to experts over the phone as opposed to texting, emailing or interacting with chat-bots.”
“This has as much to do with the nature of our product as it does with the nature of our customer,” he continues. “Ours is a very high-value product, and not just in the financial sense. We sell people’s dreams; we sell their bucket-list items; their honeymoons; their wedding anniversaries – things that really matter. And in our experience, when it comes to something so valuable and important, people want to be connected to another human being when discussing their fundamentally human experiences.”
Like our various limbs, organs, muscle, tissue, blood et al integrate to make up our bodies, so the themes explored above interlock and overlap in such fashion as to render the whole of Rhino Africa so much greater than the sum of its parts.
The industry accolades and customer acclaim the company can boast of is the result of relentless hard work and continuous commitment to delivering an excellent, incomparable product for a highly particular audience. If there is any pithy lesson to be gleaned here, it’s this: Be bold; be different; continuously innovate and remain consistently faithful to those core elements of your DNA that make it uniquely, unmistakably, your company.
Read more stories from our Snapshots of Success series here: