Collaboration, state help and determination: enough to push travel technology ahead in Africa?NewsBy Viewpoints | May 21, 2012Share This article was originally published on NB: This is a guest article by Iain Stewart, director of FreeToBook, an online room booking software system.Technology is having an increasing amount of influence on tourism in South Africa and the wider region, as last week's giant INDABA tourism extravaganza demonstrated.Just take the huge growth of the online travel agents (OTAs), both international and local, in the region. These create significant opportunities as well as threats.For example, when booking my hotel for the INDABA event, I used a large OTA to source my accommodation. Having found a hotel I liked the look of, I tried to book it direct, but the hotel did not offer online booking.So I had to email the hotel (which has 30-odd rooms), but after five minutes I gave up waiting for a reply and just phoned to book. I suspect many people would just have gone back to the OTA and book online through them.... a booking gained or lost revenue for the supplier?I was reminded of this experience when speaking to the smaller property owners at the INDABA, like Pamela Jita from the Nolapeace B&B, who says she wants to get more international visitors to grow the business.This was a common theme across most of the accommodation businesses in attendance.That's all very well, but there is fundamental need for these businesses to keep in touch with, and be accessible to their global customers.Many of those global customers are now used to consuming most things online (especially accommodation) and if you are not up speed with where your customers are you won't get their business.You can rely on others to market you via their clever technology but that's a tactical decision and one you can't build a sustainable business model on.Just about everyone I spoke to recognised this need for better marketing and the role technology has to play in that process, but it's not easy for smaller businesses to gear themselves up.That's why it was so encouraging to meet Hannelie du Toit of the Tourism Enterprise Partnership (TEP) whose remit it is to create wealth and jobs.Funded by the Business Trust and the National Department for Tourism, TEP has a portfolio of services and solutions for small tourism businesses.One of TEP's key marketing initiatives is the South African Hidden Treasures, a blend of small crafts and tourism experiences. Du Toit was clear that these tourism businesses "need to use technology proactively to get out there and in front of their customers".What really struck me at INDABA was that these small businesses were being represented individually and being supported to exhibit by the TEP.What’s more, many of them were B&Bs and guest houses, something you just would not see at the larger global events such as the World Travel Market in the UK or FITUR in Spain.Now it’s true that those are huge events, but the INDABA itself, with over 1500 exhibitors, is of significant size and even the smaller national expo's rarely showcase independent properties with relatively few rooms.Yet globally these small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME's as they are called in South Africa) account for the vast majority of tourism businesses and they are often the forgotten engines of growth and change.There was also clear evidence that these smaller businesses were seeing value in joining together and creating private initiatives aimed at capitalising on their group marketing efforts.Caroline Ungersbock, representing the National Association of Accommodation, says the organisation is trying to help companies pool their resources and improve their branding, not least because these smaller businesses will then have a much better chance of being found and trusted by international customers.After all, when you don't have the benefit of a marketing and IT department, co-operation and sharing is a pretty good option.NB: This is a guest article by Iain Stewart, director of FreeToBook, an online room booking software system.NB2:Beach laptop image via Shutterstock.