Interview David Germain of Praslin – The Seychelles face in Africa & in the USA

A Business and Industry touch -Tourism

The Islander caught up with Mr. David Germain last week while he was on a short holiday home. Germain is based in Cape Town South Africa, where he runs the Seychelles Tourism Board’s Office there. With 38 years experience in tourism, David Germain told us about his career both as an employee as well as when he ventured into his own business as a tourism operator and how the call to work for and represent his country made him the Seychelles Representative for Africa and the Americas.

TI:

Mr. Germain, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you start by telling us  about yourself.

DG:

 I am essentially an islander. I was born and raised on Praslin island and in fact my first introduction to tourism was way back then when as a child I started doing tour guiding. I remember when the first airplane to come to Seychelles, the BOAC landed I was among a group which had come over from Praslin for the occasion. I was a member of the Boys Scout at the time. I have essentially grown up in the tourism industry. I started my first job right at the beginning of the tourism industry in Seychelles back in 1975/76. My first job was with Travel Services Seychelles, which at the time was owned by Mrs. Sonia Lindbald and which was part of a much bigger organisation world wide. I begun as a tourist guide on Praslin taking visitors around the island. 

Then I moved to Mahe at the head office and there I worked my way up the ranks into posts such as head of operations. At a certain point I was transferred back to Praslin to work as manager, when the company opened up an office there. After around three or four years an opportunity came up. There was a vacancy in our Zimbabwe office and I applied and was successful, so I went to Victoria Falls and worked there as Director. In those days Zimbabwe was a thriving country, the troubles hadn’t started and it was the bread basket of Africa. 

TI

What was it like working in Victoria Falls?

DG

It was an exciting time for me.  I really explored my potential. Victoria Falls opens up avenues in many of the tourism strongholds in Africa. I worked my first contract through, Then I renewed it. I renewed up to six times. In my sixth contract, the situation in Zimbabwe started to change, and the company started to slowly wind down its Zimbabwe office. Also at that time we had an interruption in the operations here as the Mauritian who was general Manager for TSS left, so I came back and took up the post.

TI

What did you bring to the post and how did your colleagues welcome you?

DG

I brought all the experience I had gained while working in the Victoria Falls office as there we got much more exposure, we were dealing with a broader client base and I brought all these contacts with me to our Seychelles operations. I got the full support of my colleagues as I was the first Seychellois GM in the company and at the time I am proud to say we had a totally Seychellois workforce at TSS. TSS was Seychelles’ first Destination Management Company.

TI

When did you move back to Africa and why?

DG

I had always wanted to start my own tourism venture, but I lacked the funds although I had the competence. What happened was that three years down the line, Lindbald changed its focus from tourism and concentrated mostly on its other principal activity which was trading. As a result it closed down its tourism operations including TSS. Creole Travel bought TSS and merged the two to form Creole Travel Services. 

All along I wanted to test my ability and the experience I had gained by setting up a tourism company abroad and promote Seychelles from there. This was something I had always wanted to do because I had always been employed by a company. Then I had this opportunity. When I left TSS I went to Cape Town and there I created  a company from scratch, called Cape Holiday Service.

TI

Setting up shop abroad must have necessitated investment, funds, so how did you go about that aspect of things?
DG

It was possible because I was able to get a partner, Mr. Joe Albert. He had bought TSS. He wanted me to stay with the company as General Manager, but I declined and told him what I wanted to do and he agreed with me although reluctantly. I explained what I wanted to do and he decided to join me. He thought it was a very good idea and so we went into a partnership. 

TI

Was it easy to set up in Cape Town?

DG It took us almost a year to set up. It was not easy at all. We had to ensure that we positioned the company properly in the market place as it is a very competitive one and slowly, slowly we got going.

TI

What made you choose Cape Town instead of starting a company here locally?

DG

When I was in Zimbabwe I had the opportunity twice to visit Cape Town and I fell in love with this city. I wanted to experience Cape Town and live there, as I was fascinated by the diversity of the place, the whole atmosphere and the people in general. As to why I did not open up a DMC here, it was because at that time there was practically no opening locally. The whole market which at the time was still growing, was completely taken up by the two or three major players- Mason’s Travel, Creole Travel Services and  4Degrees South, so it would have been extremely difficult for me to start.

TI

So how did you start?

DG

I had to go through the whole process- registration, go through the check list. They wanted to know my intentions and most importantly they wanted to know what Cape Town and South Africa would get out of it.

When compared to setting up a business here, I would say it is a lot more easier here. the thing that worked in my favour was that I had a very big data base which opened up a huge market potential, with contacts within big German companies such as Thomas Cook, so they saw that it was a serious venture.

The process was lengthy. There was a lot of risk assessment even if they welcomed foreign investment. The thing which I feel they appreciated very much was the fact that we were not asking for funding from their banks, but rather we were bringing in funds from abroad. I think this is what facilitated things somewhat for us. Without these factors, I don’t think we would have been able to get started and succeed.

We had seven staff members and we subcontracted out several services according to what we needed.

My family came with me but none of them became involved in the business.

TI

Did you maintain your link with Seychelles tourism.

DG

One hundred percent. Always. What happened was about three years in the operation, one day I got a telephone call from Mr. Sylvestre Radegonde. He was the CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board at that time. He told me that the government had decided to instate Seychellois citizens in its tourism offices worldwide and asked me if I would agree to be the representative for Africa and be based in Johannesburg, as the STB offices was there at that time and proposed that I moved there and take over the running of the office. I thanked him for the opportunity but declined the offer because I did not want to move to Johannesburg. I explained to him that Johannesburg was more for industrial and trading activities whereas Cape Town was more like Seychelles in that it has the sea and the coast line. He went back and discussed it with President Michel and then he called me again and told me that he had received the go ahead to base the STB office in Cape Town, as long as I could travel to Johannesburg to link up with the tour operators there as the core of the tour operators are based in Johannesburg. That’s when I started with the tourism board as the sole representative in South Africa.

TI

And what does that entail- being the tourism representative for Seychelles?

DG

When I first started the office was for South Africa only. South Africa until now is still the main source market in South Africa for visitors for Seychelles and at that time the main tourism promoting activities for Seychelles took place in South Africa. My job was to support the tour operators, every body that had to do with anything tourism related for Seychelles. I was the support mechanism for them and I assisted them in any way I could. At the same time as well, I participated in tourism exhibitions  to showcase and market Seychelles and create marketing activities as well, to promote Seychelles as the desirable destination for the South African travellers to visit. We had to compete with other destinations and at that time Mauritius was a very fierce competitor for us. Then we had Madagascar and Mozambique as well, and even Reunion although it was much more low key and Maldives also came in because at that time Air Seychelles used to fly to South Africa, onward to Maldives. So it was all about South Africa. 

This went on for about four years until the minister decided to open up Africa for Seychelles. 

TI

Which minister was it?

DG

It was Minister St. Ange who opened up Africa for Seychelles. He is very much in favour of Africa and got involved and engaged a lot with promoting Seychelles in Africa. He believed a lot in Africa. Then I started marketing Seychelles in about five or six different African countries, which we are still doing today on a much bigger scale. We went into Namibia, Botswana Zambia, Zimbabwe in Southern Africa and then we went to Kenya and Tanzania as well and extended also to Uganda.

TI

Did it bear fruit?

DG

Most certainly, it did. It did in many ways and not only for tourism. What I found out was that our mere presence at these expos, would bring people up to us. Government officials came up to us saying, oh Seychelles is present. We facilitated a lot of things and we still continue to do so. People come up to us to inquire about investment opportunities in Seychelles and we facilitate things for them. We link them up with the relevant authorities locally that they need. We have done this in all those countries and I think this has helped Seychelles greatly.

TI

What would you say has been the most exciting time of your career.

 DG

To me the most exciting tie was of course when I got my first overseas posting in Victoria Falls. Everything was very new to me and I must say that I was very lucky as well because I went into an existing set up which needed new ideas, which needed new impetus. They needed to be motivated so it was a challenge but I was very well welcomed. It was a learning curve for me as well and I had a wonderful time.

Another big moment in my career was when Minister St.Ange opened the American market for Seychelles.  It started about six years ago. Before that Seychelles’ presence in the Americas was adhoc, going in and out when there was a need. Minister St.Ange wanted us to have a foot in the American market, so I sat down on my own and worked out how I would tackle this big area- North and southern Americas. I started with Brazil which has a population of over 200 million people. I had to come up with a strategy to find a niche for Seychelles in this most competitive market. I spoke only English and not even a word of Spanish or Portuguese. Also there was very few people in the trade there who spoke English, but I was not disheartened. Eventually as I kept returning they decided that I represent a serious entity and we started to collaborate.

I remember I went back and told the minister that if he wanted me to succeed he needed to support me as I had to persevere and be consistent. Minister St. Ange gave me his full support. Within two to two and a half years I started having Seychelles in their brochure, in their catalogue. Six years later now, if I am not able to go to Brazil during one year, they start looking for me! Seychelles today is doing extremely well in the South American market despite  the area having its ups and downs. The number of visitors from that region has more than doubled to come to over 12000 a year!.

TI 

How would you qualify Seychelles evolution in tourism?

DG 

We have been doing and are still doing vert well. This has taken a huge effort because we have had to position Seychelles as offering a different experience. This has enabled us to keep our own. For example you cannot promote Seychelles in Africa as you do in America. For Africa the Carnaval International des Seychelles, has been a huge success for us, in terms of visibility, of ease of access and of course the number of visitors who have since travelled to Seychelles. You see Africans love music and through the carnival they were able to participate with the Seychellois. At the same time I also brought visitors from Brazil and was even able to get a troupe from there to perform during the carnival. Also we could not just go with the Sun Sea and Sand banner because the competition in that filed is fierce, so we had to brand the Seychelles experience. We also linked up with other major players on the continent to offer to the visitors an African experience which starts in one country , moves onto another and eventually ends up in yet another. Again here it was part of the drive of Minister St. Ange to further open up other markets for Seychelles. To date we are still doing well despite some challenges.

TI

What are those challenges.

DG

Well when we market Seychelles we brand it as a safe destination and we cannot ever ever afford to lose that safety label. Recently there have been some incidents which have impacted on this so we need to notch up the security aspect for visitors, because the country has to live up to the promotion we give it, otherwise our visitors will lose faith in us. Also I feel we are losing some of our cultural aspect. We need to make each and every Seychellois take ownership of the tourism industry and involve them in it. We have to create awareness that tourism touches each one of us either directly or indirectly and that as such it concern each one of us. It is the only way forward, we have to protect and preserve the progress we have made in the industry while continuing to attract more visitors without compromising our fragile environment.

TI

Did you continue with your company?

DG

No, I couldn’t because I did not have the time. When I got the call to represent my country, it was a very proud moment in my career. I set aside my business ambitions because for me my country came first. Yes, it entailed sacrifices especially since in the beginning the salary wasn’t so great, but I have no regrets and have never looked back. I will continue for a couple of years more then I will return home and retire partly, but hopefully I will still be able to contribute to Seychelles; tourism either through a consultancy or some other means.

TI

Thank you Mr. Germain and best wishes.