Local startup TravelGround.com recently won the “Best Design, Standards and Ease of Use” Award at the 7th annual SA e-Commerce Awards. The company, that makes booking hotels, guest houses and self-catered establishments across the country via EFT or credit card, easy and efficient, has clearly made an impact on the e-commerce space in South Africa.
Of the award Marcel Van de Ghinste, director and co-founder of TravelGround says “6 months ago we updated our company slogan to ‘With us its easier’” and rather than be a simple slogan change, “It was an announcement of our aim to make TravelGround the easiest way to find and book accommodation across South Africa. The award is recognition that we’re already excelling in this aim.”
Along with Van de Ghinste, TravelGround was founded by Captonians, David McLennan and brothers Justin and Jonathan Womersley in 2009. You may recognise them as the founders of LocalSort that we featured in January, an online concierge tool to help guesthouses and B&B’s make better recommendations to their guests having been granted funding by Google Umbono. “We actually leveraged TravelGround as a demonstration of our industry expertise when pitching LocalSort to Google,” explains Van de Ghinste.
It turned out that while continuing to work on LocalSort, TravelGround experienced significant growth over those months. “We began to see that TravelGround was incredibly well-placed to take advantage of the mammoth growth that is still coming for e-commerce in South Africa, and that to take full advantage of this opportunity we had to focus 100% on TravelGround,” reveals Van de Ghinste. In April the founders announced they were going to focus exclusively on TravelGround for 2012 and so they have.
So how did it all begin? TravelGround first opened for bookings in August 2009 without accepting any external funding, unlike LocalSort, and started out above Jonathan and Justin’s parents’ garage.
“At this point we already had 400 accommodation establishments listed but convincing them to join TravelGround before we even had a live website required some hustle,” says Van de Ghinste. “On top of that, the first few hotels who tried to add their profiles, found our custom built CMS totally unusable so we put ourselves through a crash course in UI and UX which taught us one of the most important lessons in spending time user-testing.”
After some big changes, including the removal of features that over-complicated the user experience and took great discipline to realize as well as lots of hard work, TravelGround reached a point where hotels where raving about the website’s ease of use.
The real key to building their brand has been to thrill those visitors that visit the site, including offering great service, quality establishments and being accessible. This requires hiring the right staff to fill certain roles that the founders cannot like a full customer service team. “The personal touch they provide is something we will never cut back on – it has allowed us to earn a growing base of repeat customers and repeat customers are where the profit come in,” says Van de Ghinste.
TravelGround currently has 3, 700 accommodation establishments available and growing daily, 20 staff members and hiring and a site that serves well over 1, 000, 000 views per month. The company has still not accepted any funding to date.