The Founder of Tembea Africa Tours on What It Takes to Start Your Own Travel Company
Friends and family constantly asked Winnie Maru for travel advice: Where to go, what airlines to fly, and which parks to visit. Maru loves traveling, so she was happy to recommend her favorite spots. She was good at it too, and the travel questions kept on coming.
That’s when Maru decided to parlay her passion for travel into a business. The result? Tembea Africa Tours and Travel Company. Maru started the business in 2011 and has been building her clientele for the past five years. The company now takes visitors around Kenya’s most famous tourist sights and wildlife parks, including Lake Nakuru, Maasai Mara, and Naivasha.
Read on for Maru’s best advice on how to start a travel and tour company, plus what it takes to overcome the challenges.
How did you come to start Tembea Africa Tours and Travel Company?
As I worked in the public sector, I knew that I wanted to have my own outfit some day. So after many years working in the public sector, I decided enough was enough and choose to call it a day. I had this inbuilt love of nature and travel. I recall people used to ask me for the best and newest places to visit — hotels, airlines, exciting resorts, and parks, best, best, best. I did not disappoint, and more questions kept coming. Then I thought, “Why not turn travel advising from a hobby to a business?”
That’s how I registered a company. I was still employed, and so I tried juggling both jobs. But after two years of shuttling between the two, I decided to hang up my boots (insofar as employment was concerned) and go after my passion!
“I did not disappoint, and more questions kept coming. Then I thought, ‘Why not turn travel advising from a hobby to a business?'”
How long have you been in the tour and travel business?
I have been doing this full time for close to five years now.
What were your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Like all other occupations, there are challenges in this one too. One of the major challenges is when foreign countries issue travel advisories. That really affects business as the number of inbound visitors dwindles and so does income. The rise in political temperatures in the country has a negative impact on our business, and tourism is affected when our country is portrayed in a bad light.
What do you do to scale up business in such moments?
In such times, we come up with alternatives, including offers for the domestic market, to make up for the period when visitors coming from outside the counry is low.
Which seasons are most profitable?
The wildebeest migration period is the most profitable. Also festive seasons, like Christmas and Easter, are very good for business.
How much money do you make in a month?
I make enough to keep me in business. Some months are better than others, and some months can be very low, but through it all, God has been faithful.
How do you deal with competition?
Competition is healthy for any growing business. You know what you need to do to improve your business. We strive to find new ways to make our clients happy, look for new places to visit, and introduce exciting activities. At Tembea Africa, we pride ourselves in “Taking you on the road less traveled … off the beaten path”. We will always be looking for something new to excite our clients.
Do you go to the field yourself? What is the experience like with clients?
A few times I go, and what I must say is that the outdoors is always incredible! No trip is ever the same. Even if you have been to the same place many times, each trip is always unique. You don’t see the same things, and even if you do, the circumstances around it are never the same — the weather may not be the same, and the people and relationships you make on each trip are always distinct.
How do you balance work (taking clients on a safari) and being with your family?
Even before I started the business, we would always go on holiday at least twice a year with my family. As a result, my children have visited virtually all corners of this great country — they can be tour guides! So, while my work may sometimes take me away from them, they know that it’s only for a short time. And fortunately for them, they may realize that the place I have taken clients is not new for them. But whenever I discover a new place, I make sure that I will take them there too.
What steps should someone starting a travel and tour company expect to follow?
Make sure you have all the necessary and proper documentation for registration with the relevant institutions. A license with the Tourism Regulatory Authority is a must. This is the body that licenses businesses in the tourism industry and regulates the industry too. In addition, now it is mandatory to be a member of a society or association of tour operators. I am a member of the Tour Operators Society of Kenya (TOSK).
Where do you want to go next in your entrepreneurship vision?
I would like to open branches of Tembea Africa in other countries in Africa so that we can live true to our name.
What advice can you offer those intending to run a tour and travel company?
Running a tour and travel company is not something you do in passing! You have to give it your all. You have to love it. You have to be passionate about it. You will wake up in the middle of the night because you have to meet clients at the airport or take them on safari. Or you will have to take them around, even though you’d rather be hanging out with your friends or family.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.