As a paradise in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles competes with many other island nations across the globe, from South East Asia to the Caribbean, as well as with nearby countries. Nevertheless, you’ve managed to position ourselves as one of the top tourism destinations worldwide. What competitive and comparative advantages set this country apart from its main competitors?
Within the Indian Ocean itself, I think Seychelles combines the best of the islands. On one side we have Mauritius which is a larger island with fantastic hotels, on the other we have the Maldives with many little islands and stunning resorts. But none of them has the diversity that Seychelles has. I think if you go to Mauritius, you go for a hotel experience and if you go to the Maldives it’s more of a resort experience. But Seychelles in my opinion is the only one that lends itself to truly deliver a destination experience.
We have the diversity of products here, from the guest houses, 3 and 4 Stars establishments, the luxury 5 Stars branded hotels through to the private islands on offer. But what brings everyone together irrespective of what budget you’re on, or the hotel you are staying in, is the diversity of the people and the islands. For example, on Mahe, taking a car and driving around the art galleries, seeing the local fisherman return with their catch, sampling the local restaurants as well as going on excursions amongst the islands or even going to Praslin, La Digue and on other private islands. That is the unique quality of Seychelles, I think this is what makes us stand out from our neighbor competitors.
But above all, we are a population of over 90,000 people, so we are pretty chilled and laid back and the people here are generally very friendly. We are not an old culture; if you look across the globe we do not have the culture of Asian countries but on the other hand, we do not have the crowds or the pollution. As an island, I think we have that genuine escapism to island life and you get closer to that experience here rather than anywhere else.
Mason’s Travel is a family-run Destination Management Company established in 1972 and is today the most dynamic and innovative ground handling operator in Seychelles. Can you tell us how your company has changed over time and what drove such changes?
Well, the core competencies of the company have always remained the same. Principally, the business was started by my mother and she is probably recognized as one of the main pioneers of tourism in Seychelles. The start of Mason’s Travel coincided with the official opening of the Seychelles International Airport thus the real growth of tourism in Seychelles. We started off by assisting with a few bookings for hotels, we were the pioneers that started some tours and excursions especially into the marine park at that time. During that period Mahe was the main island that developed the first hotels, whilst Praslin and La Digue had a few guesthouses and were less developed and accessible; we managed to offer excursions to Praslin and La Digue and the business has grown from that.
We have become the specialists in the logistics of island hopping. In terms of arranging the hotel reservations in planning their trip, ground handling once the client is here, transfers during their stay, customer service, basically making sure everything happens smoothly, whether they are moving from one island to another.
Today we have offices on all main three islands as well as over 300 staff. Ultimately, we spend a lot of our time traveling and marketing the destination which is one of our key roles. We help travel agencies and tour operators with training, identifying right products for their clients and assisting them where required. We help them match clients with specific hotels because not everybody has the same clientele. We work just as much with the high-end hotels as we do with the small guesthouses. Growth over the years has been tremendous, starting with only a handful of staff, but our success is hinged on the consistency and the commitment that we have, our mutual drive to put Seychelles first.
Mason’s Travel has been declared the best tour operator in Seychelles by the Luxury Travel Guide 2017. How do you differentiate yourselves from other large companies here, such as Creole Travel Services?
Creole Travel Services is a great company, they have a good team and a strong infrastructure. However, I think our key difference is our staff. Many of them have been with us for 20 years and some 40 years. I think that this is a reflection of the value we have placed on our team and that commitment to what we call “having the Mason’s touch”. We all have good infrastructure, the modern IT systems, the buses and the boats for the excursions, but I think it comes down ultimately to the people and our tagline about Living the Seychelles experience.
You are well known in Seychelles as one of its most successful companies, but what is your international marketing strategy, especially nowadays with the emergence of Online Travel Agencies? How do you deal with the competition internationally?
That is a whole different game in itself. We cannot compete with expedia.com or booking.com: they are global giants now, but Seychelles have always been different. For our source markets, we are a long-haul destination. It is not going to London or Paris and hitting on booking.com and finding a hotel. I believe that for a client, Seychelles is an investment in two ways: financially, its far to get to with the expensive flights to take; and also emotionally because for a lot of people it’s a very special holiday, to have their honeymoon or an anniversary; therefore there are a lot of expectations.
We are not a business to the consumer but we are principally business to business and our partners are the wholesalers, the tour operators. We work with the wholesalers who in return put the brochures together and sell the packages. We work with a lot of retail agents and we do a lot of staff training.
We continue to believe in having people trained as well as specialists in the destinations. It’s a destination that can easily be sold wrongly. As mentioned at the very beginning, you go to Mauritius and you pick a hotel according to your budget. If you want to have the right Seychelles holiday, it is about having the experts with the know-how of how to experience Seychelles.
There’s a lot of talk about the country’s carrying capacity and the perception that the overall number of tourists coming cannot continue to increase. How do you plan to adapt to tourism numbers plateauing, so as to align yourselves with the government strategy?
I think our growth in tourism numbers has been fairly organic. We are not a mass destination and we are not even close to being there. We have always positioned ourselves as more of a niche market rather than a mass one.
We all know and we all agree that we don’t want to be a mass destination. But I think there is a lot more research and understanding needed on how to best go forward, so we can set the right targets, and plan effectively according to these goals.
We have to take into consideration that we are a small population that is accustomed to a certain standard of living; free education, free health, and this comes at a cost. Having said that we have totally reached the limit in terms of employment, therefore any new development in Seychelles will mean more of an expatriate workforce, which is fine if we want to keep growing numbers and support the industry but at the same time, part of the growth and employment must have an economic advantage for the country. If the growth in the staffing is expatriate, the revenue is leaving the country.
Sustainability is a key issue which cuts across all sectors of the government’s strategy. In which ways are you implementing this national priority?
Our business is mainly staff intensive, unlike a hotel that uses solar panels. We changed the style of our excursions around ten years ago. Most of our ground fleet now is moving towards more hybrid-efficient engines. On the marine side, we have shifted to day-sailing catamarans for our excursions. We have used a lot less fuel after having changed the bigger boats with the powerful engines proving to be more fuel-efficient in our day-to-day activities.
As a group, we have a hotel division where we have gone towards a complete recycled water system especially at our new hotel on Mahe, the cabana beach hotel which opened last year. For example, the purified water from the system goes back in the toilets so we are not washing away fresh water when toilets are being used. We have a water collection system that also collects water from the rain. On Denis Island, we have a farm where today I would say around 80% of the products consumed in the hotel or the restaurant are grown there, from fresh milk to eggs, fruits, vegetables, poultry, pork or even some beef are produced on the island.
In addition to Mason’s Travel, there is Mason’s Air and Mason’s Exchange, but also properties on other islands. How do you choose which areas to diversify and where to invest here in Seychelles?
Ultimately, we are a tourism specialist and Mason’s Travel has always been at the center of our business strategy. Over the years, it evolved to Mason’s Air travel and we are also GSA for certain airlines. In the early days, there was a need to develop outbound travel services by assisting more with booking and flights. Mason Air Travel was basically an outbound travel agency for residents and businesses.
Later on, when we had foreign exchange constraints in the country in 2008, the government was looking to encourage more “Bureau de change” outlets to keep the banks more honest with exchange rates, and this is when we introduced Mason’s Exchange. We are not the only exchange company here but we have managed to create a more competitive environment and I think today the customer receives a much fairer deal on the buying and selling of currency. Other investments in hospitality include some hotel properties which are more long-term infrastructural investments.
Mason’s Travel recently participated in an STB’s workshop aimed at giving local groups the chance to develop and widen their proposals offered to Reunion island clients and vice-versa. Can you elaborate on this workshop and the opportunities you see in Reunion?
We do a lot of workshops. I think La Reunion is more regional, but it is typically what we do in our key markets. We do a lot of trading and exposure to the travel agents. In La Reunion, it was the same practice.
This was in partnership with our main tour operators there and the workshop was done in main cities with the travel agents. For example, in the morning STB would have done a destination presentation, we then would have gone into more detail in regards to the various islands. We would have explained how the island traveling experience works, for instance taking the ferry or taking the plane to achieve that island combination.
We also had some guests participating such as hotels and guest houses representatives showcasing some of their products. Additionally, we had vouchers and drew raffles prizes to Seychelles and created a nice atmosphere amongst the attendees by asking some Seychelles related questions. Our marketing team works with the STB in our main markets in these joint activities. Sometimes we do them ourselves with our partners to contribute further and help to create destination awareness.
On your website, you offer a Partner’s Hub. Could you explain what it consists in, and why you launched it?
The Partner’s Hub provides access to our contracted partners and all the necessary information, such as relevant news and guides to Seychelles. It is like a database with information on every category of hotels with descriptions of their respective locations. In general, it is a business to business client platform to help them become more educated and confident when they are in the process of selling the destination.
Mason’s Travel is intrinsically linked to what the Seychelles islands are, and what they have to offer. There is currently a national effort to work on that offer by diversifying the economy. As a Seychellois company with presence internationally, are you assisting in portraying Seychelles as more than a touristic destination?
Obviously, we are all proud Seychellois and we meet people that often ask about investment opportunities but ultimately our specialty is to brand Seychelles from a destination experience perspective.
You are one of the most important businessmen in Seychelles. Do you have a message for young Seychellois entrepreneurs, and for entrepreneurs in other emerging economies on how to be as successful as you?
For us, timing played a big part of it, but ultimately the success of Mason’s and of where we are today is about being passionate. You have to really believe in what you are doing and be passionate about it. Your luck will come but you make that luck by grasping those opportunities when they arise and that is what we are all about.