Business & Finance

13 Tips to Surviving as a Small Tourism Business

Main image: Paul Miedema and Nelson Sebezela of Calabash tours.

Operating a small tourism business in South Africa can be tough. Tourism Tattler asked tourism stalwart Paul Miedema of Calabash Tours for some tips and lessons learnt in operating his own business over the past 17 years.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 13 October 2014. Paul Miedema, the founder of both Calabash Tours and Calabash Trust, subsequently passed away on Tuesday, 2 February 2017. The Calabash team has since remained committed to continuing the good work that Paul pioneered. 

Calabash Tours is one of those small companies that started as an entrepreneurial dream, which became a reality through dedication, vision and commitment. Started in 1997 by local Port Elizabeth couple, Paul and Thandi Miedema, the company has grown from strength to strength.

Drumming up support for cultural tourism at Kwe Kwe’s Tavern
Drumming up support for cultural tourism at Kwe Kwe’s Tavern

Originally the company consisted of a seven roomed guest house and a cultural tour company. In 2005 the decision was made to sell the Calabash Lodge, so as to effectively grow and develop Calabash Tours into a market leader in Cultural tourism. Tourism that has an inclusive approach to our diverse people, a tourism that is meaningful to the disadvantaged people of Port Elizabeth, and a Tourism that serves to inform visitors about the dynamism of our new democracy.

Hence the name- Calabash Tours. In African culture the Calabash is a useful object, used in the making of music, drinking of Umqomboti (African Beer), carrying of water, storage of seeds etc. As a company, we wanted to reflect usefulness to both the communities we serve, as well as the clients we serve. This has been the balancing act we have walked in the last number of years.

Today Calabash Tours has hosted thousands of visitors to Port Elizabeth’s township areas, developed a quality core of staff from the communities, created innumerable opportunities for Township residents to participate in the tourism industry, and affected hundreds of poor peoples lives. This is Pro-Poor Tourism in action.

Below are 13 tips to surviving as a small tourism business:

  1. If your business has a purpose beyond its own existence, you are more likely to succeed. If the only motivation is money, you will have less support and may find determination missing when things get tough.
  2. Despite the greater purpose success comes from profit. A more noble purpose will be undermined if you can’t pay the bills. So a balance is essential.
  3. Sustainable businesses pay attention to the triple bottom line. Anything less makes your business extractive. Sustainable business practice makes business sense.
  4. Make use of mentors. Respect them, honour them, and replace them when they are no longer able to assist your business.
  5. Lead your team through action. Be decisive and own your mistakes. Be visible and supportive of your team.
  6. Forget about your weaknesses. Work to your strengths. You can employ people with opposite skills.
  7. When things go wrong – own up. Develop a capacity to be reflective. Without reflection, you may keep making the same mistakes.
  8. Know what is going on in your business. Have an instinct for your business. Know how bookings look ahead, know who owes you money. This should be intrinsically instinctual.
  9. Appreciate that not all client relationships are forever. Be careful of putting all your eggs in one basket. Diversify if you must. Be aware of market changes. Be awake and alert for opportunities. We learnt this the hard way!
  10. Don’t rely on Government for business, especially as a start-up or SMME. It’s your responsibility to keep finding work!
  11. Be a good payer. Keep your service providers informed of any challenges. Don’t take people for granted.
  12. Run a democratic workplace. You’re not that clever – sometimes your colleagues can solve what you can’t – if you let them.
  13. Pay fair wages for a fair share. Build your team. Create career paths and not just jobs.

At Calabash Tours, Paul views his company as a success for 3 reasons:

  • It remains in business, despite the recession, and has displayed a strong commitment to sustainable tourism practices since inception;
  • It has leveraged millions of rands worth of goods and services (time, treasure and talent) for township communities in the Nelson Mandela Bay area – and has a visible, quantifiable footprint;
  • It has been studied as a potential model for pro-poor tourism strategies and in particular the use of travellers philanthropy as a development tool.

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