Themba Khumalo on South Africa’s Destination Marketing Strategy and Response to the Corona Crisis

Continuing our series of interviews with South African professionals dedicated to enhancing and promoting the country as a destination for visitors, talent and investors – meet Themba Khumalo, Chief Marketing Officer of South African Tourism.

Themba in this interview shares what’s ahead for South Africa in terms of its destination marketing and how it aligns with the bigger picture of the SA nation brand and country branding vision. He also tells us what he likes the most about South Africa, a destination well worth visiting once we emerge from the coronavirus lockdown.

Themba, having worked at the likes of Coca-Cola, MTN and Unilever prior to your recent appointment as Chief of Marketing at South African Tourism (SAT), what motivated you to take on this responsibility to promote Destination SA in these difficult times?

Three reasons: Firstly, it is the responsibility of every citizen – of any country, for that matter – to make a genuine and earnest contribution to the betterment of its people, the furtherance of its economic ambitions and the preservation of its cultural ideals and way of life.

Secondly, it is an honour to be afforded the opportunity to represent your country: not every citizen gets to do that in an official capacity.

Lastly, and most importantly, South Africa, I believe, is the greatest nation on earth. Having travelled extensively, given the choice of where to be born and live, I would choose South Africa on any given lifetime.

In your view, what does South Africa stand for today? What distinguishes it from other destinations competing for visitors, post-COVID?

South Africa is the Home of Humanity. South Africa represents the essence of what it means to be human; respect for the sanctity of human life, embracing and harnessing diversity; joy in sharing the simple yet deeply significant aspects of life.

We also boast the best that nature has to offer: the contradiction of height and depth of landscape; the rustle of wildlife brushing against firmly rooted lush vegetation; world-standard infrastructure serviced through culturally sensitive hands; vibrant urban life forever connected to its rural traditional roots. Everywhere in South Africa: people first, profit in the service of human life.

Travelers from around the world are very discerning and will travel to countries that they perceive to have handled the COVID 19 pandemic in a manner that is scientifically determined, respectful of the sanctity of human life and enduring in the health and safety protocols – not as a practice but as an adopted way of life. I refer to these as COVID 19 Safe Certified Destinations.

South Africa has been referenced with much acclaim by various international bodies for the efficacy with which it has managed through this pandemic. I believe that due to both the essence of our destination as the Home of Humanity and the demonstrable scientific and leadership diligence applied to how the COVID 19 pandemic was managed, South Africa will be the leading post COVID 19 destination, from a tourism perspective.

Its people being very much a key ingredient for any successful destination, as brand ambassadors and providers of experiences, how are you involving South Africans in your destination marketing strategies?

South African Tourism led the marketing campaign for the country – and in some respects the entire world – as South Africa went into lockdown at the end of March 2020 with the “Don’t Travel Now So You Can travel Later” campaign. This was a series of three television and digital content executions which held the national psyche in a positive space of we sacrificed livelihood for life.

On Freedom Day, April 27, we again led the country leveraging the persona of Nelson Mandela with a forward postured message, “South Africa, It’s In Your Hands”.

Under the hashtag #ShareSouthAfrica, on Youth Day 2020, South African Tourism launched a campaign to inspire South African citizens to send in tourism inducing stories from their localities, inviting other South Africans and international tourist to visit their specific local tourism attraction. This is the beginning of a massive user generated content campaign (UGC) that will eventually lead to a citizen-driven tourism marketing strategy and execution.

South Africans are great storytellers. South Africans know their locality more than anyone sitting in a tourism office. And the lockdown has given us the time and space to appreciate what we have and the impetus to express it to each other and to the world.

Encouraging domestic travel is a key part of the recovery plans of most DMOs right now. How are you enticing South Africans to (re)discover their own country, considering the dire economic situation that many face?

There are three dimensions to our Domestic Tourism Marketing approach: Firstly, we are conscious of the fact that on the supply side, the product platform has been adversely impacted by the lockdown. We are focused on encouraging South Africans to become “marketers” of the product that sustains their local economies and to encourage product owners, as difficult as it might be, to endure through economic hardship, to re-open their businesses as part of the recovery.

Secondly, on the demand side, we are aware that travelers will not necessarily rush out to travel due to financial pressure and uncertainty about the health impacts of travel. Therefore, in a positive but responsible manner, we are focusing our marketing effort on encouraging travel, while also reassuring travelers of the COVID Safe Certification credentials of our tourism platform. This entails both COVID safety iconography and signage on the supply side as well as COVID safe behaviours and practices on the demand side. Both are being implemented in Home of Humanity, travel-positive tonality to induce rapid but responsible travel.

Lastly, we are expanding our ambit of tourism travel: sports tourism, lifestyle and entertainment tourism, cultural torusm, event-driven tourism – these are reasons people travel over and about the traditional leisure and business events travel. Through strategic partnerships, we are building a new tier of recruitment for tourism – initially domestically, but eventually internationally.

We believe that through these efforts our domestic tourism will reopen with commercial viability while remaining sanctity of life responsible.

How can tourism serve to strengthen and promote a place’s image and identity (=its brand) – e.g. in the context of South Africa?

South African Tourism is collating a case study on how South Africa has managed the COVID 19 pandemic, extracting proof points for the efficacy of the tourism platform.

There is only one South Africa – whether a person is contemplating visit, invest or live. Therefore, our approach to the re-opening of tourism is consciously and intentionally in line with, and therefore feeding back into, the overall country brand image. If people feel safe and inspired to visit South Africa, it will enhance their propensity to invest and desire to live in South Africa.

Let me also say this: the leadership of our great country, our President and cabinet, have held the line and provided marketers clear leadership direction and inspired moral clarity to do our work without fear of contradiction. I have observed corporate South Africa in particular, aligning with the presidency in a way in which corporates in other nations have not with their governments.

I believe that what South African Tourism is doing will contribute to the overall country brand because what we are doing was inspired and directed from the top.

Which aspects of marketing South Africa as destination right now do you find the most challenging?

International tourism relies on tourism buying cycles and airlift. International trade buy destinations based on availability of product capacity and airlift to transport travelers from country of embarkation to South Africa.

Given the uncertainty in the timing of reopening of international travel, source markets entering buying cycles for Africa and not being able to confirm bookings of product or confirmation of airlift – these factors make it difficult to drive marketing efforts in the international space.

There is also market sentiment. When there is negative sentiment concerning the airline with the biggest airlift capacity to a market, it reduces sales channel confidence in the viability of that destination. This, coupled with the closure of some signature high end product establishments – all of these are headwinds against the marketing effort. But we are South Africans: we always make a plan!

Which trends do you observe in destination marketing that are likely to influence the work of country and destination branding professionals in the years ahead?

Five trends. Firstly, the shift from in-person to digital human interactions. This is not just a matter of shifting from traditional TV commercials to digital content. It is the entire shift in human psychology from tactile to a pixel world and the implications for marketing stimulus that will elicit a commercially favourable outcome. The starting point, of course, is the migration to digital first marketing. At South African Tourism, we have already embarked upon this journey and will continue to build the capacity to build destination competitiveness in this respect.

Second is the supremacy of analytics over creativity.

The ability to collect data from diverse sources, fuse the data with statistical integrity and extract actionable insights dynamically is the new creativity in the marketing space. Retrospective performance reporting is of no value: real time with predictive modelling is the new marketing art form. The challenge of delivering this while also staying true to a very human tourism destination is the new creative challenge for tourism marketers.

Third is the transaction dynamism. For example, East Africa uses afro-crypto currencies like Mpesa which our destination does not recognise. China is virtually cashless – no pun! In a destination like our seeking to attract tourists and investors from such destinations, there is a transactional disconnect. Our in-country tourism experience needs to support the transactional way of life of the people we are attracting. This gap needs to either be closed or marketed as a retro-attraction but cannot be left without positioning.

Fourth, in the post COVID 19 era, is the role of open spaces in a post cabin fever era. In the global lockdown, the world hit the proverbial reset button. Deep introspection, re-evaluation and appreciation for basic essentials, the re-prioritization of luxuries – and also the realization that bucket lists are not for old-age timing but for the now. This shift in priorities is the goldmine of marketing success.

Lastly, health and vitality were a growing niche before the lockdown. The world got the biggest health scare. The extent to which health, lifestyle, sport, running, cycling, open spaces, organic living, ecotourism – the green economy, the extent to which this will be a driver of tourism decisions is one of the trends to observe.

How do you influence and engage with your government and industry stakeholders to overcome issues such as power supply shortage or crime, to recomfort visitors to South Africa?

There is a broader Tourism Economic Cluster within the Government of South Africa that resolves cross-sector impacts in order to ensure that the tourism platform efficacy is maintained – dealing with the practical and tangible solutions to crime and infrastructure services delivery.

Speaking purely from a marketing perspective: The issue of safety in the world has now been zero based. Health safety uncertainty is common globally. Crime is also common even in the biggest markets globally.

The marketing challenge is therefore in the domain of perception management. Part of the COVID 19 re-emergence marketing effort is a comprehensive destination reputation enhancement campaign. This campaign seeks to accentuate the positive in order to minimize the impact of the negative. The COVID 19 Management Case Study is at the heart of this campaign – accentuating the positive proof points of destination efficacy.

Your advice to fellow destination marketers around the world, on how to deal with the current coronavirus pandemic and how to emerge stronger from it, as destination marketing and management organization?

My advice to all destination marketers around the world is simple: We have been given an opportunity to put forward the bold and audacious marketing proposals that the status quo did not afford us. Be brave and don’t hold back!

Thank you, Themba.

Connect with Themba Khumalo on LinkedIn, or find out more about South African Tourism on its website, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube profiles.


For more about South Africa, access our special report here.


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