Is uHambi the genuine personal touch in a world of online travel bookings?

Is there a difference between being a traveller and a tourist? For those of us who answer yes, one startup is trying to connect the dots. With 100% OpenSource software, one startup is attempting to close in on the middle ground between the convenience of a personal travel agent and the benefits of browsing for your own holiday choices.

Cape Town-based uHambi was launched as a public beta in August 2010 by Nick Maurer, a 100% shareholder who drove the research and development behind the startup.

The company says it wants to create a world class travel booking experience using clever technology to combine the convenience of online travel research, planning and booking with the personal touch of a travel agent. To achieve this, the company seeks to offer destination information and travel inspiration based on local knowledge and a wide choice of the best travel suppliers. Nice to know. But how does it work?

For a start users can sign-up at no cost and shortlist their ‘favourite’ listings to view later or use to plan their holiday; the search and result filtering system is fairly advanced, allowing travellers to find exactly what they are looking for.

Fortunately for smartphone users the site is iPhone compatible, with the exception of the CC payment gateway, which the company is quick to point out is not an uHambi issue. Regardless, it’s still an inconvenience.

The founders claim the site is different and offers users a superior experience. What is certainly true is that aesthetically the site is completely different to other South African travel booking sites, with a cleaner, fresher design.

“Our offering is unique: uHambi offers a personalised service,” says Maurer. “The perfect combination between the online convenience of travel agent and real time availability that centres on the user.”

The company is self-funded by Maurer who lived in the U.K. for seven years where he saved and invested to raise the capital to start

uHambi claims it will succeed because the company’s approach to the travel. “We’re ahead of competitors in terms of the technology that we utilise and most importantly we’re highly motivated and not the least bit complacent”.

Perhaps one of the most useful aspects of the site is the uHambi Planner, which allowed me to plan my ideal holiday by building my own itinerary. When it is submitted, the uHambi team verifies that all those options are available for me. Any suggestions that come from that are updated to my Planner.

When attempting to book flights, I found the site a little slower than others I had tested the same evening. But with an excellent selection of accommodation options and a great browser design that makes navigating the site a pleasure, all is quickly forgotten.

I am always a little sceptical when a company claims it wishes to make its clients’ dreams come true. But for uHambi – who have claimed exactly that – their users certainly can gain a quality deal or two. If you consider a decently priced three-hour cruise and breakfast on the Knysna a little dream, its a fair claim. I found some particularly good deals on accommodation and activities within a minute of navigating each section on the site.

What the site urgently needs is a massive expansion of its offering. More options and more variety added to the quality that is there will be hard for anyone to match. But it’s evident the site is selective in what it offers users.

The balance between price and quality is evident, so giving users more to choose from is hopefully an area being worked on vigorously. uHambi has set its eyes on the global market. “We have an international marketing strategy for reaching overseas travellers through various digital platforms including social media as well as international touch points,” says Maurer. He adds over the long term, business strategy is to go the franchise route with the uHAMBI concept, an uncommon move amongst tech startups. He is confident however that it is the best plan of action for expansion into other African countries and eventually other continents.

However, there is still competition. The availability of travel information and services online means that there is a long list of sites uHambi is up against. Sites like through to travel resource sites like TripAdvisor all threaten to undercut uHambi’s core market.

However the company says its research shows travellers are likely to consult multiple sites when researching a destination and booking a holiday. “Our goal is to become the preferred booking site for travel to and within South Africa, based on the user friendliness of, the superior local knowledge that we provide and the real time availability that we offer”.

It’s an ambitious target, with sites like SafariNow, SA Venues and Where to Stay already popular. However, their success is clearly well targeted at a growing market that is far from loyal to any site brand. uHambi is easy to sign up on and well laid out.

Maurer says uHambi has formed valuable partnerships with like-minded companies. Rubiks Room is on the business and technology side of things, while TRR developed the site and continues to be involved in the business.

So where to from here? In five years uHambi wants to be one of the most successful travel booking platforms in South Africa with strong brand equity in the travel industry, along with plans for franchising.

“We want to be offering travellers accommodation, adventures, car rental and flights to explore South Africa as well as Southern Africa.”



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