Maija de Rijk-Uys of Go2Africa: The Future of Travel in The Post Covid World
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Sustainable travel is dominating headlines within the travel industry, it is fast becoming the only way to travel, and I couldn’t be happier about this. People who are as passionate about travel as I am want to know that their travels serve a purpose in the protection of people and the planet. Africa as a whole is a phenomenal sustainable travel destination. Many safari camps, lodges, resorts are completely eco-friendly, and actively involved in community upliftment and wildlife preservation.
As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maija de-Rijk-Uys of Go2Africa.
Maija has lived and worked predominantly in London and Cape Town and has traveled to more than 30 countries, including 15 African countries.
Her passion for African travel was ingrained in her as a small child as she had the privilege of traveling to many ‘weird and wonderful places on the beautiful continent. The travel bug has kept on biting with at least two big trips a year, together with her husband and their two young children. In her spare time, you will find her reading, being active outdoors, spending time with family, or enjoying Cape Town’s fantastic food and wine scene.
She has traveled the length and breadth of South Africa and has visited the African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Mozambique, Zambia, Egypt, and Morocco. Having lived in London for four years, she has covered most of Europe and has also traveled to the Far East, North and South America. That said, nothing beats Africa!
A Chartered Accountant by profession, Maija de Rijk-Uys qualified with a Big Four company in London. After almost six years with PwC, mainly spent in Advisory (Transaction Services), she felt the time was right to leverage her advisory experience in an entrepreneurial emerging company environment.
Maija moved to Travelstart — Africa’s largest online travel agency — to head up the international side of the business and lead the company’s global expansion plans. Using her operations experience coupled with her passion for aiding emerging businesses growth, Maija re-joined PwC to set-up and roll out the PwC Accelerator project for 18 months — after which she was approached for her current role at Go2Africa.
Maija has been with Go2Africa for 5 and a half years. She is passionate about the travel industry and the profound effects travel can have. An avid traveller herself, combining her passion and her work makes her believe she has found her forever work-home.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Simply put, my resounding love for travel. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who loved exploring the world, and instilled that within me. By the time I was in my late teens, I had been working various odd jobs to save up for my own travels — including working a coffee shop shift every Saturday that started bright and early at 6.30am.
I did the same while I was studying at University, I managed to self-fund several trips including backpacking in Mozambique as well as Europe. One particular year, during my summer holidays, I travelled to the United Kingdom and waited double shifts a day. The favourable Rand/Pound exchange meant I was able to save up for a full year of travelling!
I studied my chartered accountancy degree in South Africa, and made the decision to finalise my qualification in London with one of the Big 4 firms. Just before I started, I did a 6-month stint as an Assistant Financial Accountant at Virgin Holidays — my very first step into the travel sphere.
Being able to qualify in London gave me more spending money to travel, and for three years while I completed my articles, my husband and I took every free moment to set off on wonderful adventures.
On our return to South Africa, I took a leap of faith to work for a travel start-up developing their agency business across Africa.
This is when my career in travel truly began, with a few years spent back in the corporate world in-between. There is nothing more rewarding than pairing passion with work!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many! Two that immediately come to mind is when I was asked to take a very significant amount of money, in a suitcase, out of the country and into South Africa from a new business office I had set up for Travelstart — needless to say I did not agree to that! The other was an interesting dinner I had with an audit client in Kazakhstan, eating horse meat and drinking camel’s milk, which was delicious.
However, the most interesting stories I have accumulated through the years have been the experiences I have garnered within the travel industry. One of the best trips I have been on was a visit, during the Pandemic, to Marataba Conservation Camps before their opening.
We took part in several conversation activities accompanied by the two vets that are in charge of the reserve’s efforts. I was able to join in darting rhinos to ultrasound and check fertility, the mass capturing of impala — an incredibly well-orchestrated operation — and the set up of camera traps. To be able to play your own role in these kinds of experiences is something humbling and fundamentally meaningful.
What I took to be the most fascinating element of Marataba Conservation Camps is their modus operandi. They are committed to driving a financial solution that supports both the long-term conservation efforts of the park and maximizes the economic opportunities for the surrounding communities. Essentially, they break even on the accommodation portion to ensure that all monies are utilized to sustain their conservation activities, an absolutely noble endeavour.
On a final note, the past sixteen months have been nothing short of a rollercoaster for the travel industry, an incredibly impossible path to navigate. Yet, it has been an interesting time to say the least, where we learnt about the power of the human spirit, the comradery, the partnerships and the opportunities for innovation, and the ability to pull a business through a disastrous global event that has proven our resiliency.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Mistakes are usually only funny in retrospect, unless you have a great sense of humour. What I have found is that you develop a good sense of humour over years of experience, and as you gain more confidence in your own work!
One mistake that stands out in my mind from many years ago is when I shared with my team an example of an incident with an irate shareholder. I wanted to ensure my team understood why our local partner shareholders weren’t happy, and put a narrative to it.
I didn’t realise that I had mistakenly copied that particular shareholder into the email correspondence. This was held against me many months later in a negotiation regarding a shareholder buy back. At the time, it was an extremely awkward situation but in hindsight, I have had a laugh about it.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?
I believe in any industry the real trick is around the periodic frequency of taking time off, having the discipline to plan for this as well as to take the leave when it’s planned for. My team knows very well that if I don’t plan a break every three to four months with my family, I don’t have energy to bring my best to work.
These days, with our eldest being at school, we need to plan these breaks within the school holidays. Having said this, we are headed to Marataba Conservation Camps in a few days’ time as well as the Wild Coast (Transkei) for 10 days of bush, conservation activities, hiking, running and fun in the sun!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Absolutely, and several people come to mind. My partner, who I worked with at PwC in Cape Town, supported me greatly, and believed in me when I struggled to believe in myself.
Travelstart’s CEO, Stephan Ekbergh, who believed I had the potential to run a business one day. He put me in a position to operationalise the expansion plans of Travelstart — a young female, setting up businesses in cities not traditionally considered safe for single females. We had a great deal of fun working with local partners on the ground, which enabled us to really understand market nuances, local culture, and helped us to forge lifelong relationships in the markets we went into.
I also need to make mention of the several shareholders I have worked with during my tenure at Go2Africa who have helped me step up and gain the experience to run a business in a professional and intentional manner, without losing the flair of being entrepreneurial.
Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
The safari industry has historically been fragmented, with thousands of players across dozens of African countries. Our business model requires not only close relationships with these thousands of safari partners — covering accommodation, flights, transfers and experiences — but the technology to be able to easily create and book a completely customised trip for each one of our clients.
Together, our relationships and our technology allow us to be agile, with a continual roll out of new products, itineraries and destinations to our clients, allowing them to experience the very best of Africa. Just last week we launched São Tomé and Príncipe as a new destination — an authentic and off-the-beaten path island country, off the coast of West Africa.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?
Having access to a bespoke technology platform addresses a number of internal pain points, as well as improving our client experience. We’re able to easily integrate new partners onto our platform, and offer clients fast itinerary suggestions with live prices.
Clients are able to book complex itineraries across multiple countries and camps whilst dealing with just one contact at Go2Africa. They are safe in the knowledge that from the moment they first speak to us to well after they return home, they’ll be taken care of. The need for this kind of service “close contact” has only been highlighted dramatically during the pandemic.
How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
We’re confident our business model will drive increased market share over the next year or two, and are now discussing with our tech partner how licencing the technology to other tour operators could bring wider industry benefits. Watch this space!
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
COVID19 has disrupted the travel industry like nothing before it, and we’re still trying to understand what its full impact will be. Over the past 18 months we’ve noticed a number of emerging and accelerating consumer trends that we’re adapting to:
- A trend for the past few years that seems to have been accelerated by COVID is the number of extended families and multigenerational families that are enquiring about trips to Africa. I think people have realised that life is short, and want to spend quality time making memories with their families. We’ve seen many Africa lodges respond by repurposing their accommodations and camps to allow for larger groups to stay together — interconnecting tents and rooms, private villas and so on.
- A related trend to larger families travelling is the concept of a ‘travel bubble’, where a group of friends or family travel together without interacting with others. On safari, this usually means a private vehicle for game drives, combined with private, exclusive use accommodation. This offers our clients the ultimate personalised safari experience, giving them control of meal times, activities, how long to stay at sightings and more. We’ve seen several lodges launch standalone properties in the past 6 months, specifically to target this market.
- Using tour operators has proven to be invaluable, navigating COVID-19 has been a distressing challenge for many travellers. Our guests have peace of mind when they are booking in a tricky and confusing landscape of updates on entry and exit requirements — sometimes changing on a weekly basis. Our insider knowledge and on-the-ground solid partnerships on the continent give us a distinctive edge in having a seamless journey.
- Across the board, our clients are understandably more cautious than pre-COVID when booking, often wanting to know intricate details regarding cancellation terms, along with their deferral options and flexibility to change parts of their itinerary. Staying on top of inbound and outbound travel regulations worldwide, and offering flexible booking terms, will be key differentiators for successful travel companies for the next couple of years at least.
- Sustainable travel is dominating headlines within the travel industry, it is fast becoming the only way to travel, and I couldn’t be happier about this. People who are as passionate about travel as I am want to know that their travels serve a purpose in the protection of people and the planet. Africa as a whole is a phenomenal sustainable travel destination. Many safari camps, lodges, resorts are completely eco-friendly, and actively involved in community upliftment and wildlife preservation.
You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
My perfect vacation experience is a mix of adventure and relaxation. Ideally, I like a vacation that includes some real adventure elements, such as taking a local overnight train to reach a destination, trekking by camel, camping, multi-day hiking, or taking part in conservation activities. This then needs to be balanced out by beautiful scenery in nature, and time to reflect in the great outdoors. Adrenaline mixed with some serotonin!
Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Working with Go2Africa, we are privileged to already be working in a positive impact space. By virtue of what we market and sell to our clients, we already ensure a positive impact is created in the conservation and community space. On top of this, we have the honour of close relationships with many conservation and community projects that we can actively pursue and support.
The latest of these conservation projects is the Serengeti Girls Run — a personal bucket list challenge that will allow me to truly live out my work in the travel industry, and represent Go2Africa in a worthy cause.
It’s a three-day, all-women race through Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, in which women from across the world run for the empowerment of Tanzanian women. Contributions raised for the Serengeti Girls Run will be donated to the Grumeti Fund, a non-profit organisation that carries out vital wildlife conservation and community development work in the western Serengeti.
The race helps fund empowerment initiatives that include scholarships for 80 local girls in secondary schools, vocational studies and university tuition, one year’s supply of sanitary pads for 5 000 high school girls, as well as mentorship programs and life-skills training.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊
I would ensure that every safari company, accommodation and activity operator actively commits to a transparent portion of what guests pay to conservation efforts. Whilst this isn’t a new idea, it’s one of the most important in protecting precious wildlife and the communities around them, and being able to keep meticulous track of that funding.
One camp that does this phenomenally well is Marataba Conservation Camps. They charge a daily accommodation fee and a daily conservation fee, to demonstrate which part of what you pay goes directly to the conservation efforts they run.
At Go2Africa, we have started working on the foundations of setting up our own internal Conservation Committee. Over the course of the next 6 months we plan to identify the key areas where we have the opportunity to involve ourselves ever more closely in vital conservation and community efforts.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on Insta, @maijaderijkuys.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.