PHOTO: David Wong at one of the churches built into solid rock at Lalibela, Ethiopia, during the NTA Product Development Tour in September. (photo courtesy Goway Travel)
David Wong, team leader for Toronto-based AfricaExperts by Goway, participated in the National Tour Association (NTA) Product Development Trip to Ethiopia in September. Travel Pulse spoke to him after he returned about the trip, Goway Travel's Africa division, Ebola and the career path that led from Calgary to Africa.
Travel Pulse: Was the NTA Product Development Trip to Ethiopia productive for you?
David Wong: Yeah, absolutely. It was very educational and a very interesting destination, an interesting country.
TP: Does Goway already offer trips to Ethiopia?
DW: Yeah, we sure do. We did have interest in the destination previously, but we didn’t really have a supplier in place. So we were using one of our other adventure suppliers based in Cape Town, South Africa, before. Now we have a full-on supplier that’s based in Addis Ababa and we have it as a featured destination in our 2015 Africa brochure.
TP: So your programs to Ethiopia will be better now because of the trip?
Yeah, they will be more specialized, a better supplier. The one we had wasn’t based in Ethiopia. The one we use now is called Jacaranda Tours in Addis Ababa.
TP: What kind of programs will you be offering?
In our brochure right now we have an eight-day Historic North Tour and eight-day Cultural South Tour and a three-, four- and five-day Ethiopia Stopover Program.
TP: It’s amazing how comprehensive Goway is in what it offers around the world.
Yeah, it is. It’s been around for 40 years. Our bread and butter is Australia and New Zealand, but we have a good Africa division.
TP: How did you end up as a team leader for Africa for Goway? Did you grow up in Toronto?
No, actually I grew up in Calgary, born and raised in Calgary, went to school in Calgary, University of Calgary. I’ve been in Toronto about 10 years now.
TP: What did you study in school?
Tourism and hospitality, so I’m still in the same field.
TP: When did you decide you were interested in tourism?
I decided when I was in school, the first couple of years in university. I majored in tourism and hospitality management, a Bachelor of Commerce. I took the cooperative education work experience program. It allowed me to work at Disneyland in California for a summer.
TP: That sounds fun.
Then I went into hotels for eight years. One of my jobs at the work experience program was at Mountaineer Lodge at Lake Louise. After that went to work for another hotel in Calgary and then back to Mountaineer Lodge in Lake Louise three years later.
TP: What was it about tourism that made you decide you wanted to work in that field?
Initially it was just that I was a little shy and reserved personality-wise so it was initially recommended to me by my university advisers just to converse and meet people from around the world, get me out of my shell I guess. At Disneyland you are meeting people from all over the world. So that was originally and primarily how I got into it, just to work at Disney. Then I worked at two hotels in Lake Louise, two in Calgary and one in Toronto.
TP: What were you doing in hotels?
Primarily I was working at the front desk. At a couple of the hotels I was front desk manager.
TP: You really took seriously the suggestion that you should be talking to people. That’s an important post.
Yeah, in terms of handling complaints, checking people in and out and being a concierge at times as well. You had to know destinations well so could recommend things.
TP: How did you meet Goway, and how did you end up doing Africa?
Just by chance, actually. After the eight years of hotels I then worked in inbound for Toronto for a tour operator called Jonview Canada. I worked for two years in product department promoting Canada mainly to Europeans. I stayed in the tour operator business, went to working with outbound travel with Goway, and just happened to join in the Africa department with no previous experience or travel to the continent. That’s coming up to eight years.
TP: How has the Ebola panic affected Goway?
It has affected us greatly. It has resulted in cancellations of existing bookings as well as prospective quotes of clients that have cancelled their quotes because of Ebola. The calls have lightened up greatly. It’s a very slow time for us.
TP: How is the company reacting? Is there anything you can do about it besides wait it out?
We put out newsletters and such about the nonexistence of it in southern, eastern and northern Africa.
TP: Just trying to clarify the facts for people and to help them understand what’s going on?
Absolutely. That’s right, just in terms of the geography and the fact that Ebola is nonexistent in the areas we sell and there is no need to be afraid.
TP: I guess it’s just going to take time.
Yeah. We’ll just have to wait it out and hopefully get the clients coming back. I don’t think there is much we can do about it except trying to educate clients with newsletters and so forth.
TP: Is what you have in the brochure pretty much the same thing as you are now offering but with a different ground operator?
Yeah. We didn’t feature Ethiopia prominently in our brochure previously. We had it in the back pages in the adventure section. But now it’s a prominent destination that has a full page with pictures.
TP: So that changed before you took the trip, right?
Yeah, it was in our minds earlier this year when Moira Smith, Goway’s head of Africa, and Carolyn Wepler, our manager from retail, went to Ethiopia in March. That was a trip for them to find a supplier. Now we have a contract with a ground operator there in Ethiopia, and we have net rates from Ethiopian Airlines, so we’re pretty much ready to sell. It’s live for us.
TP: Will your trip have any effect on the itinerary?
Yeah, we can’t do much about it now for this year because it’s already in the brochure, but maybe for the next brochure I can offer some input into the places where they stay, and where they go visiting and so forth. We did happen to stay at a couple of the places that are in the programs in our brochure, including the Jupiter Hotel. Now I’m just finalizing my presentation for the department. I’ll have to talk about the lack of guaranteed hot water and limited infrastructure for facilities and so forth.
TP: One of the results of the Ebola scare was to emphasize how much the protection of the wildlife in Africa is dependent on tourism.
It’s true. Just going over some of the research for my presentation there, isn’t much in Ethiopia that would be the equivalent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There’s no formal government conservation management entity. In the national park where we went, I don’t think you can find any kind of office where you pay a fee to get in. When you go into a national park in the U.S. and Canada, you get an information guide when you come in, you pay the fee. You usually see park rangers in our parks. There you didn’t see anyone. It was wild and uncontrolled. There was no enforcement.
But it was good. It was a fantastic destination, a great group that we had. Would I go back again? Yeah, I would.
TP: Ethiopia has many sites of interest to religious travelers, and they would just as interesting to travelers with a secular orientation, but you would need to present them differently to the different kinds of groups.
Absolutely. That’s the job of our company, to educate and inform travel agents about what is appropriate for their clients. I’m in wholesale, I only deal with travel agents, not consumers.
TP: So you have to do some work to explain those differences to them.
Yeah, they have to do some work on their end to qualify the clients to see what their primary interests are, and then they relay it to us and we say, “That’s a good fit,” or “That’s not a good fit,” and suggest other tours we would rather sell to those clients.