Roots and horizons - A company history
Written by Chief Executive, Tim Henshall.
I first visited Africa back in 1995, travelling with Somak Holidays along Tanzania’s northern circuit (Manyara, Ngorongoro and Serengeti) before spending a week on Kenya’s Dianibeach.
Initially not that excited at the prospect of the trip, I was an instant Africa convert at the sight of my first lion. My then wife had long had a real passion for animals, gained from having an older brother, who was a huge wildlife enthusiast. So the trip resulted in us committing to visit Africa every year, which has happened, right up to this day.
Kenya was soon followed by trips to the likes of Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia, but in 2005, everything was to change. Holidaying in Zambia, we met lodge owner, Anke Cowan and then Sandie Robinson. Anke had suggested that I should try to combine all my passions – marketing, Africa, wildlife and photography. But how might that come about? And then days later, I met Sandie Robinson, who declared over dinner, “I’ve bought Pioneer Lodge and don’t really know how on earth to market it”.
So, leaving a reasonably highly paid job in the advertising industry, I created Kamili (Safaris) with the idea of providing a range of marketing services to various segments across the safari industry. Within months that had narrowed to representation – the most sought after service by those in Africa wanting to increase business from the UK.
First, we needed a name. Ideally, an African name with a bit of meaning, but nothing too obvious. I sat with a Swahili phrasebook in search of a meaningful as well as nice sounding word. Stumbling upon the Swahili for “perfect”, my work was done. And Kamili was born.
From day one, I was committed to building a brand, not an agency with clients. Instead, I wanted to have recognised and accepted values, consistent not only in our marketing, but in each of our partners too.
But why a brand? Well, if the likes of Wilderness Safaris or African Bush Camps opened a new property tomorrow, the trade would have a pretty good idea what it’d be like in terms of standards, size and look. Importantly, they’d probably book their clients in there, knowing what they’d get, without the need to necessarily visit themselves beforehand. So why couldn’t Kamili do the same for smaller, independent lodges who were too busy delivering the client experience, to be doing their own marketing as well?
Initially, Kamili’s portfolio had a distinctly three-star feel to it, but as the years have gone by, we’ve moved distinctly upmarket, but without betraying our roots. Value for money remains at the core of what we’re all about.
We worked hard, invested more than any other agency on creative marketing and we were passionate about what we did. Kamili quickly built a great reputation across the industry, especially with our 3-4* properties proving so useful during the recession. Within a few years, the portfolio of lodges, camps and DMCs had expanded fast – at one point reaching over 50 ‘products’ around 14 different Africa countries!
By 2013, it was time to leave the nest. Kamili moved into its first proper offices, finally leaving the spare bedroom behind. The first two staff were quick to follow – Adele and Sophie. The latter was to create her own romantic safari tale. Taken by the company on her first ever Africa trip, she fell in love with the now owner of Pioneer Lodge (yes, the same lodge), an Englishman by the name of Paul Barnes. They now live in Lusaka and have a lovely son, Archie. We’d have preferred they called him Kamili, but you can’t have everything.
In Spring 2013, we also launched our second brand, Kameric. For the next five years this more focused service would provide lodge group owners (including Ker & Downey Botswana and African Bushcamps), with their UK representation, but in 2018, the brand was mothballed (for now, at least). Later in 2013, after lengthy discussions with the MD of GeoGroup- another Nottinghamshire-based Africa specialist tourism marketing company, a joint venture was decided upon.
Taking the Kam of Kamili, and the Geo of GeoGroup, we created Kamageo – initially pronounced Kam-a-jee-oh (something reminiscence of an Italian motorcycle brand, I was once told). In time, this was changed to Kam-a-gay-o, by Africans who stated this sounded far more appropriate to their languages. As Mae West once said, “I don’t care what you call me, as long as you call me”. Who are we to argue?
Having marketed DMCs in countries which were sometimes not on the tour operators product list, that sometimes required a country sell long before anything else. So we’d already honed a skill for destination marketing, to the trade at least.
COMPANY VISION STATEMENT
TO BE RECOGNISED BY THE AFRICA TRAVEL INDUSTRY AS A CENTRE OF TOURISM MARKETING EXCELLENCE
GeoGroup had been working with Malawi and Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) for many years, so comparing and contrasting our skill-bases, it was agreed that we’d pursue other African destinations together. Our first country brief was for press advertising from Botswana, but the first major breakthrough occurred in 2014. Following an exhausting tendering process, Rwanda Development Board (RDB) hired Kamageo to market their destination across North America, UK & Ireland, Russia and Germany.
The least said about Rwanda’s payments, the better. But during the time, every target set by RDB was smashed by Kamageo. We learnt so much about dealing with an African government, as well as the best methods for engaging with the trade, the media and consumers. Sadly, RDB ran out of funding and so Kamageo was able to concentrate on long term target, Uganda Tourism Board. In 2016, UTB appointed Kamageo for UK & Ireland. Again, every target set has been exceeded.
In 2017, Kamageo came of age. Having cut our teeth on Rwanda and proved our worth again on Uganda, Kamageo looked to take on a (already) higher profile destinations. The launch of Zambia Marketing Group (ZMG) achieved that. This private sector marketing group is a joint effort between property owners in Zambia working together to actively promote their destination to the trade and to travellers. By sweeping aside the red tape, politics and budget restraints that often hamper the best efforts of national tourist boards, ZMG effectively and efficiently targets the right audiences and follows through on agreed marketing initiatives.
ZMG proved a huge success - with highlights including a social-media friendly 3-D Victoria Falls and a live broadcast by ITV’s ‘Good Morning Britain’ from Zambia. So much so, we replicated the ZMG approach in Tanzania with the launch of TANTOO (Tanzania Tourism Organisation). Sadly, this was short-lived as Uganda felt that TANTOO competed too closely with their work, and so unfortunately we had to suspend all Tanzania activities in September 2019.
At WTM London in early November 2018, we were responsible for the successful re-launch of Sierra Leone, which has seen us gain an on-going contract with the sierraously surprising destination! And 2019 has been our most successful yet, with the addition of three major accounts - firstly, The Gambia, closely followed by neighbouring Senegal. In August 2019 we won our most high profile destination to date - Mauritius, which has required recruitment and a switch in emphasis.
By then, it was fair to say that Kamageo was firmly established as the No.1 agency for Africa. We represented Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Eswatini, Sierra leone, The Gambia, Senegal and Mauritius. Only South Africa (Brighter), Namibia (Hills Balfour) and Kenya (Hills Balfour) were represented by anyone else in the UK.
Then one word sums things up. Covid. I don't really need to say much more, but I can say we're on our way back. Like everyone else we are having to completely rebuild, but our skills, expertise and experience all the same, as is our determination and passion.