Early 2020, Nigeria’s tourism industry was in its best state.
The country’s music industry was peaking and a 2019 year-end party atmosphere, dubbed ‘Detty December’ had positioned Nigeria as the go-to African country for fun and parties.
But just as tour agencies were priming themselves to be the biggest beneficiary of this momentum, COVID-19 happened.
“We were growing so fast,” Funmi Oyatogun, travel business executive and CEO of TVP Adventures recalls while speaking with NewsWireNGR’s Oladele Owodina.
“Right before the pandemic, we had Detty December in 2019, which was the greatest fun we ever had.
“There was a lot going on and we were so excited about 2020. Suddenly the pandemic came.”
As with most businesses around the world, the pandemic was an inconceivable challenge that would force TVP Adventure into a survival mode.
But beyond balancing the books, the pandemic tested the credible foundation on which Oyatogun had built her business.
“When the pandemic struck, we promised our customers that every single one would get their money back,” Oyatogun says while explaining that the company has a vow to refund customers’ money if it defaults on a paid trip.
“And we did, despite having airlines still owing us because they either shut down or yet to recover from the pandemic, we refunded our customers because if you do not go on a trip, you should get your money back no matter what the reason was.”
The world is gradually returning to status quo after an over 18 months of COVID-19 hiatus and Oyatogun says the company’s books no longer look like they had gone through the rough phase of a pandemic. This is thanks to their resilience and creativity in carving new business models.
In this interview, Funmi Oyatogun bares her journey to becoming a geographer and how that background knowledge gave her the hack to build one of the most popular tour agencies in the country – TVP Adventures.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What was growing up like for you?
I had a normal childhood but there were certain parts of my childhood that were more exciting than the norm because I had parents who made sure that we were curious about the world and sort of live life outside the classroom. So in that sense, I guess I did have a bit of an extraordinary childhood.
I grew up in Port Harcourt with my mum, dad, and my three siblings. Growing up with my siblings was very good because four of us were born in the space of six years. So it was nice to have siblings that were going through the same stage of life as you.
We were always close because we were close in age, and we all went to school together and had the same set of friends.
- Funmi Oyatogun with Family
What did you want to be while you were growing up?
It depends on the age. Much younger, I wanted to be a doctor. Then, as I got older, I wanted to work with National Geographic to be an animal scientist or a zoologist. When I got to secondary school, there was a brief period where I wanted to be an economist because somebody told me economists understand money and are never broke. So I just thought I could secure my financial security but it was a very short time so I went back to wanting to be a zoologist.
I remember when I was in SS2; we had already started the conversation about university and my geography teacher (God bless his heart) called me and said; I know you want to be a zoologist, but have you thought about environmental science? I know that what you want to do is a bit more suited to that and zoology might be narrow for what you want to do.
That was the first time I heard that, so I looked into it. All that while, I had been interested in the environment and the world. I travelled a lot with my family and I travelled for my school. The thought of being very active in the environmental space fascinated me so when my geography teacher planted that seed in my heart, I chose to study environmental studies and geography as a double major in the University of Colorado Boulder.
That was what I wanted to study, and that is what I became.
How did you become a travel business executive?
I knew that I wanted to travel in my life; I knew that I wanted to live in a space that allowed me to travel but I did not for once think that I would be in the travel business.
I had been writing a travel guide in a food blog that was strongly influenced by travel. So it was a travel and food blog. When I was home after graduation, people were telling me it was a very interesting guide because I had written about Africa, Kenya and all these places that people had not thought of going before.
So they started asking me to replicate the trips I was writing about and I agreed. Someone had also asked me to plan something for Independence Day in 2016 and I did that. We put it out there and we were sold out. That was the first trip that we did and before we knew it, we had done another trip, another trip and another trip.
How did you settle for TVP Adventures?
It started as a food-based travel blog – The Village Pot. When we started doing trips, I did not want to make too many drastic changes, so I just contracted it to TVP. At that time, I did not know that it was going to be a travel company. I just knew that we had trips to do, and we had to put out fliers.
Tell us about TVP Adventures and what it does
We design travel experiences that help people discover the world. Most of our work is on the continent because we are very big in ensuring people can explore Africa because Africa is under-explored. We go outside the continent as well.
We are focused on making sure that travel is easy, accessible, affordable and our customers have a meaningful, exciting and very authentic travel experience that they cannot replicate anywhere else.
We started in 2016 and our first trip was an Independence Day trip. We are almost 5 years old now.
What is the most memorable trip organised by TVP Adventures?
Oh my goodness, you are asking me to choose from my babies. Honestly, every experience has been incredibly memorable but I will say that the one that is most challenging and rewarding was when we climbed the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2019.
It was one of those trips that you do once in your life and it changes you forever.
- TVP adventurers at Mount Kilimanjaro
So it was incredible for me and incredible giving other people that experience.
It is hard to choose from the others but I remember one time we went to Gambia. Gambia was a bit sparse in terms of the activities that could be done there, but the group was incredible and we remained friends to date.
The business we do has a way of influencing our life – What is life as a tour manager?
I think it is incredible. It is a lot of work trying to put together trips, trying to ensure that all the moving parts are moving the way they are supposed to move and trying to make sure that nothing ruins the experience of travelers. It is a lot of work having to fix all the details.
Incredibly, no two trips are the same even if you are going to the same place and no travel groups are the same. So for us, it is an adventure and we try to ensure there are no route surprises to the customers.
How did you hack this adventure business to rank as one of the best in the country?
It is a lot of work and I find it fascinating when people think that tourism is a low hanging fruit that they can just do as a side hustle. They are in for a rude awakening when they do that.
I think anything worth doing at all is worth doing well so we overcompensate with customer service and ensure we are constantly communicating with our customers. We make sure that our customers see that we have their experience in our mind and we want to give them the best.
We plan, but anything can ruin the plan. Dollar can just double and anything other thing can happen. So we do our best to ensure we are communicating and treating our customers kindly. We know how much they spend to go on trips and we do not play with our customers.
When the pandemic struck, we promised our customers that every single one would get their money back whether we have gotten it or not. And we did, despite having airlines still owing us because they either shut down or yet to recover from the pandemic.
We refunded our customers because if you do not go on a trip, you should get your money back no matter what the reason was.
Tourism is described as a goldmine, do you think the industry is under-explored?
I do not think there is any industry in Nigeria that has been explored to its potential, but tourism especially is under-explored.
There are things that we in the industry are doing but there are a lot of things that can be done that is out of our control.
For the ones which are within our control, we work towards that. We try to tell different stories, create awareness, create a customer base and have a merger of small companies coming together to do this thing.
Even the most successful industry, our music industry, has not even scratched the surface, so imagine we infants, there are still a lot that can be achieved.
What are the under-explored opportunities in the industry?
Traffic! If we can get people to see what is happening culturally – parties, events, Detty December, religious tourism, our nature spaces, our mountains, our wildlife and more.
Visa on arrival as well. Making sure that people can easily access visa to the country and wherever they go, they can get the same information. Not that immigration website is saying this, immigration officer is saying another thing and agents are saying a different thing.
We have to make sure that the economy is stable enough for people to invest their dollars and build hotels, world class parks. There are a lot of things that could happen.
The pandemic disrupted tourism in the country, what was the industry like during and after the pandemic?
I think we were growing; we were growing so fast and then the pandemic happened. Right before the pandemic, we had Detty December in 2019, which was the greatest fun we had ever had.
It was a gradual build, we had so many stars and people coming into the country. We created a friendly ecosystem with Ghana and people who wanted to trace their roots went there and Lagos.
There was a lot going on and we were so excited about 2020 and suddenly the pandemic came. It affected us dearly, but we are gradually rebuilding the industry.
I think where we are now is better, and there is no need to cry over spilled milk. Where we are now is that the world is opening up again so we need to find the lowest hanging fruits that we have now.
Religious tourism is a big thing in Nigeria as the headquarters of some of the biggest churches in the world are in our country. When you go through Lagos-Ibadan expressway, you will see churches that have hundreds of branches around the world.
That is a great way to start because these people are coming to their “Mecca” and we have the traffic coming in, so we might as well get them to explore the country for one or two days. We have business guests, foreigners coming into the country for business. We have lots of returnees who come home for Christmas, we have lots of African neighbours who want to come experience this renowned Naija social and party scene.
We don’t have to go the route of Dubai where we build everything from scratch. Nollywood, our thriving tech hub and Nigeria’s music industry are big exports that can be sold to people.
How did you survive the pandemic?
We were very resilient as a company. We were very intentional about making sure that we thrived despite the circumstances. Our books do not look like we went through a pandemic because we created a game that we are still selling around the world.
We lost so much money, went into debt during the pandemic. We are getting back on our feet because we had a business that kept us going. We started the game business in the middle of the pandemic because we want to keep people engaged when they could not travel. So we created a game and we are on our way to creating the second game.
There is no need to dwell on the past, but there was no travel for 12 months. You can make your imagination of how bad things were.
Did the government provide relief for travel businesses during the pandemic?
I am not aware if they did, but I did not receive any relief from the government.
Let us assume the Minister of Information and Culture contracts you to create a strategy to promote Nigeria’s tourism sector. What will this strategy look like?
I think the biggest mistake a lot of people make is that they sit down in an interview and give answers that will fix a hundred year problem.
You cannot easily create a strategy because tourism is connected to information, culture, infrastructure, energy, security, stability and international relations.
I once posted a chart of three immediate things the country should focus on when it comes to tourism. That chart had
- Marketing, branding and public relations
- Security and safety
- Quality services and sites.
They work hand in hand and they are all important.
If you have marketing, branding and public relations plus quality services and sites but you do not have security, people are going to get into trouble. They will go back and spread unsatisfactory words about your country.
If you have marketing, branding and public relations plus security but no quality services and sites, people will come, but they will have nothing to explore. So they might come but there will be no memorable moment.
If you have security and safety plus quality services and sites but you do not have marketing, branding and public relations, who is going to come? Who is going to know about it? They will go to where they get information about.
So it is very important that these three work in tandem because that is when we can say we have tourism.
What are your hobbies?
Travelling to relax either alone in a pair. Travelling for work is different from this because I get to relax. I really enjoy music, I enjoy reading and I enjoy watching documentaries – I can watch them all day. I am just fascinated by how the world works.
I also enjoy dancing salsa and playing tennis.
What is that surprising thing people do not know about you?
People are always surprised by how tall I am. I always say I am tall on social media, but they meet me and they are surprised that I am tall.
Message to customers and fans of what you do
We live in an incredible world with so many opportunities, and I just can’t wait to see what our generation comes up with. I am so blessed and thankful to be a part of this generation.
If I was not a part of this generation, I would have been jealous. So I am really thankful and I am excited about life and living. I hope everyone feels that excitement.