Business and Finance

How to build a thriving cultural tourism business

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Cultural tourism is occupying a growing presence in African travel experiences. We caught up with Iain Harris, the curious entrepreneur behind Coffeebeans Routes in Cape Town, South Africa.

By Keith van der Linde for Africa Report

When did you start CoffeeBeans Routes?
It was started experimentally in 2005. I spent about two and a half years in R&D and in mid 2008 I found an investor and Coffeebeans was launched officially in November 2008.

Why did you choose this particular name?
Everywhere in the world, everybody understands coffee. It is a universal thread. Over coffee, people share stories and opinion. So Coffeebeans is a good fit. The name is memorable, and it creates a `lean-in’ – everybody asks why we are called Coffeebeans Routes.

What exactly does the business do?
Coffeebeans Routes creates experiences around urban stories, around the stories of the people of a city. These experiences take the form of off-the-shelf and customised tours and events. Underpinning what we do is the objective of using creativity and expression as tools of economic development.

What motivated you to start this business?
My previous business, a pan-African music and culture portal on the web, and a record label, had failed, but I was still working with musicians in the city, finding ways to create gigs and opportunities. I identified a space in tourism, where visitors wanted more out of the city, and musicians needed paying audiences. So it seemed that there was a way to build tourism experiences around the musicians, with them performing at home, offering a meal prepared in their home.

Is the company in a positive state of growth?
Yes, we have been growing slowly but surely since 2008. And there is enormous scope for growth, both in SA and in the rest of Africa.

What do you regard as the biggest success of CoffeeBeans Routes? The biggest challenge?
We’ve created a lot of new business opportunities for storytellers, be they musicians or cooks or drivers or guides. We have the challenge of managing people, who might have a bad day and not handle guests well when they arrive at their home for a music experience. We’ve created ways to manage this effectively, and that gives us a huge edge. So our biggest challenge has also been our biggest success.

What role does cultural tourism play in the continent’s development?
If you visit the Tourism Indaba in Durban, and visit the Africa pavilions, you’ll see that tourism in Africa is about safaris and lodges and hotels. You’ll find nothing about contemporary urban African experiences. So I would say that presently cultural tourism hardly exists in any meaningful way on the continent, but that the scope for it is untapped.

How would you describe your personal journey with the company?
Within the business I’ve been able to indulge many of the things I love: theatre, storytelling, film-making, so I’m fortunate that this business has been incredibly satisfying on a personal level.

Do you consider yourself a born entrepreneur?
No, I think I’m a born curious person. And that means that entrepreneurship is a good fit. My interest is in what is possible, not necessarily in the goal of selling it at some point.

Do you have any expansion plans for the future?
Yes, we are launching in Johannesburg in 2014, and Jozi is a strategic step toward offering pan-African experiences. Ultimately the goal is to have Coffeebeans Routes offices in several African cities. We are working on a building a really strong foundation.

If you could advise the entrepreneurs of tomorrow one thing, what would it be?
It always takes longer than you expect. And there are many surprises. You have to really believe in what you are doing, but without being precious about it. You need to build something designed to function without you, so that it can live without you.


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