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A new online booking model for improving pro-poor outcomes - WHL

ProPoorWHL( ) is a global travel booking site with a focus on the developing world and improving pro-poor outcomes. Although now a private company since March 2006, WHL started life as a project of the IFC (part of the World Bank Group). The project was piloted in the Mekong region between 2003 and 2006 with the aim to bring small SME accommodation providers online who were missing out on the growth in travel to the region. These SMEs often had very interesting, comfortable and competitively priced accommodations, but with no visibility to travellers, poor English language skills, poor Internet knowledge and/or access ended up relying on the walk-in trade or touting at airports and bus stations to get customers. The way the challenge was addressed by WHL was not to try and build the capacity of the SMEs directly, but rather to find a local intermediary (tour operator or industry association) with Internet access and computer skills, plus English language knowledge to act as a hub for the cluster of local accommodation providers. WHL skilled up the intermediary and they bridged the gap in language and Internet skills between foreign travellers and the local accommodation providers.

The intermediaries (WHL refers to them as MPOs ....Marketplace Operators) who own and operate the booking business, collect and maintain content (digital images and copy) and manage the bookings. WHL provides the web sites and booking system all MPOs use, plus payment gateways etc. WHL also provides global web marketing and has negotiated a number of global and regional affiliate marketing deals with groups like Lonely Planet to drive traffic to the network. It ended up as a type of franchise business with local MPOs doing all those things best done locally and WHL doing all those things done best and cheapest centrally. To see the effectiveness of this model check out the WHL Samoa site at and compare the number of properties online (including small SME accommodations in the outlying regions) with what is available on other global booking sites such as Expedia, Orbitz,, and HostelWorld.

There have however been many challenges in getting this model to work. First, the technology platform had to not only offer travellers and the MPOs what they wanted, but also support a global franchise management system. Travellers want fast, full featured sites with credit card booking facility and the ability to search, locate properties on maps, read user reviews etc. In the back end, the MPOs wanted special features such as being able to set up alerts and reminders for SMEs unused to taking advance bookings so that they could call or visit them to remind them about booking commitments. WHL also introduced a range of financial and management reports so that MPOs and WHL could see at a glance how the business was performing, and whether or not MPOs were meeting minimum service standards. All sites are benchmarked with others on the network so that individual MPOs can see how they are performing compared to all others.

The next challenge when opening up WHL sites in Africa was the different mix in travel product. The independent travel market in Africa (outside South Africa at least) is not nearly as well developed as it is in Asia. Accommodation is often tied to the main tourism asset such as a game reserve, and travel to these areas involves combining tours, transport and accommodation in a package. Activities on-site are often optional and booked as such. This led WHL to extending the model to include bookable tours and activities, providing travellers the opportunity to select what they want, put it in a shopping cart and do a one-off instant booking.

Finally, and most important of all, has been the challenge of building a network of the right sort of MPOs to make the business a success. For the most part the MPOs today are well established, profitable and locally owned inbound tour operators although there a few local industry associations in the network. At a minimum the local partners have to speak reasonable English, have Internet access and a have a good reputation with both suppliers and travellers. Ideally however, WHL is looking for that little bit with a real passion for their destination and for providing travellers with an authentic travel experience. The MPOs with this interest are generally the ones in WHL experience who understand the pro-poor and sustainable tourism issues, and are able to deliver real win-win outcomes for both the traveller and the local community. In the end it will be WHL ability to deliver a great travel experience which will keep travellers coming back, and which in turn will deliver the pro-poor benefits, so selecting the right MPOs and supporting them well is critical.

As at end August 2007 WHL was live in 70 destinations in 40 countries and has another 30 destination sites in 17 countries under construction. By mid 2008 they expect to be live in over 150 destinations in around 80 countries.


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