t takes a huge capital investment to
start an airline or a cruise line, but most tour operations have
modest beginnings. Some of the biggest names today began with one
leased coach and the founder behind the wheel or leading the
The Taucks, the Kassners, the Perillos, the Mantegazzas -- each
saw an opportunity, planted a seed and nurtured it into something
I recently was talking with a large European tour operator who
said his business was going gangbusters and that pent-up demand was
overcoming concerns about the weak dollar. But he also said the
surge in travel is not being experienced universally. He suspected
that residual nervousness about traveling abroad is routing a
disproportionate amount of traffic to the largest companies, which
have been able to spend the money to build brands the public knows
and trusts, and that those who haven't aren't as well positioned to
take advantage of the recovery.
I'm pleased for those who are seeing investments in brand equity
pay off, but I can't help but feel concern for operators like Jimmy
Ntintili. I met Jimmy last month while wandering the aisles of ITB,
the monster worldwide trade show held each March in Berlin.
Jimmy had a small booth along a wall in a hall that was
dominated by a massive pavilion set up by South Africa. He sat in a
chair in front of a large photo of a motorcoach painted with a
colorful mural with African motifs, watching buyers go in and out
of the pavilion. Few of them even glanced up to see the words above
the photograph, "Jimmy's Face to Face Tours."
Nineteen years ago, Jimmy saw an opportunity and planted a seed.
He's still nurturing it, and although it has grown well beyond the
dream stage, he still faces an uphill battle.
Jimmy Ntintili is the father of escorted tours to Soweto, the
black township in Johannesburg that for years was the symbol of the
inequities of apartheid. When he looked at Soweto in 1985, he saw
what everyone else saw -- despair, hopelessness, schools in
deplorable condition. But he also something no one else saw -- a
tourist attraction. It had no museums or inspiring monuments, but
it had a unique culture, cuisines and atmosphere.
"I had traveled widely in the U.S. and Europe, and my strongest
memories involved people. If I met nice people somewhere, it was a
nice town. If I were telling my friends about Montana, for
instance, I would talk about a bar I stopped in, and the people I
met there -- I wouldn't go on and on about 'Big Sky Country.' "
His people-focused approach, he said, requires a great deal of
flexibility, both on his part and on the part of his passengers. "I
can't just put a tape into a player and let it run while I have a
driver follow a certain route. There has never been a written
script because I don't always know for sure what's going to happen.
Soweto is a living, ever-changing place.
"Also, I ask my guests, 'What do you want to do? Do you want to
play golf? I'll set something up, and you'll play with some young
black kids. And they'll whup your ass, by the way.' "
He said competition increased significantly after apartheid was
abolished. "Even the big, white-run companies are doing it now. And
they're always stealing my guides," he said, more amused than
complaining. "But they don't give it the personal attention I
"The whole thing is to bring people to my country," he said. He
calls his guests "my tourists" and says any success he has had is
due to "a good understanding of their needs." Almost everything
Jimmy Ntintili says sounds familiar -- he is speaking the language
of the founders of large successful tour operators. I hear the
echoes of Perillo, Tauck, Kassner and Mantegazza.
I honestly don't know enough about Jimmy Ntintili's tours to
recommend his company. But I do know that niche players keep the
industry vibrant. If 2004 is a year of recovery for the big brands,
I hope it's also a year when seeds can be planted and saplings