Susan Ejiroghene Iriri is the managing partner of PnG Travels limited, a subsidiary of Pinky and Glamor limited. The travel agency, which is just over two years old, has made notable progress even with the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions.
Iriri holds a degree in mass communication from Olabisi Onabanjo University, a degree in business administration from the University of Lagos and several professional qualifications.
In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for travel and tourism, especially for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic as a young travel entrepreneur.
What sparked your interest in the travel and tourism industry?
The zeal to demystify tourism as a woman, with a Nigerian passport and personal immigration mistakes, led me into the industry. I realized that as a Nigerian with a green passport, there seemed to be a lot of limitations for those looking to travel for tourism purposes.
It also opened my eyes to the fact that there are many untapped tourist destinations in the world that one can venture into without visa hassle. It also led me to the conclusion that many people have similar problems and I decided to share my knowledge with those who need it while living it.
Your business started during the COVID-19 pandemic, how would you describe the journey?
Believe me, it was a scary time, as PnG travels was still in its infancy; I had to deal with refund requests and genuinely stuck customers asking for help and I couldn’t help. The whole world was confused, so you can imagine how I felt, but I stayed focused and determined to weather the storm. I used this time to create and implement online strategies that increased my customers and gave my business high positive protection.
The pandemic arrived with a lot of uncertainty and nobody knew exactly when it would end. We had customers stranded in various countries around the world and the airlines weren’t lifting, but despite the drought caused by the pandemic, the massive influx of travel requests as soon as the ban was lifted gave me immense hope and motivation in the travel industry. The truth is, I was strategic enough to invest in myself as a person and my brand as a whole during the lockdown; digital marketing and deliberate plans were put in place to enter the market as soon as the ban was lifted. And luckily for us, it worked. So yes, COVID-19 was more of a blessing for PnG Travels
Share with us some of the challenges you have faced in running the business?
Being in the middle is always hard work and the main challenge is trying to keep a customer happy when things go wrong. Problems always arise with airlines, hotels, cancellations and refunds and of course the very painful visa refusals that Nigerians have to endure which ruins most clients’ holiday plans. I think that’s where we travel professionals come in and make our customers happy by providing solutions.
We have the challenges that we cannot control and those that are within our control; it is very important to be able to distinguish between them and to do everything possible to manage customers amicably. There are ups and downs in business, and sometimes we have to bear losses just to satisfy our customers. Of course, there is the problem that we usually face as tour operators and tour operators in Nigeria, which is more of an economic problem.
For example, insecurity in Nigeria makes it difficult to sell our indigenous tourist attractions. There are many beautiful places waiting to be exploited in this country, but insecurity, funding, promotion and maintenance have hampered the progress and growth of the tourism industry locally. Imagine tourists coming from America or Europe to connect with their roots and I can only take them to a beach in Lagos and the Nike Art Gallery? In fact, Nigeria is listed as one of the dangerous places to visit in the world. We have so much more to offer as a nation and it is high time we harnessed these God given resources and positioned ourselves as a major tourist nation not only in Africa but worldwide.
What new innovation are you bringing to the table in the industry?
I don’t know if it’s new, but I’m doing it my way. We have a travel club with a growing number of members; I set out to make travel as relaxing and laid back as possible, entertaining and above all accommodating. To provide all of our customers with affordable luxury, as well as a truly fun experience whenever someone chooses to travel with PnG. In our business we encourage group travel and personal travel by only taking a deposit of N50,000 for one trip, once you have shown your commitment we are ready to accept your payment plan.
And in our travel club, we have three categories, Gold, Platinum and Silver, where we offer priority service, discounted vacations, access to 50% off our offers. For us, the needs of our customers are paramount and we make it our duty to give them value for their money and their time. We are also committed to opening up new tourist destinations around the world, creating opportunities for genuine tourists to explore stress-free.
How much would you say Nigerians value the travel and tourism industry?
Nigerians really love to travel, the airport is always full and contrary to what people may think, many of us are also interested in local tourism. Despite the insecurity, we still have beautiful resorts open every day and that’s because of our love for travel and tourism. It’s just a few vibrations that are born; you can’t help it. The only reason a Nigerian may not have explored the world is finance. Once they get it, they move on.
The idea of traveling to an average Nigerian is fascinating. Although we can travel for various reasons, it is not news that we like to travel. Diaspora remittances to Nigeria increased by 11.2% in 2021 to reach $19.2 billion. The figure was highest in sub-Saharan Africa, which recorded 14.1% to 49 billion naira, which almost exceeded the World Bank’s projection for 2021. So, yes, we love to travel despite the various setbacks that the ‘we can meet, we travel Anyway.
What was it like running the business as a woman in Nigeria? Is there anything you would have done differently?
The travel industry in Nigeria is actually female dominated and it is a joy for me to see my gender breaking down prejudice and doing great things. The desire to take responsibility and manage the various demands of the company is present and very commendable.
I have personally learned a lot from the women around me and am grateful for every opportunity that has arisen. Of course, there may be exceptions, but in general I feel the love and the true intention of some women around me to grow and not necessarily to compete.
What advice do you have for other women looking to run businesses like you? What advice do you have for them?
One basic thing to consider when running a travel business is education and another important factor is experience. you need both to soar in the industry and neither can be replaced by the other. I would advise him to get the proper knowledge and training, maybe learn the ropes from a mentor, work with someone who is not only experienced but also willing to share his knowledge . Put yourself in the game while you learn, be the best version of yourself, and serve wholeheartedly. I believe she will know when she is strong enough to start running the business on her own.
It is also more expensive to run a travel agency now; they recently increased share capital to register a travel agency to 50 million shares. You have to take all this into account and save before taking the plunge.
What can be done differently to improve the industry? What role should government play?
Government can certainly do a lot to improve the travel and tourism industry as a whole; we must capitalize on our strengths and our natural resources. For example, it will be a big challenge for me to say that we should invest in medical tourism, because we are certainly not ready and it will take years, even decades, to present ourselves in the international market from this angle. But we have already created beautiful natural resources in Nigeria for example the Obudu Cattle Ranch, we need more support to build and invest in places like this, we need more art galleries controlled by the government with the Nike Art Gallery standard. More importantly, we need security to confidently market these tourist attractions and proper maintenance to keep us on high marks on the world map. It’s doable.
Dubai earns an average of 38 billion USD per year. This is not by chance, but a deliberate effort by the UAE government to strategically place them among the top tourist destinations in the world. And it also attracted foreign investors. We just need proper investment and management. I think our government can do more; we count on them to do more.
What motivates and inspires you?
I am motivated by positive customer reviews. Seeing that my customers are really satisfied with my service makes me completely pumped up. Solving customers’ travel needs and taking the hassle out of travel keeps me motivated and the truth is that a happy customer tends to recommend friends and family which automatically means I have to deliver to again to keep the chain positive.
I might have a bad day, but once there is a customer who is happy with one of our services, I light up and get propelled to do extra work and make more people smile. The success stories of others also motivate me. I am greatly inspired by my family and women like Okonjo Iweala, Chimamanda Adichie and Oprah Winfrey.
What is your life mantra?
Never give up! If you can dream it, then you can achieve it. There are a lot of hurdles and hurdles on the way to success and no matter how many times you fall, just dust yourself off and try again.