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Queen of the Night – Marketing a Guesthouse in Ethiopia

Emma with Tseunat sm

By Correspondent Emma Corcoran in Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia

– “Watch out!” I said to the driver, as he edged his way past a fallen tree branch.  He winced, listening to the branch scraping noisily along the side of his polished car as we drove down the rutted dirt laneway. In front of us, a boy wearing shorts and a dusty suit jacket guided a small herd of cows along the narrow road. When I’d hired a driver to take me two hours outside of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, I don’t think he’d imagined his shiny sedan performing this type of adventure travel.

“How much further?” he asked, looking worried. “It’s okay,” I said. “The place is just up here, I can see the sign.”  A few meters further along, we pulled into a courtyard.  On one side of the yard, the rocky ground sloped down steeply to a lake and on the other was a lush, green garden. A few plump chickens pecked at the ground in a flowerbed.

The traditional distillery

The traditional distillery

After spending two months in dusty Addis Ababa, a hectic city of almost four million people, it was a relief to step out of the car and smell the earthy scents of a tropical garden.  I’d come to spend a few weeks in Debre Zeyit, a market town dotted with small crater lakes just 30kms from Addis Ababa.  Salayish Lodge, where I was staying, was built on the steep banks of one of the larger lakes.

I was here for a holiday, but also to do some marketing work. In Addis, I’d met the nephew of Salayish’s owner who had described the lodge as a small oasis of green amongst the dust-bowl of the Ethiopian highlands. He told me that his uncle loved gardening but was a reluctant marketer, so was having trouble attracting customers to the lodge.  I negotiated a deal where I’d do some marketing work in exchange for accommodation.

After settling into my traditionally-built bamboo hut and receiving a quick tour of the property, I met with the staff of the lodge in their small open-air restaurant. To one side of the restaurant was the lodge’s distillery where areki, a stomach-lining-stripping drink made from fermented maize, was produced over an open fire in large earthenware jugs.

Sitting underneath a canopy of bougainvillea flowers I told the staff that their website needed rebuilding because it said that Salayish offered luxury accommodation and an award-winning restaurant. Apart from one suite with lake views, Salayish had budget-priced huts and a menu listing a total of five dishes. With its friendly staff, beautiful gardens and menagerie of animals, (including a horse, goat and one very grumpy turkey), Salayish was charming and quirky – but it definitely wasn’t “luxurious”.

“I think the person who built your website just copied and pasted the text from another website,” I said. “We’ll do a new website, but first I’ll need to get into your e-mail account. What is it?”

Teferi,* the owner, said, “Well, I think the password is ayi22.”

I scribbled this down in my notebook, “OK, but I need more than the password. Who is the e-mail with? Google? Yahoo?”

“I don’t really know,” said Teferi. “My daughter in America checks the email when she has time.”

“Wait a minute: so no-one here has e-mail?” I said. I noticed one of the young managers with a Blackberry in his hand. “Yared, can’t you get e-mail on that phone?”

“Not at the moment,” he said.

“Does ‘not at the moment’ mean ‘not this morning but it will work this afternoon’ or ‘not ever’?” I asked.

“Yeah, not ever,” said Yared.

“But you have an email reservations form on your website! Who is responding to those emails?” I asked.

“My daughter in America, when she isn’t busy,” said Teferi. “But she is quite busy at the moment.”

“What?” I said, a little more sharply than I’d intended. “But…why is the form there?”

“Well, yes, it looks very good.  It is nice to have a form on the website,” said Teferi.

What?” I said.

Sunrise from the ground of Salayish

Sunrise from the ground of Salayish

I have no professional training in marketing and until this point in the conversation I’d been worried that I didn’t have the specific skills required to market accommodation in Ethiopia. But, I now realized that almost anything I did would be an improvement to the lodge’s current marketing strategy. The lodge owned a website that was not only not helping its business but actually harming it; the site promised luxury accommodation when there was none and had an e-mail address that was checked, irregularly, but someone on another continent.

Sitting in my hut later that evening, listening to the night-song of the cicadas, I felt frustrated. In the car on the way to Salayish I’d been planning to set up a Facebook and Twitter account for the lodge and encourage the staff to actively engage with customers through social media. Now I realized I would be spending most of my time ensuring the managers could use e-mail, and understood the importance of replying to customer queries.

“Emma!” said a voice drifting in through my window.

I stuck my head out the window and saw Teferi walking down the path towards my hut.

“Emma, come out! The Queen of the Night is here.”

“OK,” I said, “But who’s the Queen of the Night?”

“It’s not a person, it’s a flower,” said Teferi, laughing.  “It has a beautiful smell, but it only comes out sometimes.”

He began sniffing the air. “Smell! We have to follow the smell to find it.”

I sniffed at the air, feeling self-conscious. But then, wafting through the night air, I smelt a rich, warm perfume, easily distinguishable from the earthy tones of the garden.

Teferi and I started clomping through the garden, sniffing the air like a pair of focused bloodhounds.

“I’ve lost it!” I said, skirting underneath a mango tree.

“Stand downwind,” he said. “We’ll pick up the smell again.”

He stuck his head around the side of a hut, gave a few short, sharp sniffs, and said, “Here it is! Here, smell.”

Leaning down, I inhaled the perfume of a small white flower. Deep and dark, warm and delicate; it smelt not of Ethiopia, but of tropical nights in South East Asia. It smelt of mangos, melons, and sugar bananas, reminding me of Indonesian women, walking sedately home from the market with their purchases balanced in a bowl on top of their heads. No commercially produced perfume could successfully mimic the depth of this flower’s scent; anything I’d sprayed on my wrist seemed cheap and chemical in comparison.

“Wow,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever smelt anything more beautiful in my life.”

“Yes, we’re very lucky to have found it tonight. It doesn’t come out so often.”

We stood for a few minutes, inhaling the flower’s scent. Around us, the garden’s night noises continued: cicadas, the rustling of leaves, faint dog barks in the distance. I could feel the moist soil beneath my bare feet.

The frustration I’d been feeling a few minutes earlier evaporated. “This place is magic,” I said to Teferi. “You’ve really created something wonderful here and we need to market this place so that you don’t lose this uniqueness.”

I wondered if this lodge – which cooked every meal over a wood-fire and offered horse-rides, home-brewed alcohol and nightly camp-fires – really needed to reach out to the world by tweeting, updating Facebook, and sending out mass marketing e-mails?

It would be trite and overly idealistic to give a categorical “no”. This business supported ten full-time staff, most of them young people from one extended family. If the staff didn’t to engage with potential guests on-line, the customers wouldn’t come, the business would fail, and ten more locals would be unemployed.

But perhaps we could find a middle-ground; one which would allow the lodge to kept its relaxed, traditional ambiance, whilst also connecting with potential customers around the globe. I relinquished my plans for tweets, photos and status updates, and over the next week, worked with the staff on simple marketing techniques.

I explained the important of replying to customer queries promptly, and we organized that a relative in Addis Ababa would check the businesses e-mail address and phone the lodge if there was a booking. I told the staff about Trip Advisor and encouraged them to ask guests for honest reviews on the site. A new website was built, one that accurately described the accommodation and food available.

At the end of my stay, Teferi came to say goodbye. “You’re part of our family now, we’re so happy with everything you’ve done,” he told me.  I felt touched, but knew I’d never be part of this extended Ethiopian family. My stay at Salayish was just a stopover during my year-long trip, and I would probably not return to Ethiopia.

But I had learnt something at the lodge that I would carry with me in my backpack:  it’s okay to say “no”. The fact that most hotels and guesthouses in the “developed” world are engaged with social media doesn’t mean that every similar business around the world has to follow suit.  An organization doesn’t have to adopt every possible marketing strategy; in commerce, as in life, we can pick and choose how we want to interact with the world.

At Salayish, I saw that a lack of Wi-fi connectivity allows space for another type of social connectivity; the kind that occurs when you are clomping barefoot around a garden at 10pm at night, laughing, as you hunt for an elusive flower.  After all – you can’t smell a tweet.

*the names of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed.

Emma Corcoran is an Australian who has spent three of the past five years traveling the world, from Ethiopia to Laos. She enjoys writing, embroidery, learning Indonesian, and loves sticky rice.

Emma Corcoran Emma Corcoran

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