Invests RM10m into e-commerce platform
Sota.travel takes Rohizam one step closer to his goal
NOT many know this but Rohizam Yusoff (pic), who founded Creative Advances Technology Sdn Bhd (CAT) in 2002, is one of the few from the second wave of Malaysian dotcommers (the first wave being in the 1990s) still in the game.
And he is probably one of the few with international angel investors. He describes them as a group of high-net worth individuals who are very supportive of innovation and who give him room to “make mistakes.”
Not that Rohizam has made many. While he does not enjoy, nor seek the limelight, he is ambitious and wants to build a travel platform recognized as the global standard for matching B2C (business-to-consumer) travel packages to allow travelers to make smarter buying choices.
And, in fact, he tells Digital News Asia, without a hint of hubris, that his platform, rebranded on May 17 as Smart Online Travel Assistant (SOTA) is already that global standard.
“It is we ourselves who are saying this based on the fact that we have attracted over 1,400 suppliers from 47 different countries to our SOTA platform, which sits at www.sota.travel,” he tells DNA.
Building a brand and winning consumer trust online do not come easy, he notes, but SOTA has been in existence since 2008 and has been continually strengthened.
Years of hard work have gone into building the functionalities and improving the usability of the SOTA engine since before 2008, as it is really a combination of a number of platforms CAT had come up with for the travel industry over the years.
Thus far he says a cool RM10 million (US$3.2 million) has been invested into it, entirely from the cash flow of his existing operations, especially his virtualmalaysia.com portal launched in 2002.
In 2007, that portal was adopted by Tourism Malaysia as the official e-tourism portal of the Ministry of Tourism. Commercial terms were not disclosed.
A cool RM15 million (US$4.8 million) has gone into virtualmalaysia.com so far, Rohizam says. Meanwhile, CAT had revenue of RM4.6 million (US$1.5 million) for 2011 which came from all its activities including SOTA.
Creating a global standard
Rohizam says that he has always wanted to build a global platform for the travel industry, even when he was working on his travel portal virtualmalaysia.com. A lot of the technology that went into the various online properties he has been creating since 2002 have been improved on and innovated and now make up the SOTA platform.
“When I am overseas marketing the product, people are surprised when they find out SOTA is built entirely in Malaysia, by Malaysians,” he says.
But it is a global product, he emphasizes, pointing to the fact that it has suppliers from 47 countries offering packages to travelers. He describes SOTA as being unique because of its global approach. The value proposition is not about lowest prices but about choice and variety for travelers to allow them to make better travel decisions.
It may come as a surprise to many people that Rohizam says CAT has done extensive research into the Internet habits of travelers last year and found that many still do not know much about the place they will be visiting and the packages they have paid for.
Hence the rebranded and upgraded SOTA, which was based on the extensive research they conducted, especially from the three virtual travel fairs.
“The ultimate goal is to get travelers to look online, buy, pay and then go enjoy their travel, so we put a lot of effort into making travel smarter for the consumer,” he says.
As a result, SOTA consists of four elements. It has a standardized menu for agents; allows travelers to make easy comparisons because of the standardization; allows them to get the best value deal, not the cheapest because the engine is not about price comparison; and finally, there will be a feedback element where travelers will get to rate the packages they have been on.
The business model for SOTA was changed early this year. Rohizam says they used to allow agents a choice of three models but have now eliminated complexity by going with the pay-per-inquiry model at a rate of US$1 per inquiry. This is akin to the pay-per-click model of online advertising.
Typically, many questions and clarifications are sought when finalizing one’s travel plans, but he says most of these can be done direct without using SOTA beyond the first few messages.
“We are just a neutral platform. Only 5% of the 2,300 travel agencies in Malaysia are e-commerce enabled and the reason is simple – it is both costly and difficult to do.
“We have done the hard work for the industry on the virtual platform. They just need to focus on delivering a great package and customer service to travelers,” he says.
Rohizam has been engaging with the travel industry since 2002 and believes it is a matter of time before all of them go virtual to complement their brick and mortar business. He is betting that when they are ready, many of them will choose www.sota.travel.