All Things

A Conversation With ... Erik Venter, Chief Executive Officer, Kulula

In 2001,, operated by Comair Limited, changed South Africa’s aviation landscape with the introduction of the country’s first low-cost, privately owned airline. Off to a successful start, just two years later, the airline was voted “the best domestic airline” by the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA), which operates nine of the country’s airports. By 2005, it had transported its 3-millionth passenger.

The airline, often simply referred to as kulula, gets its name from the Nguni languages of Zulu and Xhosa and means, “it’s easy” or “easily.” This is supported by the airline’s motto of “All Things Full-on Travel,” which enables guests to use a one-stop-shop approach to purchase seats, car rentals and hotel accommodations in one place … on

Kulula CEO Erik Venter

Since December 2011, Erik Venter has been at the helm of kulula, as the airline’s chief executive officer. Between January 2013 and June 2014, he also served as the airline’s finance director. Prior to his current leadership position, Venter served as a joint CEO of Comair Ltd. from July 2006 to December 2011. He also served as its joint managing director until December 2011 and currently serves as an executive director of Comair Ltd.

Full-on Travel includes “Combine & Save” travel packages, giving customers the flexibility to book a flight only; a flight plus rental car; a flight plus hotel accommodations; a rental car plus hotel accommodations; or a flight, car rental and hotel accommodations at discounted rates compared with the price of booking these items individually. The airline also offers holiday packages at discounted rates, bringing its customers even more value-based options.

The one-stop-shop approach also enables customers to purchase ancillary products and services at the time of booking, making the experience as easy as possible. In addition, the airline’s online and mobi check-in services allow guests to check in 24 hours in advance using any number of mobile devices. So all that’s left to do is arrive at the airport, drop off luggage and go straight to the gate.

Through the years, kulula has reached numerous significant milestones, such as:

  • 2004 — was introduced, offering passengers the opportunity to add an adventure or activity, such as shark-cage diving or a health-spa visit, to their flight booking.
  • 2005 — kulula partnered with ACSA to offer members of the South African Police Service and their immediate family members one-way flights for less than R300 (US$28).
  • 2006 — In partnership with FirstRand Bank Ltd, the credit card was launched, offering users the opportunity to fly for free and earn/burn “kulula moolah.”
  • 2007 — kulula won the International Skytrax award for best low-cost airline in Africa.
  • 2008 — More fuel-efficient, planet-friendly planes were introduced into the kulula fleet.
  • 2009 — kulula introduced the first Boeing Next-Generation 737-800 aircraft into its fleet, supporting its objective to fly more fuel-efficient, “sky-friendly” planes.
  • 2010 — kulula’s new plane design “Flying 101” gained worldwide acclaim.
  • 2011 — kulula celebrated 10 years of service.
  • 2012 – kulula invested and migrated to an integrated technology platform from Sabre Airline Solutions®.

In 2012, kulula, which offers service on 14 domestic routes, received three new Boeing NG 737-800 aircraft, which it added to its four leased Boeing NG 737-800s. To date, it operates 11 of the next-generation Boeing aircraft, giving it the youngest fleet in South Africa.

“The new 737-800s utilize 18 percent less fuel per seat than the aircraft we are replacing, thereby saving 2 million liters of fuel per aircraft per year for the equivalent total seats,” said Comair’s Chief Executive Officer Erik Venter. “Our decision to purchase these highly fuel-efficient aircraft was not taken lightly and is a critical component in managing our exposure to the volatile fuel price.”

The new aircraft will also require significantly less maintenance than the existing fleet, promoting higher utilization and lower operating costs.

With a strong emphasis on quality customer service, kulula is committed to providing customers with the best possible experience that transcends flying from point A to point B. However, in recent years, the airline has encountered technological challenges that prevented it from delivering a unique customer experience. As a result, kulula executives examined the current customer-experience strategy and initiated a transformation plan to strengthen this area.

In a recent interview with Ascend, the airline’s CEO Erik Venter describes the airlines’ customer-experience transformation strategy, as well as other factors that have been instrumental to kulula’s success.

Question: Why was it necessary for kulula to undergo a customer-experience transformation?

Answer: It is becoming more and more important for us to ensure that we build a stronger connection with our customers. A customer-experience strategy by design is built to better meet the changing needs of our customers and, more specifically, to acknowledge that different customer groups have different needs. Meeting these needs on a more personalized level will help us build stronger brand affinity, customer engagement and loyalty. We also ensure better consistency of the overall kulula experience, especially as we manage our brand’s integrity in the ever-changing technology landscape of customers sharing experiences with one another, where experience and recommendation overtake one’s traditional marketing reach. We feel with a segmented and targeted customer approach, backed by integrated data, as well as our ability to deliver a quality and relevant experience, is not only vital to retention but, most importantly, provides us with a tool to ensure we are better able to unlock future revenue streams.

New Aircraft, Lower Fares

Operating the youngest fleet in South Africa, kulula’s planes employ modern technology and perform a higher utilization due to less maintenance downtime, which enables the airline to offer customers the lowest possible fares.

Q: What are the main objectives of the new customer-experience strategy?

A: The objective is to achieve more personalized customer service — from reservations and onboard to post travel, as well as to be able to analyze the quality of this experience at each touchpoint.

Our aim is to create consistency in our delivery, develop and/or implement technology that supports the delivery, build products and experiences better suited to each customer’s needs, improve our understanding of individual customers and our processes, build efficiencies and ensure that we have a feedback loop via the many customer channels that collects and reports back on our performance in the eyes of our customers.

Q: As part of the new strategy, your airline implemented SabreSonic® CSS Customer Experience Manager. The solution is a rules-based engine that provides access to numerous data points that can be used to personalize a customer’s trip. Why did you select Customer Experience Manager? How does it fit into your customer-experience strategy?

A: We already have an extensive suite of Sabre® modules, so Customer Experience Manager was a logical choice to support the integration of our systems. And, of course, it looks like it will deliver the functionality that we need.

We wanted an integrated product within our current Sabre platform that would be able to assist in determining various actions required to improve service and experience and then in an integrated way provide action triggers through the various customer touchpoints.

The Customer Experience Manager rules engine is very flexible, and we can determine the triggers and actions, making the solution highly customizable to the kulula customer experience. Customer Experience Manager will help us collectively build rules based on scenarios, to improve both our communication efficiencies and business processes, as well as keep our customers informed. The tool, additionally, has the capability to create revenue opportunities via its rules engine.

Q: How does Customer Experience Manager help your airline analyze data and segment it to provide the right products to the right customers at the right times?

A: Once Customer Experience Manager has been fully implemented, it will give us an ability to look at data by date, customer, route, operational action, PNR remark, special service request, etc., to create an actionable event. It may be via an SMS or email or by a member of staff. This could be onboard, at check-in via the boarding gates, etc.

Q: Your airline likes to try new, exciting things to please your customers. What are some initiatives that your airline has coined to make your customers’ experience unique?

A: We are always looking at ways to enhance customers’ experiences and ultimately surprise and delight our customers.

Last year, we partnered with Robertsons Herbs and Spices and served unsuspecting customers on four of our flights, a complimentary three-course haute-cuisine meal. The mouth-watering menu was developed by well-known celebrity chef, Reuben Riffel, and prepared by Comair’s in-house caterers, Food Directions. To enhance the experience, our suave crew dressed in black and white uniforms to be in line with this five-star experience.

kulula partners with Robertsons Herbs and Spices and reknown celebrity chefs Reuben Riffel and Jenny Morris.

To celebrate kulula’s 13th birthday this year, we invited our customers to share their photos of when they were 13 years old. This campaign resulted in massive engagement between us and our customers, as well as among customers themselves. It created many laughs and created a real ‘good-feel’ vibe.

Our crew has always exhibited a great sense of humor onboard, and we continue to surprise and delight our customers.

kulula Serves Haute Cuisine Onboard

Last year, Robertsons Herbs and Spices, along with award- winning restaurateur and celebrity chef Reuben Riffel and FoodNetwork’s Jenny Morris, prepared a mouth-watering surprise for a kulula Cape Town-bound flight filled with unsuspecting passengers.

Q: You’ve also introduced a “Voice of Customer” program. What is the basis of this program? How does it help improve customer service across your airline?

A: We have worked hard at consolidating all sources of customer feedback to achieve a single ‘Voice of Customer’ view. This is at the core of assessing our service to customers and reviewing the impact of product changes.

Our holistic ‘Voice of Customer’ program integrates detailed formal customer surveys (all conducted online) with numerous other unstructured data points. We integrate Twitter, Facebook, local consumer blogs, as well as all unstructured data received via our customer-support departments. It’s all real-time and really does enable us to get a detailed, granular, up-to-date view of what our customers have to say. We can monitor trends over time, as well as ensure that we provide our staff with effective and ongoing performance feedback.

Q: kulula has continued to perform well since its inception in 2001. What are the main attributes that have enabled the airline to continually grow and succeed?

A: kulula is on a constant drive to deliver an awesome travel experience in the most efficient way.

A consolidated focus by staff on improving efficiencies, investment in supporting technology and equipment, a flat and relatively nimble structure, and a service ethic that aims to deliver great customer service by a committed and long-serving staff all contribute to our business growth and success.

We work hard at looking for the next opportunity and then implementing it meticulously.

Q: “Full-on Travel” is one of your airline’s main areas of focus. What does Full-on Travel mean? How does it benefit your customers?

A: We offer a full range of travel products so as to provide our customers with an easy-to-use, one-stop travel shop. Our customers can choose from pre-packaged holidays or design their own travel packages online. (‘Full-on’ is typically used in the same context as ‘totally, dude.’)

Q: “kulula 101” is also very prominent at your airline. What does this mean to the traveling public? Why is it important to your customers and your airline?

A: kulula 101 was initially the paint scheme on one of our aircraft that gained international fame. Today, we use the kulula 101 concept to explain our policies and practices to our customers in an easy-to-understand format.

Q: In recent years, you introduced “Combine & Save.” What is involved in this initiative? How does it benefit your customers?

A: Combine & Save is our ability to package flights with car and hotel accommodations. As these packages are opaque, we are able to negotiate better discounts from our partners to ensure that when customers purchase these bundles they are rewarded in terms of improved discounts versus the price they would have paid for each item individually. We have technology that supports this initiative through a flexible rules engine that checks the normal price versus the package price and additionally displays to the customer the discount savings.

Q: What primarily sets you apart from other low-cost airlines and your competition in general?

A: From a customer perspective, it is the attitude of our staff. From an investor perspective, it is our constant innovation and adaptation to market conditions, and the fact that we [parent company Comair Limited] have made an operating profit for 68 consecutive years.

Q: Your airline has the youngest aircraft fleet in South Africa. How does a modern fleet of aircraft support your cost-savings and revenue-generating strategies?

A: Efficiencies are vital to ensure that we can deliver the lowest cost per seat as possible. Our fleet certainly plays a huge role in achieving this, as our aircraft employ new technology, and we can get higher utilization from the aircraft due to less maintenance downtime.

With the younger, newer fleet, we are able to improve seating capacity and fuel efficiency, as well as dispatch reliability. All these factors combined result in lower fares and improved customer service — an easy bet when attracting more customers.

Q: Your airline partners with the Red Cross Children’s Hospital Trust. What services do you provide this organization? How does it contribute to the well-being of children in Africa?

A: We are extremely proud of our partnership with the Red Cross Children’s Hospital Trust, which provides critical and life-saving medical treatment to children from all over South Africa.

As a partner, our involvement and main aim is to assist the children and their parents with flights, enabling them to receive the correct treatment. Our financial contribution will be used toward the parents’ accommodations, which are being built for the purpose of housing the children’s parents close to them for emotional support as they undergo these often complex procedures.

Q: What else would you like travelers to know about your airline and its future?

A: Our airline is all about the people that we employ and their commitment to the business. Anyone can acquire and operate aircraft — it is our people that make kulula great and will ensure its success for the future.