Interview with Bobby Betenson, Operations Director, and Martin Frankenberg, Business Development Director of Matuete Brazil Travel Design
What makes Brazil a very unique and different destination?
The size and diversity of the country. Like any big country, you have amazing natural destinations like the Amazon, which is probably the most misunderstood tropical destination in the world; there are beaches for any type of traveler; and there are some very vibrant and different cities. Something that you don't find a lot in other countries is that there is a lot of internal tourism in Brazil, so when you travel there, you will mostly meet locals rather than foreigners. Meeting Brazilians and getting to know the local culture gives you more real experiences. Very few tropical countries in the world that have a lot of beaches actually use their beaches. Typically in Thailand or Indonesia, for example, you won't see locals on the beach – just foreigners. Here, you will see the Brazilians, giving a culturally more integrated vision for the traveler.
I think that the cultural variation between different parts of the country is something that should always be kept in mind. In such a big country, the economic elements and differences between the northern and southern parts of the country are very clear, and visiting Brazil has to be a broad trip otherwise you won't get a proper idea of what the Brazil challenges and Brazil cultural heritages are like.
You have a very unique business model and are probably the only company in the country that is serving such a specific niche customer base. Can you talk about your company and your case study approach to tourism?
Matuete has been operating for ten years. We started off by organizing trips for corporate travelers who wanted something very exotic in the country. From there, we learned that high customization was a loop, something that had not yet been done. That's how we developed. We've been doing trips for the last ten years for guests who feel that time is the most scarce resource and that a trip has to be flawless. We try to listen to our guests and get a most detailed idea of what they want, to customize a trip in the way that is the most appropriate for them, given that in today's world you have so many products, and thus, it's a challenge to find which is the best product for each guest. We have grown over time and come back into the corporate market with some of our guests asking us to develop trips for their executives, business associates, boards, and other high profile executives, where the general idea is to create an educational trip about the country. We understand what the company's objectives are and we study them and set up a trip where guests get the opportunity to understand several different angles of the challenges Brazil is facing, or what led it to reach the position that it is in today. Given all these different angles, the guest will come to his own conclusions and have a broad level of understanding to make his decisions about investment in Brazil or strategy.
Last year we had the chief executive of a major Brazilian cosmetics company coming to us with the following challenge: he thought the Amazon was a very strategic aspect for Brazil and his company, yet his chief executives had no personal knowledge of the region.
One thing that has always interested us is: what is luxury for someone who has enough money to make any choice in their travels? How do you create very unique trips for travelers who are already familiar with luxury destinations and travel?
So we devised a series of four trips and six seminars for all the top level staff of the company to explore deforestation, sustainable development, the native Indian issue, and other aspects of the Amazon. The company then put in place a program to develop new strategies related to the Amazon.
One thing that has always interested us is: what is luxury for someone who has enough money to make any choice in their travels? How do you create very unique trips for travelers who are already familiar with luxury destinations and travel? It's all about personalization and understanding clients' wishes, and being able to produce special events for them. For example, once we created an amazing Christmas dinner on an isolated beach in the Amazon region prepared by a top resident chef for an important Mexican executive and his family who were staying here in Brazil for the Christmas and New Years. We produce rare experiences, full of creativity.
What are the challenges faced by Brazil, and what are you trying to showcase to investors?
The big question that most foreigners have about Brazil is "When will this bubble pop?" and the studies show so far that the situation Brazil is living at the moment is based on so many different factors that it tends to not be a bubble. What we try to show to investors is a wide range of activities, from oil and gas in the northeastern parts, to real estate development in places such as Rio and San Paulo. The growth of the middle class over recent years has created a whole new generation of consumers, and the whole country has felt that growth in the stability of the economy for several years now. The ethanol challenge is probably the most interesting case. There is huge success for ethanol as an alternative energy in Brazil which is giving consumers more choice. This model can be expanded globally. As for agriculture, Brazil has the highest rates of production for soy beans in the world, and obviously you can't look at all of this without considering the environmental challenges. The general idea is to educate guests on all these different angles by taking them to the field, introducing them to people of the sector, proposing and promoting discussion and debate so they can analyze it in light of their own strategies.
There are a couple of major challenges that can't be neglected: the first is infrastructure. The country's infrastructure is very lacking. The San Paulo airport is probably one of the worst major airports in the world, and it's the same for all the major infrastructure here. The second major problem is education. The level of public education in Brazil is absolutely dismal. Brazil often ranks amongst the lowest countries in terms of quality of education. There is a huge manpower shortage, which is a generational problem we have.
Bureaucracy and the corruption that goes along with it is another issue. We try to start our trips with academic discussions about the cultural heritage of Brazil, and that creates a whole different reading of the country. We try to highlight the work of NGO's and the private sector in trying to improve education and health, and some government efforts too, and what the country is doing to try and overcome its challenges, like the drug trafficking problem.
Another interesting challenge to be mentioned is how a country with such bad infrastructure will be able to accommodate the World Cup and the Olympics at the very top level. We are working on this very intensely in order to have our clients, who are major corporations and top level individuals, see these events; to produce a flawless experience in a country where it is difficult to navigate around these infrastructure bottlenecks.
What is your major challenge as a business? Is it attracting new customers?
It is finding and maintaining good people. Finding the right people with the right expertise is always a challenge. They have to be well-traveled, cultured, self-confident. In general, the travel sector is a fragile sector, and is always the first to be hit in times of global economic downturn.
Another challenge is how to grow in a way that keeps people in our company for a long period of time as they improve and develop, and at the same time, stay true to our values and our level of customization.
How would your company manage in a new economic downturn?
We've had so many crises that we know how to navigate another one. It's part of our culture! Businesspeople here have long experienced economic problems like hyperinflation, currency collapse, and so on; we are seasoned to crises, and can keep a certain calmness during times of uncertainty. So far, as a company we have been really lucky: even with the economic downturn, travel to Brazil has remained in such high demand that we haven't felt the effects. Brazilians are still traveling a lot, and our outbound division is doing extremely well.
Brazil at the moment has become a destination which is in high demand. International travelers have to come to Brazil; socially, they have to understand or have an opinion about Brazil. You have the economic boom here, the two large sporting events, so Brazil has become a destination on the map.
Another interesting point is that none of the major luxury hotel and resort chains that exist around the world exist here in Brazil yet, except Orient Express. Whatever demand there is has been created by small, local, boutique properties, and this merits some attention. When the time comes, this investment will arrive, and this will give an extra push to high level tourism. We know of a series of projects that are interested in building a strong presence in Brazil.
What is your vision for tourism in Brazil? How do you see your company in five years time?
The five year mark has never been harder to define than it is today. We are right between two major functions: the World Cup and the Olympics. A lot of what we learn during the first function will be stressed in correcting problems for the second, which will probably be even more challenging than the first. New brands and investments are coming in to Brazil, the average rate of hotels has been increasing tremendously over recent years, and is finally reaching a level where the investment is starting to make sense compared to real estate for commercial purposes only. We hope to be able to keep up our growth rates because our position has been very consistent and stable, and we continue to reinvest in marketing and networking relations. Primarily, you need to keep your concept, and we do keep our clients very close to us, and we will adjust according to our clients' need. It is a very flexible operation since we are a client-driven rather than a product-driven company.
Our objective is to be the premiere luxury travel service for the very discerning traveler who knows how they like to spend their time.