Innovation under the Red SeaPublished: March 07, 2011
When Erin and Jim, two travelers ringing in the 2010 new year on a trip to Jordan in the Middle East, got engaged at Wadi Rum, a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock in south Jordan, they decided to top off their travels by getting married. They found a ship's captain, donned a top hat and veil and exchanged vows in front of a few guests and observers -- and the occasional spotted Box fish swimming by. Erin and Jim, both trained divers, took part in an underwater wedding ceremony -- complete with masks, breathing apparatus and vows written on water-resistant slates -- at Dive Aqaba, a training and recreational dive center in the coastal town of Aqaba.
Laila Mohammad Manna, owner of Dive Aqaba, says the underwater ceremony was one piece of a new strategy for their business -- innovative services to distinguish them in an already-crowded dive-center market. "We decided to take the diving experience a few steps beyond what most other schools offered," says Manna, who completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women entrepreneurial training program at the American University in Cairo in November 2010. "Besides the standard diving courses, we also attract customers [by offering] unique excursions that target specific markets that other operators often ignore."
Reaching a Wide -- and Deep -- Audience
Novel marketing strategies are all in a wet day's work for Manna, a one-time emergency room nurse and a former employee with the local economic empowerment zone who decided eight years ago that she needed a career change. "In 2003, I worked in a government job, but wanted something that was more satisfying," says Manna, 58. "At the time, my husband Roderick Abbotson and son Ashraf Al Sulaibi both taught diving at a hotel in Aqaba, so they had the knowledge and certification that would be necessary for the venture, while I had the administrative background."
A few years later, Manna's daughter Enas joined the family-owned business as a cashier and bookkeeper, then went on to become certified as an instructor. "I knew there were many competitors," notes Manna, referring to the more than 20 diving schools listed on an Aqaba tourism website. "So we realized we would have to stand out."
Manna implemented a multi-level strategy that made heavy use of the family's expertise and reinforced it with some new offerings, including the underwater weddings. Dive Aqaba also works hard to attract entire families or other groups to the center by offering instruction and dives for young children and for individuals with special needs, including Down syndrome and autism. "Our goal is to reach a wide audience," notes Manna. "For example, each year we get clients from the Handicapped Scuba Association, we have international clients and we service professional divers by offering training to instructor-level individuals. We use different gas mixes and specialized equipment to allow them to safely dive deeper."
Diversifying the client base can give a business a competitive advantage, says Ahmed H. Tolba, an assistant marketing professor at American University in Cairo's department of management. "When you offer services that others don't, you can reach untapped markets and establish your own niche," he says. "But it can be challenging to make people aware of your business -- and some conservative-minded individuals in the Gulf region may still have trouble doing business with a company that's owned by a woman."
Indeed, when she first launched the company, Manna met some resistance from suppliers who were hesitant to sign contracts with a woman-owned business. "I refused to give up, and eventually showed them that I was a good business partner," she notes.
A Visit from Queen Rania
According to Manna, Dive Aqaba is one of the few firms in the area that has established a website to get the word out about its offerings. The company also networks heavily through diving associations and other outlets. "We had many contacts from my husband and son's work at the hotel, and we make it a point to go to exhibitions in England and elsewhere to distribute brochures and DVDs," she says. "We also have good relations with tourism agencies, and our satisfied clients tell their friends about us."
Even with expanded services and marketing, Dive Aqaba has struggled. "In 2008 we did well, but 2009 was our worst year ever because the regional economy suffered," she says. "We had to stretch to pay the rent and [keep up] the maintenance of our boats. But things were much better in 2010." In 2009, Dive Aqaba took in about 100,000 Jordanian dinars, or about US$141,000, and in 2010 the company sales rose to about 160,000 dinars, or approximately US$225,670.
Manna and other business owners have also benefited from actions taken by the Jordanian monarchy. "King Abdullah and Queen Rania have been encouraging small business development," she says. In April 2008, Queen Rania visited Dive Aqaba's Laila One dive boat to congratulate Manna and her team for winning an award for the Best Microfinance Project in Aqaba in 2007.
The biggest issue for a recreational business like Manna's is seasonality, says Tarek Hatem, a professor of strategic management and entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo. "A company that depends on tourism may be subject to seasonal cycles. It's a good idea to consider other sources of revenue."
In fact, says Manna, "we previously contacted a Red Sea diving center in Dahab, Egypt, and now provide instructor training courses there several times a year." An Israeli diving center in Eilat "also asked my husband about providing diving instruction, and we're in discussions about it," she adds.
Some entrepreneurs also launch multiple businesses "that may not coincide with the cycles of their main business," notes Hatem. "For example, Manna could consider expanding into windsurfing, parasailing and other activities that are centered around the water but that do not limit her to diving-related revenue."
Manna plans to continue to differentiate her business while growing its operations. During the next year or so she hopes to take on more space, possibly expanding the company's diving equipment shop. The company may also buy a second excursion boat. "The market is there, and more people are hearing about us," Manna says. "We'll keep looking for ways to make people comfortable coming to us" -- including happy diving couples who are quite literally willing to "take the plunge."