Our Staff: Zimbabwe to Brno, via Borneo

Posted on 04/04/2017, BenFinch

Chased by elephants, tickling manta rays and falling in love – Alan Whitfield’s journey to Kiwi.com was full of adventure...

Chased by elephants, tickling manta rays and falling in love – Alan Whitfield’s journey to Kiwi.com was full of adventure

“Strange animals, strange animals,” Alan Whitfield muses over a mug of English breakfast tea. A childhood spent in southern Africa has gifted him with plenty of animal stories. The tale that sticks in his memory is one of the occasions he was chased by an elephant.

One stormy night by Lake Kariba, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, Alan was struck by appendicitis. There were no doctors within 60 kilometres, so his mum threw him in the Datsun Bluebird and raced him along a dirt track to hospital. As they approached Kariba town, they hit an odd patch of traffic.

Alan Whitfield in the kitchen at Kiwi.com – Ben Finch
Alan Whitfield in the kitchen at Kiwi.com – Ben Finch

The cars ahead had stopped in the middle of nowhere. Another jam lay a kilometre down the road. The pickup at the front, towing a boat, began to edge forward and an elephant burst from the bush. It charged the pickup. “The driver decided he couldn’t get past,” Alan remembers. “So he tried to reverse and jackknifed the trailer. Then the doors opened and they all came running back. The people in the cars behind let them in. Luckily, the elephant didn’t get hold of anybody.”

The pain was too much for Alan, so he begged his mum to drive. She gunned the engine, overtook the pickup and the elephant ploughed towards them. The Bluebird swerved into the verge and skimmed past. Another car had taken the opportunity to follow and distracted the bull.

“I feel like I dodged a bullet”

A few hours later, after being pumped full of antibiotics but still in pain, Alan and his mum arrived at the same stretch of road. The elephant was still sitting behind a bush, waiting. A bus made an attempt and was chased the whole way down the road. It couldn’t pick up enough speed to leave the elephant in the dust.

This time the Bluebird made it past without incident. “In retrospect, I think he was in a playful mood but he was terrifying everybody. It’s almost as if you could see the tail wagging at the back of the bush, waiting for the next car to try,” Alan says.

Alan is a copywriter for Kiwi.com’s Product Team. They’re in charge of developing everything our customers use to find and book their flights, as well as managing their booking and making changes. Alan’s job is to make sure that everything the customer reads is correct, as well as engaging, and it wasn’t quite what he had trained for.

Alan diving with his wife, Mirka, in Malaysia – Alan Whitfield
Alan diving with his wife, Mirka, in Malaysia – Alan Whitfield

“I feel like I dodged a bullet,” he says. “I’m not really envious of any of my schoolmates that are chartered accountants.”

“You’re so excited; there’s fish and there’s bubbles and everything is amazing”

After mulling over a career in journalism, Alan studied to be an accountant in South Africa but dropped all the subjects that would have allowed him to qualify. Then he moved to London and worked in sales. On holiday on Egypt’s Red Sea coast he discovered diving. Within a week, he had completed an advanced course. He says: “On my first dives they were upset because you really breath. You’re so excited; there’s fish and there’s bubbles and everything is amazing. I finished my tank of air in something like 28 minutes. They said it was the shortest dive ever.”

Soon, Alan had bought a one-way ticket to Borneo and plunged into the balmy waters off Sipadan Island. Here he became a divemaster in what may be the best diving location in the world. In 1988, the great Jacques Cousteau is reported to have said: “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art.”

Alan started guiding diving expeditions in Borneo and Thailand, where the water is full of plankton. The abundance of food means that it is a prime location for watching manta rays, Alan’s favourite marine animal. “They have this huge eye,” he says. “It’s the size of half of your face, and they like to get up close and have a good look at you.

“They also like your bubbles. If you’re chilling there, and you don’t try and touch them, they will glide just above your face so your bubbles tickle their stomach.”

It was in Thailand that Alan met his wife, Mirka, who was his boss on the boat. Work brought them to Mauritius, where Alan took another job in sales, which led to him selling IBM products across southern Africa. He had month long tours driving from Harare in Zimbabwe to Blantyre in Malawi, then up to Lilongwe, down to Lusaka in Zambia, and back to Harare to start again. It was a long time for Alan to work away from home, and there was a lot of stress about targets.

Alan Whitfield at Kiwi.com – Ben Finch
Alan Whitfield at Kiwi.com – Ben Finch

Mirka is Czech, and when she became pregnant the new family decided to move to her home village, near the border with Slovakia. The village is surrounded by wild forests, and in the winter there’s snow. Alan’s neighbouring village has a slope and he has learned to snowboard. It’s a region famous for festivals celebrating both Czech and Slovak culture, a moonshine called slivovice, wine and hog roasts.

Alan decided to take some time out from work and think about what his next step should be – he knew he didn’t want to be a salesman. A friend suggested he tried Kiwi.com in nearby Brno and soon enough he became a Travel Consultant. “It’s an awesome job,” he says. “It’s not the opposite of sales, but it’s short wins. Somebody’s at the airport panicking and you can solve it in 30 minutes and move on to the next one.”

He enjoyed the competition and trying to be the best at helping people. There were quiet night shifts when he sang along to Bon Jovi at the top of voice with the rest of his team and he brought his labrador, Jessie, along.

“It’s an exciting company to work for,” Alan says. “It’s growing so fast and where’s it going to go? They’re expecting the amount of air traffic to double in the next 20 years. It’s super exciting.

“I know the HR people compare it to Google. But look around and it kind of is – that guy just skateboarded past us, we’ve got relax rooms, there’s a yoga room, I’ve heard massages are in the pipeline. There’ll be a gym. I can bring my daughter to work, or my dog. It’s really exciting to work here.”

There are days when it isn’t so easy in Customer Support. Alan’s worst day was when terrorists attacked Brussels airport. Most of the day was spent trying to deal with the chaos it caused, but one person, who spoke to a colleague, was searching for someone missing in the airport. Alan says: “They managed to find them, but that was tough. It was a really difficult situation for us to deal with.”

Alan Whitfield Hard at work writing copy for Kiwi.com's Product team – Ben Finch
Hard at work writing copy for Kiwi.com’s Product team – Ben Finch

Alan hadn’t really intended to leave Customer Support for a while. It was a job he enjoyed and he was happy helping people. When the copywriter job was advertised he ignored it at first, but then decided to take the chance. His first task in the interview was to rewrite the FAQ. He says: “I was like, ‘Damn, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. Why didn’t I do this earlier?’” He got the job.

Since then, Alan has become somewhat of an ambassador for the company. In his final month in Customer Support he decided he was going to be the best and get the most reviews on Facebook and Trustpilot. And he did. Feeling rather chuffed, Alan told his new team about what he had achieved. In no time, his arm had been twisted and he was speaking at a recruitment event.

Along with crocodiles and bats, Alan has a fear of public speaking. Still, he prepared his jokes and calmed his nerves. “I enjoyed standing up and speaking,” he says. “I think that being a Travel Consultant is fun and it’s rewarding. It’s a good place to start in Kiwi.com and you can grow from there. So many people have started there and moved on to other things. It’s something I felt passionate about – certainly enough to get up and tell people how good it is.”