Coronavirus has been a disaster for all forms of tourism around the world. As we are an Africa safari specialist, I am just going to focus on our corner of the industry - Africa tourism. Extreme job losses, the rise of poaching, the collapse of some Africa tour operators on the ground, the negative impact of zero funding from tourism revenue for conservation and community-based projects and relationships - the collapse of our beloved Africa from a tourism point of view has been heartbreaking to watch.
Shoots of recovery have started, and stories of how parts of the industry are surviving and maintaining as many of those vitally important projects and relationships have been so important in driving the positivity that most of us have, on the whole, maintained.
The one overriding positive thing to have come out of this is that more than ever the value of planning your trips to Africa with a safari specialist company like Tailormade Africa rather than through more generalised worldwide travel agents or even worse, the "do it yourself", Google-based trip design, is as obvious to most people than it has ever been. To understand why that is, you should understand how the safari industry works at the design stage of itinerary planning, we decided to put this together.
The Africa safari industry is a bit like the proverbial swan gracefully gliding across the calm waters – you don't see the legs paddling furiously beneath the surface.
By way of a brief description, there are 'Heads' (holidaymakers – you), and there are 'Beds' (lodges & hotels). To get Heads into Beds there exists a complicated web of intermediaries, each with specific skills and focus areas. As a rule (there are exceptions), 'Beds' do not have the resources (time, skills or financial) to find, woo and transact with the volume of Heads required to fill all the Beds. They are and should be, focused on delivering the very best experience on the ground. They are also too busy dealing with elephants destroying water pipes, black mambas in the staff quarters and guests throwing a hissy fit because they didn't see the leopards that their Facebook friend and part-time safari expert guaranteed they would see.
And then there is the logistically complicated task of selecting Beds and stitching together a complicated itinerary for each Head – often involving multiple accommodations, local and international flights and specifically-requested guides and wildlife/other experiences. This is the job of the web of intermediaries that service the safari industry. You may only encounter one such intermediary – your chosen tour operator / travel agent / safari consultant – but most likely two or three as you try and choose who to place your trust and hard-earned money in.
A huge misconception is that only Africa safari tour operators from within the country you are hoping to visit are actual experts. Not saying they don't know what they are doing, but in the majority of cases, it simply isn't true. They can be restricted by only knowing a very small part of your trip plan puzzle and will almost certainly be biased to just a handful of camps and lodges that they are loyal to. Sadly and almost certainly they may not understand the quirks and nuances that make up the very differing worldwide travel personalities and how to best match individual clients to said camps and lodges. This is more starkly true sadly of the much larger tour operators that operate a more mainstream "off the shelf" type of itinerary and whose travel consultancy recruitment policy does not include the word specialists. For most companies, it would simply be that the person/sales consultant has been to a country at least once. So not exactly a specialist.
As a small owner-run specialist African safari tour operator, we have not only lived in Africa for a very long time but have worked in the industry in a variety of countries gaining that all-important, in-depth understanding and knowledge of areas and safari camps or safari operators. Knowing what type of safari clients each individual camp generally attracts - be it large tour groups or "checklist" first-time safari-goers or professional photographers and of course the safari purists. Knowing how static camps' activities are or the individual quality of their guides and guiding practices or ethics are things that Trip Advisor, Google and self-promoting marketing materials can't tell you.
Stitching together your dream safari by yourself or through large automated or mass tourism companies in order to maybe save a little bit of money can have pretty serious consequences. It is a complicated process and should not be likened to booking any other type of vacation. Wherever you require real knowledge, you should always look to professional people and ideally people that have no ties or reasons to recommend one place over another, which brings me neatly to another huge issue in our industry. Selling to margin...
Along with Rob, I set up Tailormade Africa partly because I felt we could differentiate ourselves from the companies we'd both worked for by delivering an old-school approach to customer service - lot's of hand-holding and care over the itinerary building process, really listening to our clients dream safari ideas and then using our vast knowledge and expertise to make that a reality for them. The companies we worked for had grown exponentially, (and I should stress, are still very good), but as a result of this growth, could no longer deliver that high degree of planning or expert care. Simple numbers - if you are a big company you have to find more true safari experts to field the enquiries and the reality is simply there are not that many of them out there.
The other reason and the one that doesn't sit well with us at all is that they all started planning their itineraries for people by using camps and lodges that offered the best profit margins. I'll quickly break down how it works and how we all make our living - If you could book your accommodation directly with a camp and let's say that camp is USD$500 per person per night. The standard industry Nett rate from that camp to us as a tour operator is between 20% & 25% less than the rate you get directly. We get this reduced rate as we do all the work for them to get clients to their camps. We then sell to you the client at the rate that you could get directly (USD$500pppn). So you essentially get all of our expertise for free, and we make our money from the lodges and camps and other suppliers.
However, larger companies with large overheads bully and hassle operators for more than 20-25% and sometimes end up getting 40% margin on a property. On the face of it, you might think that this seems fair if they are selling a lot of bed-nights for these lodges and camps. The reality on the ground, however, is potentially catastrophic if all of us start doing that. That extra margin that is given away has to come from somewhere and gets pulled from staff salaries & bonuses, community projects, tourism education, conservation projects and investment into becoming a more eco-friendly operation etc. - the list is endless. The consequence of that, of course, you have the disease of "selling to margin" - basing an itinerary suggestion to a client around what camps and lodges offer the best margin. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't necessarily mean you get less than an awesome trip sometimes, but what is happening out of your line of sight is very much the wrong thing. Tailormade Africa has never asked to even have a rate conversation with operators, and we accept what we were offered at the beginning of our relationship with the suppliers. It may mean we never grow to be a large safari company like others have become. However, we're okay with our ethical choice, and we are still competitively priced simply because those extra margins other companies receive, in reality, are rarely passed on to you the consumer.
I have borrowed these next two conversation pieces from Simon Epsleys excellent piece in Africa Geographic on a similar topic as he perfectly describes the pitfalls of the race to the bottom and DIY safaris.
"Humankind is on a drive to reduce everything to a quick and easy process and discounted price. That all sounds good – right? No – sometimes this means a race to the bottom. Let me give you a very relevant example that affects us all, every day. Remember when we used to trust the news? That changed years ago when we decided that free content trumps paid content. The value added by professional journalists was deemed by us to be worthless, and so we walked away from professional publishers and introduced the age of democratised publishing, where we become publishers. Thanks to Google, we also evolved to become experts on every trending topic, from pandemics to human-wildlife conflict and race relations to the economy – and we broadcast and argue our expertise with great conviction. As a result of the avalanche of self-opinionated garbage that clogs our feeds, we no longer trust what we see, and we cannot distinguish between fact and fiction. We even share fake news with our imaginary social media friends in a desperate plea for credibility. In this way, we accelerate the race to the bottom. We got what we paid for.
Back to the safari industry – where the same thing is happening. Technology that delivers enormous amounts of information, some accurate and some not, on tap (pun intended) has convinced us that we can save money and precious time by going DIY.
I once met a lady at a lodge in Kafue National Park, Zambia who was furious because she only found out on arrival that her chance of seeing leopards was not good. You see, her online research had told her that Luangwa Valley in Zambia is one of the best places in Africa to see leopards (it is). And so, to realise her dream of seeing a leopard, she booked a few nights at Lunga River Lodge (which is in a wooded area of Kafue, not the leopard paradise of Luangwa) as a short break during a business trip in Zambia's capital city of Lusaka. Those two missing letters made all the difference. I kid you not.
Last year my safari planning team had a client abscond with our carefully-crafted gorilla trek itinerary in Uganda. The client took our hand-crafted itinerary and applied some DIY panel-beating. Along the way, they dropped our suggested lodging suggestion and chose their own (cheaper) accommodation in a quaint town a 'short' (according to Google Maps) distance from the gorilla trek headquarters in Buhoma, Bwindi. By contrast, our choice of accommodation was a two-minute stroll down the road from the gorilla trek briefing and departure point. Heavy rains the night before their intended gorilla trek made the road into Buhoma impassable, with bogged down vehicles all over the place. They missed their hike, forfeited the trek permits (US$750 each at the time) and made do with a Uganda safari sans gorillas. At least they saved a few hundred Dollars on our quote and experienced a quaint rural Ugandan town with its 24/7 music, barking dogs and hooting.
Sometimes DIY works – for example, if you want to fly into Cape Town for an Airbnb & Uber vacation visiting the fantastic variety of attractions, restaurants and wine farms – that is entirely doable. But for the majority of rural African safari experiences where you seek wildlife encounters, you are best served by experienced safari experts. There is no doubt that technology is increasingly assisting the process of researching your safari options and details – a good thing – but the sheer volume and complexity of possibilities and unpredictable natural events mean that you need an experienced human helping out at some stage. And if something goes wrong (missed flights, vehicle breakdown, personal injury etc.) you will need an experienced problem-solver on the other end of the phone."
These include such names as Booking.com and Expedia, to name but a few. What these companies did brilliantly was to understand the trend that there are enough people who just want the best and lowest price and an immediate booking facility regardless of how awry that can go for those people in trying to build a safari.
These organisations and platforms simply cannot cope with the many layers of logistical complications that frequently arise in any third-world location and the uncertainty about wildlife movements inherent in African safaris. They will take your booking and, off a base of zero understanding of when and how they offer nothing more than a convenient transactional gateway. In short, you WILL NOT get a good quality African safari and experience by booking through these portals.
After just 15 minutes of researching on your own and with a little touch of common sense you should hopefully come to the conclusion that your dream Africa safari is best hand-crafted by experienced, passionate humans that have actually been there, done that and over many many years. You should plan and book your trip with me - Clyde or my great friend and business partner Rob for many reasons.
The first is that we genuinely care about where you go and what you do and that at the end of your trip you have had a life-changing experience. Average to good safaris are easy to find and at a reasonably low cost - great safaris, exceptional safaris are harder to find and you'll need some help from us. We are with you 24/7 before, during and immediately after your trip (well until you get fed up with us living vicariously through you of course).
We only do Tailormade itineraries. It's our name. And it's a name and company we are so proud of. We have made long-lasting friendships with so many of our clients and have a huge repeat and referred client-base. We will offer you advice and won't be afraid to tell you if we think you are not on the right track in your thinking or your choices as we have finely tuned the skill of understanding people and their travel personalities. We will challenge you to go a little out of your comfort zone if we think you are playing it too safe and not fully gaining the kind of safari experience that will leave you with a giddy childlike excitement every time you think about your trip. The Elephant feeding out of a tree next to the tent that woke you up at 1 am. Sitting around the campfire listening to Africa's raw soundtrack whilst being regaled with stories of the bush by your guide, or simply soaking up some of the best natural scenery the world has to offer and feeling connected to this beautiful round thing called earth as you have never been before.
We are not the speediest at pulling together the ideal trip and we won't rush you into booking with aggressive sales tactics - things done in haste are rarely done properly. We'll take our time with you, and we'll listen to you. When we do have that itinerary ready for you, we'll make the booking process as simple as possible, and we'll look after you like you were family until the moment you get back home. We are not perfect and whilst almost every other company out there makes the following claim, "We are the worlds leading experts of safari travel" or some such egotistical and false nonsense, we'll just say that we understand we are one of a handful of truly knowledgeable experts of safari in Africa, that we believe we take care of you better than most companies will and that the trips we put out to people to embark upon, will be a life highlight and that you'll want more of Africa before you even get on the plane to go home.
We don't offer cheap safaris. In truth, there is no such thing. But, we won't rip you off, and we won't charge you more than you could get going directly to the operators. Sadly, it's likely you'll just have to take our word on that as not many camps offer direct bookings. We don't have large overheads nor do we have to spend tens of thousands on glossy magazines or brochures that don't really help you make any decisions other than "oh that looks lovely". We don't compete with our "competitors". We all do what we do and as a result, we are all different. We have. in the past, even been happy to take over being the source of information for clients who have booked with a different tour operator, just to help make sure they get that once-in-a-lifetime trip and when their agent from another company has been less than knowledgeable and or efficient.
We value the quality of guiding over absolutely everything. A poor guide will ruin your safari. It's as simple and brutal as that. Next in importance, it's all about location location location, away from the crowds where possible and when it's not, having the guiding practices that take you into a sighting briefly for whatever reason and then pull you out again and remove you from the crowds. This ensures as authentic and exclusive safari experience as is possible in any given region. Sharing a wildlife sighting or experience with many other vehicles is something we just don't like. You may just as well go to the "safari park" in your own country. I think most countries have their own version of Africa as a safari park... Longleat in the UK, that type of thing.
We are always looking for off-the-beaten-track safari areas and countries as we have so many clients who have done 7 or 8 safaris either with us or in their lifetime, we need to find new things to do. And we always do.
Finally, we move to the accommodation and the kind of safari clients that camps attract. Accommodation is the least important part of your trip. You may not know that right now, but it'll be the thing you least remember. So much so that Rob and I afford a giggle at ourselves for not knowing every tiny detail of every camp. We have almost never spoken at length about a camp's intimate details. Almost never. Don't get me wrong, we can paint the picture of any camp to you verbally so that you know what it is like, and we know them all intimately enough from an ambience point of view or in its functional capacity to know if it is right for you, but arty detail to the nth degree is not what's important and not what we do.
On trips to Africa, we have met other agents from companies writing furiously how many rooms, what colour decor, how many bathrooms, how much dirt can they find in the main mess room, uniform colour of the staff blah blah blah blah, none of that matters to building an itinerary. Having a decent knowledge of the size of the camp, yes definitely! Knowledge of what kind of personality the camp managers have and how compatible that is to Joe public, sure! Security protocols of what happens at night in camp, definitely! Possible game movements in camp and on your safari activities, absolutely! Whether or not you are likely to be in camp with a large group of any single nationality, again you bet! By default, there is no camp that we will recommend to our clients that will disappoint you. If we send you there, it's because your travel personality and what you wish for and need in a camp and safari location is an absolute match.
Our love for what we do and Africa will be clear to you as soon as you have spent 5 minutes speaking with us. We just love Africa. We love the wildlife, the scenery and we absolutely adore its people! Doing our small bit to help support an industry that all by itself gives so many opportunities and benefits to the indigenous and most in need population is a joy for us and pretty much why we skip into work on a daily basis. This isn't work for us; it's our passion. We'd like to share that with you and, to put a positive spin on not such a currently great word, "infect" you with that passion and enthusiasm.
Please do call us for a lovely informal chat about Africa, that's all.
Let us tailor-make your ideal African safari holiday. Feel free to call us on +44 1932 361807 (UK & Rest of the world) / 1 844 390 1798 (USA toll-free) or pop us an email at [email protected], and we can help you to plan your bespoke safari holiday with us – and by doing so, help us to support those most in need on the ground.