Colin Nagy, head of strategy at FFNY, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. "On Experience" dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
A preconception exists among a large segment of travelers that safaris are something you do once in a lifetime. It’s a splurge honeymoon trip or something you do on retirement. And you better save up or have a mysterious benefactor.
It’s true some of the big brand names that curate incredible experiences cost a pretty penny, per person, per night. And these experiences are worthwhile, crafted, and undoubtedly hard to pull off. They fit nicely with the desires of well-heeled global travelers.
But as Africa tourism continues to open up with the addition of more direct flights, and a wide variety of destinations that suit nearly every interest, a new breed of safari operators are courting a different set. These are the younger, style-conscious travelers that may not have the serious money for the luxury experience, but are still looking for something interesting, with sensibility while breaking some of the cliches of the typical safari experience.
It’s not all about shallow Instagram fodder. They’re looking to commune with nature and experience emerging Africa in a sincere way. These types of travelers, who are choosing places like the Freehand or Nomad or the Ace over the Hyatt or Four Seasons when deciding to spend money on a hotel, are looking for considered design details, depth of thought into the overall experience, progressive conservation efforts that align with their values as well as shaking up the status quo.
One example of a company that is addressing this market in an innovative way in the safari space is Natural Selection. The brand prides itself on being inclusive to a wider range of travelers and a wider range of budgets. The prices range from the entry-level, around $150 per person per night in the Kalahari, to something more luxurious with the Sable Alley Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Taking a cue from the Patagonia playbook and citing company founder Yvon Chouinard as an inspiration, Natural Selection makes a 1.5 percent donation to conservation comes from the company’s gross revenue.
This is also strategic with the type of audience they are trying to attract: those that don’t just care about the product, but how the product is made, and how it behaves in the world. A new type of travel consumer that wants more from a brand philosophy and more from an experience. Not just game drives. “People want to get out of a vehicle and see things safely from a different perspective,” said Dave van Smeerdijk, co-founder of Natural Selection. “We get people walking with Khoisan people, riding ATV’s over salt pans, sleeping under the stars, in a boat or a canoe, or an underground hide near a waterhole experiencing wildlife, culture, and scenery with natural history guides.”
Robin Pope Safaris is another example of a brand that can bring in a wider range of potential safari travelers, with tented camps and houses in Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. The experiences are well designed, family friendly and priced in a way that many people can experience. Teresa Sullivan, the co-founder of Mango Safaris, said: “Many people think that high budgets equal safety or reassurance due to concerns with their first trip to Africa. But as people get more familiar in their travels, I’ve seen clients get more adventurous with each progressive itinerary.”
Sullivan said that there are many ways to hack the safari buying experience and make it work for a reasonable budget. One is the high low strategy. She explains: “Using a fashion analogy, these trips are like an outfit combining items from both Zara and Barneys. Mixing itineraries in a city or an easily accessible area, the experience is similar at a more value-oriented property. This is paid off by splurging in places where the higher price tag provides guests with a unique experience on a private concession, a prime wildlife area, or where they have access to added activities. Striking this balance gets to a final package price that is palatable.”
In addition to finding a well-priced and interesting safari, the other challenge for many is buying it. The supply chain and purchase funnel for this sector of the travel industry are complicated. There are countless SEO battles being fought on the Web, and between advisors and private travel consultants, and the many people trying to secure their piece of the pie.
While some undoubtedly add value, curation and logistical acumen like the best travel advisors do, one can’t help to see the hidden costs built into the ecosystem that can actually end inflating the price of the end experience. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, but some are trying. Sites like Safarious are seeking to be a matchmaker of sorts for people seeking out Africa travel, allowing them to find the right experience based on interests and socially validated itineraries, and cut through the clutter a bit, while adding contextual content about Africa and social elements.
As the sector continues to grow and become more dynamic, and as tourism operators, guides and destination marketers put together their strategies, they should be thinking not only in getting someone as a one-off customer but rather the lifetime total value. To do this, having a way into the safari experience that is accessible, converts a highly social and highly word-of-mouth generation into fans, and then gives them different offerings throughout the stages of life.
For Africa tourism to be successful, it needs more entry points, and also an easier way to interface and purchase. This will benefit local economies, bring more foreign spend (and in many cases currency) into places that need them, and also create a new, larger wave of tourists that turn into conservation-minded travelers after they have a transformative experience.