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Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality. You can read all of his writing here.
In my conversations with hoteliers and other people crafting high-end experiences, there’s always a recurring talking point: the need for discovery and fellowship. As a hotelier put it to me: “Many of the guests have a house (or a plane) that is probably nicer than our actual hotel. But if you can add meaning to someone’s stay, teach them something they don’t know, or provide a community link, you can create a better relationship with the guest.”
The shift in what defines true luxury travel from material comforts and indulgence to something more meaningful has been fascinating to watch. Those symbols of wealth of the not-too-distant past have become mass-market and accessible, as longtime Financial Times luxury columnist Lucia Van Der Post noted in her article How We Spent It: The Changing Face of Luxury. And those that have endless means seem to be moving toward unflashy quality experiences and a focus on betterment in various forms, be it mental, spiritual, intellectual, or charitable.
A large part of what’s driving this change is also a desire for access to community and knowledge. But all too often, some of these initiatives fall a bit short. In Africa, it’s a bit of a cliché for luxury travelers to drop into a local village for a few hours, buy something, and leave. There exists a larger opportunity for deeper programming here.
A truly high-end experience today is also more likely to include access to remote, untouched destinations. A guide in Africa recently recounted taking out the late Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, on a trip, where he remarked that luxury to him was being able to hear his heartbeat. Allen was referring to the sensory side of travel and the luxury of space and silence.
Immersion and Community Empowerment
Roar Africa founder Deborah Calmeyer, born in Zimbabwe, has been providing high-end custom trips to Africa. She recently identified an opportunity that fit alongside a lot of these surging trends: “This was as much in answer to an increase in the demand for solo travel journeys for women as it was to show that we can only truly embrace the value of our contribution as women when the geographical, gender, and social barriers that remain in place are shattered,” said Calmeyer. “What better way to do that, I thought, than by traveling with and meeting those who live that reality every day?”
The resulting trips are a deeper immersion that goes beyond the “drop-in” village visits outlined above. Rather, these trips spanning through Kenya and South Africa mix the sensory and wildlife elements of a completely women-led safari — including guides, trackers, pilots, chefs, and hospitality team — with discussions and workshops with the likes of Anne Powys, an ethnobotanist; Jackie Chimhanzi, the CEO of the African Leadership Institute (AFLI); Shivani Bhalla, the founder and executive director of Ewaso Lions, a conservation organization that uses scientific research and community outreach to promote coexistence between lions and people who share habitats; and Dr. Lucy King, a zoologist based in Kenya’s Tsavo region, who is the head of the Human-Elephant Co-Existence Program.
The knowledge and learning are integrated into every step of the six-day trip, with an emphasis on women’s empowerment in the world of safari — a very gender-unequal industry — and Calmeyer’s thesis and company mission that “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive.” Indeed, the empowerment of women in Africa is one of the largest factors that will lead to economic growth, and by understanding it and making connections between travelers, there’s also future philanthropic bridges made in a natural and thoughtful way.”
Another example of a blend between experiential travel, geography, and history is Natural Selection‘s newly launched flying safari that originates in Angola. These expeditions, the first of their kind, follow the “paths of the rivers that feed the Okavango and Kwando river and wetland systems from their sources in the Angolan Highlands into the Okavango Delta and Linyanti in Botswana, and finally, to the sands of the Makgadikgadi.”
The company partnered with a team of National Geographic explorers and scientists who have been working on protecting the sources of the Okavango, Zambezi, and Kwando river systems. These conservationists, led by brothers Steve and Chris Boyes, have spent the past five years on dugouts, self-paddling over 2,800 miles on a number of expeditions, from the remote sources of the Okavango in the highlands of central Angola to where the waters disappear into the sands of the Kalahari in Botswana.
The Story of the Angolan Highlands
The idea here is the convergence of conservation work and the experience of nature, and telling a story that not a lot of people are familiar with: Much of Africa’s wildlife areas are reliant on the Angolan Highlands. The tremendous post-war push since 2002 for development has compromised natural resources, and there’s now a delicate balancing act that touches on animals, water, geography, and ecosystems. This trip allows people to see all of it and hear the backstory.
“We have decided to focus solely on the area upstream of the Okavango Delta and the Kwando River because this area has been protected for decades by civil war, and now that the civil war is long past, (it) has opened up to limited tourism opportunities,” explained Dave van Smeerdijk, a co-founder of safari company Natural Selection.
“If this area is not protected (via tourism’s revenues, jobs, etc.), the region could easily fall to miners, rosewood loggers, dam builders, rice paddy fields, and farmers, which in turn would be catastrophic for the Okavango Delta downstream. The entire Okavango system could be lost if this area is not adequately protected. Hence our involvement to help provide the Angolan government with some of the revenues and prestige needed to incentivize them to protect the area, as well as providing revenues to the explorers, pioneers, and scientists on the ground to help them do their work.”
It’s a win-win on many levels: The Angolan government gets tourism revenue. Guests gain access to the body of knowledge of the community working on the ground with conservation. And they have the unique privilege of being in the middle of one of the largest conservation stories that’s still unknown to many, all set in beautiful nature.