What Does It Take to Build a Successful African Safari Business?

by Richard D’Ambrosio
What Does It Take to Build a Successful African Safari Business?

An African Safari is the adventure of a lifetime, but securing those first few bookings, and establishing a system for consistent success, requires planning for agents. Photo: Shutterstock.com.

Booking your clients on an African safari can be life-changing for them, and for you. Very few destinations and experiences can match the wow factor of going on a safari, setting your agency apart from your competition, while offering you the opportunity for greater sales referrals.

For example, Intrepid Travel’s safari bookings to Africa have grown 13 percent over the last 12 months, said Megan Bailey, director of sales & customer experience, North America.

Jim Alkon, a marketing and strategy executive in Connecticut, booked a safari with Intrepid Expeditions (a different company), in Naples, Florida, and traveled to Africa in July 2017, at the suggestion of his wife Ellen.

“It was the vacation of a lifetime — I still can’t believe I went,” Alkon said. “There is nothing like it. It is so different, so unusual, and an amazing feeling to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. This wasn’t the Bronx Zoo.”

But securing those first few bookings, and establishing a system for consistent success, requires the same level of thoughtful planning that it takes to find the elusive black leopard.

Here are five tips for qualifying potential clients who may not think they’re ready for a safari –and delivering on the promise for travelers already bought into the concept.

1. Vet and align yourself with a top tour guide
In 2014, Wes Freas, a realtor in San Francisco, California, and his partner Peter Elting went on safari with Jody Cole, who owns and manages Wild Rainbow African Safaris, LLC, in Asheville, North Carolina.

Cole has traveled to Africa more than 75 times and is one of only a few American women who hold two of the highest certifications from the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. She is a certified Level 2 Field Guide and Trails Guide.

“Jody was more than a guide in the bush,” said Freas. “From the first moment, when we entered the preserve, you could feel the excitement in her. She was welcoming us to her home and couldn’t wait for us to see the world she loves.”

“I have no doubt we would not have been aware of or recognized certain animals, in particular the bird life, for the fact that she has this encyclopedia of knowledge and an eagle eye. She would spot things without binoculars, and we would slow down or stop, to try to find it with a zoom lens,” said Elting.

Marilyn Cichowski, who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and has gone on two safaris, also highly recommends Cole. “She works in tandem with the guides from the reserves, who don’t consider English their native tongue. We got so much more out of each [animal] encounter, because Jody and the guides only wanted to share their knowledge and love for the land and the animals,” Cichowski said.

2. A client’s passport stamps are no guarantee they won’t be interested
Don’t get too caught up on where your clients have traveled to before. A passport filled with stamps in Canada, the Caribbean and Europe doesn’t mean a traveler won’t be interested in an African safari.
“I had always wanted to go to Africa, ever since I was a child watching National Geographic with my dad,” said Lila Fox Ermel, owner of Lila Fox Travel Co., New Orleans. But well into her mid-30s, she had fallen into the very common experience of high-frequency European travel.

“My clients were also tending to heavily travel to Europe, as well. Then I got the opportunity to go to South Africa to attend a travel show and decided to add some time on safari to the trip with my husband. We were hooked,” she said.

Intrepid’s business development managers will often do safari-specific trainings for agents, and the company regularly hosts webinars to help advisors learn to sell the product better.

“We will often have agents who normally sell cruises or resorts call us and say their clients are asking about Africa. We are happy to walk them through the process of qualifying a safari passenger,” Bailey said. She said that travelers aged 51-70 make up half of safari bookings from agents.

Freas and Elting mostly had traveled together to urban areas in the Western world. The closest they had gotten to Africa was a trip Elting took to Egypt many years prior. Their 2014 safari actually started out as a gift idea for Elting’s ex-wife.
“But the more we processed it, the more we thought, we had never been on safari, so we decided to give the same gift to ourselves,” Elting said.

3. Use your imagination and your client’s
First-time travelers to Paris have a strong sense of what they should expect; the Eiffel Tower will offer stunning views. You customers will be humbled at the foot of the pyramids of Giza. But what so many safari-goers relate is how much they were surprised by their experience.

Sell them on something beyond their imagination.

“I anticipated we would see anumber of animals,” Elting said. “But we saw thousands and thousands, and thousands of them. I was unprepared for that. The scale of it was much vaster than anything I could have imagined.”

“You can’t really prepare for the feeling of being on a game drive, especially that first one,” said Fox Ermel. “You think you know how it will be, how it will feel, but there’s a certain venerability in the sense that you’re in their home and their terms, that you’re not the most powerful species on earth. And that’s a humbling, emotional experience.”

“One of our first encounters was with an elephant that seemed a bit unfriendly,” Alkon recalled about his safari. “Our guide said, ‘He’s bigger than us, he knows it, and he wants us to know it.’ He came right up to our jeep, and there were some nervous moments. After a few deep breaths, we couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.”

4. The devil is in the details
Safaris, especially multi-country adventures, host an assortment of logistical challenges. Guides should be experienced in dealing with border crossings, working with private aircraft operators and need to be up on what shots your customers will need to enter the country safely.

Cichowski said she was put at ease participating in Cole’s pre-trip prep calls, where “we all got to introduce ourselves, express our concerns, and what we were hoping to get out of this trip. I remember Jody recommending shots for typhoid, and that we couldn’t get into South Africa without our Yellow Fever card. Even though we were talking about these things, she clearly had a command of what we needed to do to protect ourselves, and that put me at ease.”

5. Tap into your clients’ other interests
Safaris are perfect for professional and amateur photographers alike, several travelers said.

“I love photographing animals more than any other subject, because they’re unpredictable – they’re constantly moving, and you can’t dictate what you’d like them to do,” said Fox Ermel. “There’s a lot of waiting, patience, but in that space comes learning about what you are photographing, because you’re observing. It’s something that I get a lot of joy from.”

Freas, an amateur photographer, took 3,600 photos on his digital camera over ten days when he and Elting booked with Wild Rainbow. “When I got home, and tried to cull my photos down, I couldn’t get below 1,800. It was that incredible,” Freas said.
Intrepid encourages agents to seek out groups of wildlife enthusiasts and birders. “We also find our travelers are interested in seeing what life is really like for the local communities in Africa,” Bailey said.

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